TAGteach for Firearm Safety and Shooting

Stock image. (My target’s at the bottom of the post.)

It took me a long, long time of deciding first to actually buy a handgun and then to choose a model. The entire year and a half was filled with behavioral self-assessment and training plans — this was one area where my professional skills have been put to good use!

Obviously risk assessment is a big part of buying any firearm (Can I use it safely? Can I keep it safe from the three Cs — children, criminals, and the clueless?), but I also had to assess what might be the best option for me. Logically I knew there would be a lot of options, but I had no idea just how overwhelming it could be!

Once I’d exercised good splitting skills to make a decision ūüôā I was ready to start learning!

“Well of COURSE I’ll know how to use it!”

My first moment of outspoken determination had come hidden in a moment of stunned outrage. I was in a gun shop, asking questions and waiting for a range spot to open so I could take the first shots of my life. The man behind the counter was showing me different models.

“We urge a lot of women to get a revolver,” he said, “instead of these semi-automatics. See, if the gun jams or anything, with a revolver you just pull the trigger again and it’s fine. With a semi, you have to slap the magazine and rack the slide.” He demonstrated and glanced significantly at my two male companions. “That’s a lot to remember, especially if you’re scared.”

I was incredulous. Leaving aside the entire subject of gender bias (a man could remember and handle it, but not a woman?), I actually didn’t understand his point. I didn’t have a clue what he’d just done, but I’d seen it had only been two or three steps, and not particularly complex ones. “I’m going to know how to work whatever I end up with,” I said neutrally — but later, I turned to my husband. “What the heck? If I don’t know how to operate it, why the heck would I be holding it? If I end up buying a gun, I’m going to train and train to real fluency, so doing that whatever shouldn’t be an issue!”

I regularly work with fear-aggressive dogs, and when one’s borderline panicking at my entrance and indicating that he’ll bite if pushed, I don’t have time to try to remember steps — I need absolute fluency in immediate actions to keep¬†everyone, (me, owner, and dog) safe. If I have to pause and think about it, slowing my reaction, I don’t have any business handling that type of client. But if I can train myself to fluent responses under stress in dealing with an aggressive dog, I should be able to train myself to handle an inert piece of metal.

Owning a gun and not being absolutely competent with it not only didn’t make sense, the concept was distinctly offensive to me. And so into my research went plans for training and practice.

TAGteach to the rescue

So finally I brought home my shiny new handgun, and there it sat on my kitchen table. We stared at each other (figuratively speaking). I’d already read the manual thoroughly the way home. I’m female; we do that sort of thing. Obsessively, even, if the new item is a handgun.

My world-class husband has come a long way in his teaching approaches (memo to self: re-post story of learning to ski!) and sat down beside me. “Let’s start by teaching you to disassemble it.”

Ooh, good, a non-threatening first task. He walked me through dropping the magazine, locking back the slide, checking for an empty chamber — oops, problem for Laura! “Logically I know it’s empty,” I said, “but I can’t see all the way down.”

(Yep, experienced gun owners, you can find a lot of laughs in my tale. But this is exactly why every instructor should occasionally take a course in something she knows nothing about. It keeps us empathetic to the seemingly-silly questions.)

Jon popped open a box of ammo and started to drop a cartridge into the chamber. I tensed. “I am not ready to handle anything loaded yet!”

“It’s just for visual,” he assured me, and he showed me the chamber. “So you can tell. See the obvious difference between loaded and empty?”

“Got it. Now take that away, I can’t handle it yet!”

Back to¬†disassembly. I learned the sequence, but I kept forgetting the proper time for operating the slide release. So I made it a TAGpoint, and from that point I was able to do it properly. I’d been planning to TAG myself as I learned, but I hadn’t expected to start so quickly! But it worked.

Safety First

My biggest concern, of course, was learning to be safe. I knew gun sports could be very safe (one statistic I encountered indicated shooting competitions have a lower casualty rate than church socials) if one were responsible, but I knew I needed to learn how to be responsible.

