Shoot/No Shoot: Balancing Participation and Observation in Studying Gun Culture

Early in my work on gun culture, I paid my tuition and attended Massad Ayoob’s MAG-40 (Phoenix, 2012), an NRA Personal Protection Outside the Home course (San Jose, 2013), and the Rangemaster Tactical Conference (Memphis, 2014), as well as a number of concealed carry courses in North Carolina.

Shooting at an NRA Personal Protection Outside the Home Course, 2013.

As my work has progressed, I have had to choose between observing various courses and attending them as a student. And so far I have always chosen the former.

For example, when I observed the 250 Defensive Pistol course at Gunsite Academy in June, I did not shoot (except for a few rounds in the Fun House during a break). This became a question on one of the many online gun forums out there. Why didn’t I shoot the Gunsite 250 course?

It’s a fair question and there are actually two answers:

(1) The first is that, although there are things you can learn from shooting a course that you can’t learn from just observing, there are more things you can’t learn while shooting a course. At Gunsite, there were two ranges running with 7 instructors and 30 students.

If I were in the course, it would be impossible for me to observe any instructor not specifically teaching me, or any of the other students at all. The exception would be when I was not shooting, but then I would probably need to be hydrating or loading magazines or paying attention to what I needed to do next.

Furthermore, part of observation is not just looking but talking to others and asking questions. I gathered invaluable information from the instructors and students that it would have been hard or impossible for me to get if I was actively involved in the course.

So, although I would have loved to shoot the Gunsite 250 course, and certainly would have gained valuable insights into the shooting technique being taught, I gained more from acting as an outside observer.

Gunsite Academy 250 Defensive Pistol Course, June 2017. Photo by David Yamane

(2) The second is that I simply cannot afford both to travel to observation sites AND pay the tuition. Even without paying the $1,700 tuition plus $500 for ammunition for the Gunsite 250 course, I still paid nearly $2,000 for airfare, rental car, housing, and food just to observe the course – 20% more than the amount I receive from my university for ALL work related travel per fiscal year. Everything else I pay for my research comes out of my own pocket. That includes 4 to 6 additional out of state trips in 2017. Add it up.

As a professional and small business owner myself, I would never ask a trainer or training company to “comp” me the registration fees for a course, especially if that meant one fewer tuition paying student or one additional range safety officer. Of course, I am not above accepting a free course if offered, but I would never ask for that.

(I guess I could start accepting all manner of free stuff in exchange for “promotional consideration” and become an industry professional!)

Still, being given a free course would put me again in conflict with point #1. I would have to weigh the pros of shooting the course against the cons of not being able to do systematic observation of the course.

That said, if I showed up to observe a course and the instructor requested or insisted that I shoot, I would do so. As long as what is being asked is safe, I try to be a good guest and use “your range, your rules” manners at all times.

Getting introduced to the Combat Focus Carbine course at Combat Focus Shooting Instructor Conference, September 2017. Photo by Dwayne Beccue.

In fact, as I will discuss in an upcoming post, this exactly what happened when I observed Rob Pincus’s Combat Focus Shooting Instructor Conference at the end of September. With interesting results.


  1. Before seeing this post I was watching ‘The Truth About Killing’ on YouTube. So far the videos are about how the military trains people to kill with firearms. People with this military background can become firearms instructors so the videos may show something about how these types of instructors think.


  2. Yeah, research is not done on the cheap.

    I take it there is no way to get a grant to fund some of your expenses, i.e., travel, equipment, etc? Perhaps a granting agency that funds sociology or similar? Some universities, at least back in the day, had their own internal funding one could apply to tap. I suppose many of the anti-gun nonprofits would not be funding your point of view but is there no organization soliciting proposals that you could tap into?

    Sure, a grant agency will not fund shooting for shits and grins but heck, I got funded to drive to Minnesota from New York on multiple occasions to collect rocks and that was loads of fun. One cannot study rocks without interacting with rocks….so I suppose, one cannot study gun culture without time on the range.


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