When Danielle submitted this post, I wanted to talk to her about it first, to address some of her concerns, or to maybe encourage her to look at things another way. But then I thought about it a bit, and I realized she was saying some very valuable things about martial arts training that we all take for granted. Things we should dwell on, and discuss.

-David

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For our most recent class we went on a field-trip that included a gun range. We all took up the offer to fire a few rounds from both a hand gun and a carbine. Of the six of us, only one had ever handled a firearm before. As far as I could tell, everyone else was thoroughly excited the whole time, from the anticipation days earlier to hours after wanting more. Not me. I was a roiling bundle of nerves the whole way through, and even thinking about it now.

Before this, the only times in my life that I’ve been anywhere near a firearm have been when I’ve happened to encounter on-duty cops. Even in university when my friends were playing with clear plastic airsoft guns, I wanted nothing to do with it. I didn’t really want to go in that gun range either. And yet, I did it. I went in, and used 2 different guns. I actually shot pretty well. This did absolutely nothing to make me feel less uncomfortable.

Looking at the whole thing from the outside, I see two big questions people could have – why did the whole thing make me so uncomfortable, and why did I do it anyway? The second one is easier to answer, I knew that one going in (or else I wouldn’t have done it). We can’t know for sure what sort of situations we may find ourselves in, and while I desperately hope it never happens, if by some chance I find myself needing to use a gun for self-defense, I don’t want that to be the first time I’ve ever touched one. Not when I’d had this opportunity to try it in a safe, controlled environment with people I trust and who I knew would be supportive of my extreme discomfort. That combined with a general life decision not to refuse to do something that could be useful, beneficial or a good learning experience just because I’m afraid of it. Put the two together, and I knew I’d be firing a gun that night regardless of how uncomfortable it made me.

Why it made (makes) me so uncomfortable, even (especially?) in the face of the supposed-to-be-reassuring words of my instructors was more difficult to figure out. The range instructor told us that guns are just a logical progression from the first proto-human throwing a rock, and a bullet is just a rock thrown really hard. David pointed out that the rapiers we use regularly in class are just as much refined killing-machines as any gun. I could tell myself that in the past year I’ve learned a number of ways to maim or potentially kill someone with my bare hands. None of these things made me any less uncomfortable about the idea of guns, or even made me more uncomfortable about our regular class activities. I knew there was something that made firing a gun at a target feel much more dangerous than sparring with a partner in class, whether fencing, boxing or wresting. I just couldn’t quite put my finger on why.

Figuring that out took 24 hours of turning the question over and over in my mind, consciously and unconsciously. When the answer came to me lying in bed last night, it was one of those things that seem so obvious that you feel like an idiot for taking so long to figure it out. The clue lay in the instructions we were given before being allowed to touch a gun. Three rules. #1, treat every and any gun like it’s loaded, even if you know for certain that it isn’t. #2, never point a gun at anything you aren’t willing to shoot. #3, be extremely aware of everything behind what you’re aiming at, because there’s no guarantee you’ll hit your target. Compare this to when you’re first handed a rapier: “Here’s your sword, note the blunt on the tip and make sure that it’s not worn through. Never spar without wearing a mask and a gorget.”

What it boils down to is this. With unarmed martial arts, most training aims to disable your opponent without killing, and often without seriously injuring them. With the swords we use in training, it would take either a hell of a lot of effort or a series of gear failures and/or serious inattention to actually kill someone. With guns, all it would take is one person’s inattention for a moment. Or a badly timed sneeze.

I’m not interested in martial arts for learning ways to kill people, or seriously injure them. I’m interested in the physical challenges and testing they offer and the way they make change my thinking. After starting classes it took quite some time for me to get comfortable with the fact that I was also learning how to hurt people. I came to grips with that by reminding myself that I’d only use those skills in consensual training scenarios or in self defense with the goal of protecting myself while causing as little damage to my attacker as possible. Either way, I’m really not trying to hurt someone. You could even say that I’m trying really hard not to hurt them. In the future I may take part in some sort of airsoft gun training if the opportunity arises, to learn some of the skills and thinking challenges that firearms present. Hopefully, I’ll never touch a real gun again in my life.