This was the place I obsessed, memorizing the Four Rules¬†(linked to best explanation of them I’ve found) and testing myself on them frequently as I drove in my car or did other tasks. It takes a violation of at least two rules to cause injury, so it’s a great interlocking safety system. I concentrated on it and consciously think of it often.

It was a lot like memorizing the Four Components of Stimulus Control — nothing helped but to actually just learn them. ūüėČ

Then, I practiced them. The first one — “all guns are always loaded” — is an easy view to adopt and practice. The second was easily managed by choosing a safe direction and keeping the muzzle that way (positive phrasing instead of negative). The third — “Keep your finger off the trigger until your sights are on target and you have made the decision to shoot” — became the subject of my next TAGpoint, and one I developed from my self-educating.

The Focus Funnel & Translating to TAGpoints

I have been reading voraciously. I’m one who can learn well from good books as well as hands-on, so I read a lot to carry into my hands-on practice. At a scentwork seminar last spring,¬†Steve White¬†(in law enforcement as well as being an excellent trainer) mentioned the book¬†Stressfire¬†by Massod Ayoob while discussing the physiological effects of stress. I’d made a note of it, even though it was a half-year before I would make my purchase, and I bought a copy the same day I bought the gun. It gave me a fabulous start on foundation skills I wanted to train properly from the first.¬†I also read a lot online, including¬†Cornered Cat¬†(and the¬†book, which I bought partly for more info and partly to support such a helpful site).

If you’re not familiar with¬†TAGteach, it includes a concept of the “funnel,” a filter system to take complex material or explanations and translate it to a discreet, actionable focal point in practice. Here’s an example from StressFire. Keep in mind that Ayoob is training law enforcement officers, but his points are valid for all. Hang in there, it’s a bit wordy! (Or skip ahead, I won’t tell.)

The problem was that the officer held his finger off the trigger with the finger straight alongside the frame, the way taught in most academies. I found four bad points with this technique. First, the extended finger can snag on the trigger guard when coming in to the trigger if it does become necessary to fire, and this can slow your response just enough to cost you your life at the hands of a suddenly emerging, armed opponent. Secondly, when you bring the finger to the trigger from this position, in a state of great stress, the fingertip is moving backward and impacts on the trigger. This can cause an unintentional discharge of the weapon.

Third, the extended finger can press too hard on the slide stop stud of some auto pistols, loosening the part and causing the pistol to jam or disassesmble when the first shot is fired. Fourth, the extended finger in this position will be bent backward and probably broken if someone grabs the gun and twists it, leaving you unable to hold on long enough to execute a weapon retention technique.

For the StressFire system, I developed a “trigger finger-off” hold that¬†eliminates¬†all problems. The trigger finger is out of the trigger guard, and BENT, with the tip of the finger touching the frame just under the¬†cylinder¬†(on revolvers) or just behind the latch or button of the slide stop (on autoloaders).

Because the bent finger’s tip is located directly above the trigger, it doesn’t snag on the trigger guard when you do have to go for a fast shot, as happens with the finger is extended forward. Also, because the finger is coming in from the side instead of from the front, it slides across the trigger instead of slamming into it. This goes far toward preventing premature discharges. In class demonstrations at Lethal Force Institute, most students find that they can go from that StressFire position to an immediate shot almost as fast as they can fire starting with their finger on the trigger, and much faster than with the finger off the trigger and extended.

With this technique, pressure on the slide stop stud is eliminated. Also, the bent index finger can withstand great pain and torque without sympathetic opening of the hand, helping you to hang onto the gun in a grappling situation.

StressFire, pp 42, 46

Whew, that was a lot to process! Fantastic information, but too much to keep in mind on the fly. The Focus Funnel takes it down to this:

The Lesson is, Your finger position can be a significant safety factor. It’s important to place the finger correctly to prevent accidents.

The Directions are, In the ready position and on target, hold your trigger finger indexed in the bent position rather than straight.

The TAGpoint is, Fingertip on frame.

That’s a lot more manageable for practice.

