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Knowledge vs. Skill

Many people who are unfamiliar with firearms, which includes many people who work or volunteer for gun control organizations, don’t really understand shooting as a skill. They tend to want to treat is as knowledge. Knowledge is beneficial, but it can’t make one a proficient and safe shooter. I’ve spent my whole life in pursuit of some form of skill based discipline at one time or another, and I find shooting to be most accurately compared to playing the piano, in terms of what it takes to achieve proficiency. Actually, piano is much much harder, but it’s learned the same way, just piano takes much more self-discipline to master.

I took concert piano from the time I was four years old until my junior year in college. I was far more proficient at that than I am, and probably ever will be at shooting. But ask me to play something now, and I’d be lucky to clunk out the first movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata (if you listen to the Wikipedia recordings of it, they are appalling, just to warn you). At one time, I could play all three movements. The last piece of music I ever played in public was this one, my junior year in college. I couldn’t even begin to play it now, despite a working knowledge of the piece, knowledge of how keys are laid out on the piano, what the pedals do, and knowledge on how to read sheet music. Why? Because when I quit piano, I really quit. I never went back to it, and that skill I spent all those years building up has been purged from whatever part of my brain controls muscle memory. Granted, if I picked the piano up again, I would pick up the skill much faster than someone who had never played piano, as my brain rebuilt all those connections from long term memory.

Shooting is the same. I can spend an afternoon and give someone enough knowledge to go out and become a safe shooter, and that’s really all training can do. Shooting, and shooting safely, is a skill. Skills must be practiced, over and over again, until they are muscle memory. Firearms training is a good thing, because it can impart knowledge, and help you on your way to skill, just like piano lessons can help you learn how to play piano. But proficiency, and safety in the case of shooting, are entirely up to the person to develop. If you aren’t committed, and don’t practice, you’ll never be any good at either piano playing or shooting.

Some might try to argue that this means no one except police should carry a firearm, but police aren’t immune to this problem either, and many of us who’ve been shooting long enough have a story about cops at the range who have appalling shooting skills and gun handling practices. And those are the ones who at least practice some! Imagine how bad the ones are who only ever shoot their qualifier? I can put someone in training for twenty or forty hours, and I won’t make a good shooter. I can promise you over that time they will improve, but that won’t last long once they head out the door if they aren’t committed to polishing and maintaining the skill on their own.

This is why I say training is a good idea, but shouldn’t necessarily be a requirement. I think we should teach the basic knowledge of gun and shooting safety in schools as part of PE requirements. But I am about as much in agreement that legally mandating a training requirement for firearms ownership or carry will result in safe and proficient shooters as I am that mandating taking a piano lesson as a condition to buying a piano will result in more concert pianists. People who believe that don’t get the difference between knowledge and skill.

I can almost hear the gun control crowd now, “But Sebastian, aren’t you concerned with all those people who might carry a gun and have no idea what they doing with it?” No more than I worry about cops. The people who will end up carrying regularly are going to be, far more often than not, the people who are committed and serious about their skills. The person who gets a permit for the macho/cool factor or some other bad reason is going to very quickly tire of it once the novelty wears off, and once they realize that carrying a gun around with you is a pain in the ass. Most people who get toters permits don’t stick with it, and even if they renew their permits, they aren’t carrying very often if at all. It makes sense even in a musical context. If you see a guy on the subway every morning with a violin case, I’m going to bet you serious money he can play. He might not be Itzhak Perlman, but I’m going to bet he can play well. He wouldn’t be carrying it if he wasn’t committed. I’d be willing to take the same bet with a guy who carries a gun every day on the subway too.

8 Responses to “Knowledge vs. Skill”

  1. Bob S. says:

    Sebastian,

    Great post.

    I’ll probably get in trouble for saying this but here goes.

    In all honesty, the level of skill, knowledge and ability to safely carry and use a firearm isn’t that great.

    Basic firearm safety is just that and suffices for the overwhelmingly vast majority of firearm owners.

    Getting to the point – through training and practice – where a person can take down a Russian Spetnaz squad is great but only a infinitely minute fraction of the people will need that or anything like it.

    I think we need to focus on ability and responsibility over training.
    People can get ability and responsibility in any number of ways and that is what is important.

  2. Matt says:

    Too bad the Brady Campaign and VPC don’t even bother with knowledge. They prefer anecdote because if they actually brought honest knowledge to the table, they would be both far more and far less effective. More effective because then they could be arguing from a factual basis to pursue an ideology. I would at least respect them for that.

    Less effective because we’ve found once the ignorance they promote, evidence in support of a lack of knowledge, many of their supporters turn against them. Not necessarily to our side but at least neutral on the subject.

    I’ve always felt a gun control organization that knows details about various firearms and would work to craft policy with that knowledge would be far, far more dangerous and effective than the groups we square off against because they wouldn’t be depending on lies. Once caught lying, your credibility is shot. Facts can persist and keep you fighting.

  3. Sebastian says:

    BobS makes a good point. To get most people to the “I can save my life” point in shooting takes very little knowledge or skill, especially when it comes to self-defense in the home. A gun is a point and click interface, after all. Training for the street is not much more, really. Most street encounters are going to be at very short distances. Most of what you need there is to know when and when not to bring deadly force into the fight.

  4. Jim W says:

    If they were knowledgeable about firearms, gun control groups:

    -probably wouldn’t be pushing gun control in the first place. Gun control springs from an irrational fear of firearms, not an intimate knowledge of them.

    -would probably belong to the same broad cultural group as the majority of Americans that do own firearms. The main reason gun phobia survives in western culture is because there are large populations of people for whom gun ownership and gun knowledge brings a significant stigma. If the cultural norm is a disdain for firearms, pursuit of knowledge or skill in firearms is unlikely to occur, since such pursuit is usually a group activity involving novice and experienced gun owners. Experienced shooters will keep their knowledge hidden to avoid peer disapproval when they are in such environments.

  5. John A says:

    OKm when I first read this post I could not understand just what was being talked about.

    Then I read the earlier “Response from Insight Firearms Training Development” post. OK, now I think I get it. I have commented on that post.

  6. Patrick says:

    Perfect article, Sebastian. As usual. You hit the long spike on the otherwise flat part.

  7. karrde says:

    I’ll give a hearty “I’ve been there, too” on the musical end.

    Another realm in which training will not replace practice is motorcycle riding. I had to take a class, and do a field-test in a parking lot with a real motorcycle, before I passed the Motorcycle Safety Foundation’s class.

    But the one-time class didn’t make me a safe rider.

    It gave me the mental tools I needed to become a safe rider.

  8. Ian Argent says:

    Almost anyone can be taught to hit minute-of-bad-guy within a couple of magazines; at least at typical handgun defense ranges (under 10 yds).

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