I often hear the term “subject matter expert” used in connection with firearms trainers, and I have to confess it is a foreign concept to me. I mean, I can understand the plain language meaning of those three words put together. But in terms of the SME as a specific designation, I have not heard it used in my area of professional expertise.
According to Wikipedia, “A subject-matter expert (SME) or domain expert is a person who is an authority in a particular area or topic.” This seems an inadequate definition because it begs the question, what is the basis of the authority? To be a subject matter expert, “one must have special skills or knowledge on a particular job or topic.” Even moreso, according to the process improvement methodology Six Sigma, “The Subject Matter Expert is that individual who exhibits the highest level of expertise in performing a specialized job, task, or skill within the organization.” Who counts as an expert and what counts as expertise matters because, as Wikipedia suggests, this is tied to authority.
So, what makes a person a “subject matter expert” in the area of firearms training?
There is no single accepted standard. As noted in my earlier series of posts on private citizen firearms training, the industry is largely unregulated and loosely organized. As the number of firearms trainers has increased quite dramatically in this shall-issue era of concealed carry, the issue of expertise arises more and more.
The question of what constitutes “expertise,” and therefore a subject matter expert, in firearms training is no different than in other domains. As sociologist Gil Eyal has written about expertise:
“[A]s long as it was fairly clear who the experts were, and how to recognize them there was little discussion of expertise, but once the number of contenders for expert status has increased and the bases for their claims have become more heterogeneous, once the struggles between these would-be experts intensified, expertise became problematized because the question was how to determine whose claim is legitimate.”
Most firearms trainers I have met are fiscally conservative or libertarian, so look askance at efforts to determine legitimacy that would involve regulation by any centralized body, whether that be a government, union, or even a binding professional association.
This leaves it largely for the marketplace to work out, PROVIDED that consumers are making informed buying decisions. The problem is, consumers of firearms training most often don’t know what they don’t know. Because anybody can present himself as a subject matter expert in the area of firearms training, the notion of a subject matter expert without anything to back it up is meaningless.
As always, even when consuming subject matter expertise, caveat emptor.