Few people who own guns for self-defense reasons really know what it is like to experience the stress of being involved in a shooting, or even just the stress associated with pointing a firearm at another individual. There are a variety of breakdowns – both physical and mental – that can occur when we experience such extreme and acute stress, and those often evolve into a breakdown of our gun handling skills.

Those breakdowns can make you incapable of using your gun effectively to defend yourself—rendering moot the reason you own a gun.

That’s why you have to develop your gun-handling skills to a level of “unconscious competency,” which is the final stage of a person’s development of a skill.

What’s Your Skill Level?

There are four stages, or degrees, of skill development:

1. Unconscious incompetence. You do not understand or know how to do something and you don’t really recognize this skill deficit. To move to the next level, you must recognize your incompetence and the value of the new skill. The amount of time spent in this stage depends on the motivation to learn.

2. Conscious incompetence. Though you do not understand or know how to do something, you recognize the deficit, as well as the value of the new skill in addressing the deficit. Making mistakes can be integral to the learning process here.

3. Conscious competence. You understand or know how to perform the skill, but demonstrating that skill requires concentration. You may have to break that skill down into steps or concentrate heavily in order to execute the new skill.

4. Unconscious competence. You have had so much practice executing the skill that it has become second nature, and you can perform it easily. As a result, the skill can be performed while executing another task. You may be able to teach the skill to others.

Most shooters achieve the third level, conscious competence, which is sufficient for performance on the range. But for situations when your life depends on your ability to handle your gun, you should resolve to achieve the final skill level: unconscious competence.

The good news is that you can learn a shooter’s competence level when stress is introduced into training sessions. While the fear of pain achieves a level of stress not easily mimicked, a staged stressful shooting situation will still quickly expose any lack of skill, and it will isolate specific areas that need improvement.

The Stress Videos

While conducting a training seminar for patrol officers several years ago, I recorded shooting sessions that were designed to induce stress and to overwhelm a shooter. These sessions showed that most officers operated at a conscious competence level in a variety of gun handling skills.

In Part 1, we showed how shooters who have to make shoot/don’t shoot decisions in a stressful situation will fire prematurely.

Part 2 showed how a stressful shooting situation can induce a tendency to fire rapidly, as well as rhythmic, almost robotic movement that serves no purpose and may actually put you in danger.

In Part 3, we showed how stress can make you fumble your gun and bring about an inability to address and clear a malfunction.

Here we’ll look at how stress can induce the worst possible outcome—a complete shutdown of mental processes—and how to prevent it from happening to you.

CAUTION: If you attempt to replicate this or any of the other drills shown in this series, be sure to walk through each one first using an air soft gun so you can get an idea of the amount of stress the drill will cause before using live fire.

Complete Mental Shutdown

Under overwhelming stress, the worst possible outcome is a complete shutdown of mental processes. This occurs when there has been no mental preplanning for the possibility of shooting someone. It is interesting to note that some provocative targets deliberately designed to challenge shooters’ personal beliefs created the mental shutdown. For example, the targets featured female aggressors, the elderly, juveniles, a pregnant woman, and a dog. Even if the deadly force situation involves an aggressor who falls into one of those categories, there are people who will not, under any circumstances, shoot them. If we don’t conclude in advance that our life is more important than that of the aggressor’s, we will have to resolve that conflict when faced with making that decision during an incident. That is what happened in this video.

The Fix: The preventative for this issue is to consider and resolve, in advance, your willingness to engage any and all threats. If you are unable to resolve this, be prepared for a potential delay in response. This requires careful consideration of your own value as a human being and the value of the threat. This is a big struggle for some people, and they need to determine the benefits of introducing a firearm into any equation where they may be unwilling to pull the trigger if their lives depended on it.

I related here how I learned first-hand that many thoughts and insecurities rise to the forefront when you suddenly find yourself in a situation in which you may have to pull the trigger on someone to save your life.

Religion, fear of perception and judgment for shooting someone of a different race or is older, younger, female, or may have a different sexual orientation—all of these and many more factors can cause you to hesitate or freeze.

I used a variety of targets to identify potential problematic categories of threats when training officers, but even I realize that a target in itself may not be realistic enough to uncover an individual’s reluctance to pull the trigger.

You don’t want to have to experience a deadly force encounter to find out how well or how poorly you would react. Include stress in your training to ensure that your gun handling skills will reach that necessary level of unconscious competence.

Are you ready to pull a trigger on someone? Can you? A former police officer and firearms trainer explains the psychological responses that can come with confronting a person who’s threatening your life.

Shooting in Self-Defense: Mental Prep