So after a primer from trusted friends to get me safely started, I brought quite of lot of converted TAGpoints from my reading to my first practice sessions.

  • Do not allow the non-dominant hand to cross in front of the muzzle as the hand races to join the freshly-drawn gun. –> TAGpoint is, weak hand on navel.
  • Extend both arms equally to form an¬†isosceles¬†triangle, with weight balanced for maximum movement and pivoting. –> TAGpoint is, arms rigid.
  • Competition target shooting can be upright and controlled, but if you’re ever in a defense situation, your body’s going to naturally curl, plus you want to duck to make yourself less of a target. Get low, get your weight forward, put the gun out in front of you, widen your feet both laterally and front-to-back for balance. –> TAGpoints are, weight on toes, and, ichimonji. (Note that these are the points which work for me; it’s not a true ichimonji stance, and “weight on toes” might not be enough to get someone else into a fighting crouch, but they’re all I need to trigger the rest.)

Who Can TAG me?

While I train at a popular range, I almost always practice alone. So most of my TAGpoints have to be assessed by myself, while I’m working.

TAGulatorThere was a very brief question of actual physical self-tagging, but it was obviously not plausible. Both my hands are full with a two-handed grip, and anyway I’m wearing ear protection which muffles hearing. A flash of light works equally well to mark behavior, but again, two hands.

But, I reasoned, self-tagging can’t work quite the same in the brain, anyway. TAGteach and clicker training (done properly) achieve quick results because the marker is processed in the quick-absorbing amygdala rather than the pre-frontal cortex — but any decision to mark a behavior happens in the frontal bits anyway, so there’s probably no advantage to going back to the amygdala after the fact. So self-tagging should be slightly slower to integrate than coach-tagging, but still effective. (Note to self: contact Theresa McKeon and quiz her on this.)

So instead of marking with a traditional clicker or light, I give myself a mental TAG for meeting my points. Once, Alena went to the range with me, and she tagged me for a requested point with a particular tap-tap on my shoulder to mark when I was correct.

Progress & Prospects

Right now, these are the TAGpoints I use most often:

  • Death-grip. (A lifetime of horsemanship, leash handling, and quick-reaction clicking has taught me to hold things lightly, but this allows the gun to move in my hand as it fires. I can track a 2″ accuracy difference at 7 yards if I’m holding the gun naturally-for-me or squeezing it tightly, so “death-grip” is a TAGpoint I need to integrate.)
  • Weight on toes.
  • Slow squeeze on trigger.

And when I’m ready to introduce new points, I’ll add:

  • Check personal area after shot (should, God forbid, I ever be in a self-defense situation, which might change rapidly or include multiple assailants).
  • Something about autogenic tactical breathing (to combat stress/injury in such a situation).

But is it working?

So it’s nice that I’m doing all this fancy-schmancy tag stuff, but is it working? How is my shooting progressing?

Well, there have been some qualitative indicators. Total strangers have complimented me at the range and were surprised to learn that I’d been shooting for only a very short time. Those are great comments, but it’s a vague sort of progress indicator.

After taking a basic pistol course I learned the NRA offers a marksmanship program you can shoot through anywhere, almost completely on the honor system, and I started it as a way to quantify my progress. I shot through the first two levels in a single range trip (hey, the NRA knows good training — easy initial criteria to ensure quick success and the desire to continue!).

One of my targets from today, finishing NRA Pistol Marksman First Class

Today I finished the Marksman First Class level, which requires an accumulated ten targets, five with at least 46 points and five with at least 56 points (of a possible 100). Today I shot the last six I needed, with scores of 100, 100, 100, 100, 100, and 100.

Tomorrow I will have owned my gun, and been shooting, for six weeks.

Now, I’m not remotely pretending to be an expert or a prodigy! but I do feel strongly that my awareness of body mechanics and my ability to self-assess in a positive and efficient manner have significantly helped my learning curve. I’m already looking at the next level’s requirements, and you’d better believe I’ll be tagging toward them!


One last thing, if you’re interested….

Why am I discussing guns on an animal training/behavior blog?

