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Mandatory Training for Gun Owners: Constitutional? Useful?

A solution in need of a problem: mandatory training is of questionable legality, and gun misuse is not generally due to a lack of skill or knowledge.

by
Clayton E. Cramer

Bio

July 11, 2010 - 12:00 am

In many states, to get a concealed handgun license you must complete a training class. Some states have very strict requirements for such classes, which teach not only safe use of a firearm but also the legal use of deadly force. Other states have more lax coursework requirements, often requiring only an NRA class on handgun safety. A few states have no training requirement whatsoever.

It feels a bit like challenging motherhood, baseball, and apple pie to criticize mandatory training requirements. Carrying a gun for self-defense is a serious matter, and I think any gun owner would benefit from a course in the safe and legal use of a gun. I can’t imagine any good reason to not take such a course. Nonetheless, I am skeptical of the utility — and perhaps even the constitutionality — of such mandatory training requirements.

I’m skeptical of the utility of such requirements from the standpoint of accidents. Handguns are very close to being the ultimate point-and-click interface. The instruction manuals for all modern handguns are astonishingly well-written and complete. If the instruction manual isn’t enough, you probably can’t be trusted with a hammer and nails either. About the only subtle safety issue with modern handguns: after you remove the magazine from a semiautomatic pistol, there is still a cartridge in the chamber. You need to rack the slide to eject that cartridge and render the gun safe. (And the manuals are very clear on this point too.)

Non-hunting gun accidents are pretty rare in this country. Once you remove the accidents involving alcohol or teenagers (who can’t get a concealed weapon permit anyway), there aren’t a lot left — and many of those are incidents like this. I’m skeptical that even several thousand hours of mandatory training will give someone like that the good sense that God gives to turnips.

There might be a case for mandatory training to make sure that a person carrying a gun does not use it improperly — for example, in an argument about a parking spot. But I have not seen much evidence that this is a problem. For the most part, people who carry guns seem to realize the very serious responsibility that goes with it. For all the talk about how petty disputes lead to gunfights, in the more than seven years that I have been editing The Armed Citizen, I have been astonished at how few of the more than 4500 incidents we have blogged have fit into that category.

Similarly, while there is good reason to worry about shots fired at a criminal that go astray, it’s not clear how useful mandatory training is for solving this problem. The major use of a handgun for self-defense is as a threat — it causes criminals to suddenly remember an urgent appointment elsewhere. When the victim opens fire, it is often at astonishingly short range, and under circumstances where marksmanship training is quite irrelevant.

In short: mandatory training as a safety measure may be a solution in need of a problem.

I find it interesting that states such as Washington, which have had a shall-issue concealed weapon permit law since 1961, have never imposed a training requirement — and seem to have done just fine without it.

There is an interesting constitutional question about mandatory training. The right to bear arms is a fundamental human right. If you don’t see a problem with mandatory gun training before you can carry a gun, how would you feel about mandatory training in libel, obscenity, and incitement to riot law before you could exercise your First Amendment right to draft a political pamphlet?

It is true that there was mandatory militia training in 1791, when the states ratified the Second Amendment. But that wasn’t safety training, or even training with respect to self-defense. It was training for the purpose of making members of the militia into effective soldiers — not at all equivalent to the mandatory safety training for concealed weapon permits.

There are a great many rights we enjoy in this country that are easy to abuse: freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom to travel, freedom of association, freedom of religious worship. But we don’t license those freedoms because someone may and will abuse them. We recognize that adults not only have great power in our society, but also great responsibility. Abuse your freedoms in a way that causes harm to others, and you will pay a price for it after the fact.

I am willing to discuss the potential that some new technology might require a more stringent approach.

For example, if someone started selling a megawatt gamma ray laser pistol that you could carry in your pocket, cost $10, and when fired would blow holes through buildings for several miles — well, that sounds pretty scary. But so far, the technology we have is not so dramatically different in the risks it carries from the arms that the Framers knew. I don’t see any stronger argument for mandatory training today than in 1791.

Clayton E. Cramer teaches history at the College of Western Idaho. His most recent book is My Brother Ron: A Personal and Social History of the Deinstitutionalization of the Mentally Ill (2012). He is raising capital for a feature film about the Oberlin Rescue of 1858.
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