Well, of course, learning is learning and behavior is behavior, and regular readers know I often blog about human learning experiences. But I’ll confess there’s a smidge more.

When I first began involving myself in learning to shoot, I discovered a great number of people I knew, all over the country, were in fact gun owners or shooting enthusiasts themselves — something I had never known in years or decades of friendship. Shooting sports, because they can be connected to politics, I suppose, seem to be the Unspoken Hobby.

Of all the many who commented on my new interest, only one was… not encouraging. I sensed disapproval. Finally it came out: “You do know that guns are for killing people, right?”

And that’s why I am “going public.” The friend who made that statement has had little contact with responsible gun-owners, only a steady stream of media portraying guns as murder weapons. (I spoke of entertainment media, but one might say the same of the news media, as well!) Without someone speaking of a positive gun experience, it’s seen only in the worst light.

There’s a lot of use for guns in sport and more, outside of use against a living creature. Yet even when a gun is used in self-defense, it’s fired less than 10% of the time. More than 9 times out of 10, the mere presence of the gun sends the assailant off to easier pickings. (I heard one of these stories first-hand while waiting in line during my background check.) And it’s possible that number is low — shots get reported, but not all successful¬†deterrences¬†do. (Like the story I heard.) Only in about 1% of self-defense cases is the assailant even hit, much less killed. So even as a defensive weapon, guns aren’t just “for killing people.”

In fact, the more I read on gun responsibility and use, the more I felt this was a very similar issue to “dangerous breed” issues — little or no public mention of the overwhelming responsible majority, and highlighted attention to the irresponsible few who are usually engaged in criminal activity or otherwise doing what the rest of us could never condone, anyway.

So, pardon my soapbox. I’m not a gun nut, I’m no expert, I’m barely into newbie-dom! but I observe it’s important to mention that a gun, like anything else, can be (and must be) owned and enjoyed responsibly.

About Laura VanArendonk Baugh CPDT-KA KPACTP

Laura was born at a very young age and started playing with animals immediately after. She never grew out of it, and it looks to be incurable. She is the author of the bestselling FIRED UP, FRANTIC, AND FREAKED OUT. She owns Canines In Action, Inc. in Indianapolis, speaks at workshops and seminars, and is also a Karen Pryor Academy faculty member.
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  1. I’ve been shooting/training for the last 4 years. I don’t tell a lot of my dog training friends as they do have negative views about it as you mentioned and I also came to the same thought about equating it to those people that own ‘dangerous breeds’. Good for you for speaking up about learning a new skill that involves guns, shooting, and legal responsibilities.

    • Thanks! Since this blog post was written last year, I’ve reached NRA Distinguished Expert in pistol and started shooting IDPA matches. It’s great fun, and it’s good for me to practice assessing and breaking down skills into pieces.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  2. Fabulous- thank you so much for this article. I love your thoughts on the self tagging process in the brain. I look forward to Theresa’s response!

  3. If you choose to keep a gun in your home, the safety of your children and the children that visit your home is your responsibility and only yours. Guns and your children is a subject you cannot avoid or postpone. Don’t hide guns, lock them up in a safe This is incredibly important for a variety of reasons. Kids like to get into things, that’s just the way they are and with guns unprotected in the home this could result in dangerous situations

    • Hi, Fred! Thanks for commenting!

      I’m not sure what you saw here that made you think I was not keeping guns away from children. The only mention of children in the post is a sentence about keeping guns away from them!

      In the years since I posted this, I became first a competitive shooter and then a certified instructor. Safety is ALWAYS emphasized above all else, and I’ve written and spoken a number of places about the importance of not merely keeping guns away from kids, but of teaching kids what to do if they discover one abandoned in a park or playground or find one at a friend’s house. Management is important, and good protocols are vital for when management fails or was never in your own control.

      So yes, I agree with you — safety is our responsibility!
      Laura VanArendonk Baugh CPDT-KA KPACTP recently posted…Fear and Fun: A Behavioral Approach to VacationingMy Profile

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