Stacey Bright is an NRA-certified Handgun Instructor. This photo is of one of her students. She has taught a lot of first-time shooters to become safe and competent gun owners. She specializes in helping women and has developed a simply set of principles for teaching a potential gun owner. photo by Stacey Bright

Several years ago, a member of my church asked me if I’d teach his wife about guns. “She is scared to death of them,” he told me. “She won’t even touch one.” At the time I had just received my certification as an NRA Handgun Instructor and felt quite new at it, but I felt honored that he was asking for my help. I agreed to meet with her.

I considered different aspects of how I’d get her to feel comfortable with a gun. A search of the Internet turned up many stories of women who had been scared of guns and who, over time, learned to love them. I came away with many ideas.

I invited Sherry and her husband over to my house. My plan was to start by giving her some basic information about firearms, as well as to ask her questions about her fears. She explained that she was afraid that the gun would just “go off” by itself, which is a common misunderstanding.

Marine Colonel Jeff Cooper actually coined a word back in 1962 for this fear: “hoplophobia.” The idea that instruments possess a will of their own, apart from that of their user, is unfounded but common. She explained that she had been raised in a part of the U.S. that is very anti-gun, and therefore had very little experience and knowledge about firearms. Her parents didn’t own guns, and she had never known people who hunted or went to a shooting range, so she only knew what she had seen on TV and movies. She knew that guns kill people, and her fear was almost paralyzing.

The difference between Sherry and other people who have an aversion to guns is that she wanted to learn. She had come to the realization that she needed to learn in order to be able to protect herself when her husband wasn’t home. Her husband was retired from the military, and she knew deep down that firearms were tools, but because of her lack of knowledge and understanding, she was fearful. My teaching plan covered five topics:

1. Safety basics

We discussed the four fundamental rules of firearms safety:

  1. Always keep the gun pointed in a safe direction.

  2. Always keep your finger off the trigger until ready to shoot.

  3. Always keep the gun unloaded until ready to use.

As I explained each rule and the reasons behind them, I could see that Sherry was getting it. She understood that her actions that would either make the gun safe or unsafe, and that the gun itself was harmless. I repeated the safety rules over and over again as I demonstrated them, and then had her recite them back to me.

2. Firearms nomenclature

By explaining the different parts of the gun and how they worked, I gave Sherry the specific knowledge and understanding she needed. I wanted her to learn the proper terminology for the common parts of the gun before going to the shooting range so that when I would say, “Take out the magazine,” she would know what to do. By educating her, she was also empowered. As she first looked at the pistol I could see her confidence growing.

3. Marksmanship fundamentals

Prior to taking Sherry to the range, I had her do an eye dominance test. She was right-handed and right-eye dominant. Next, she practiced holding one of my airsoft guns. She worked on the proper grip and stance. I explained how to line up the sights by focusing on the front sight while having the target in the distance. Finally, she practiced her trigger squeeze by dry-firing the airsoft gun.

4. Firearm handling

Now it was time to actually touch the real gun itself. I chose a semiautomatic .22-caliber firearm to start her on. I took the time to show her that the gun was unloaded. After having her verify that it was safe, I then allowed her to hold the gun. Her anxiety subsided, enabling her to practice loading and unloading the magazine with dummy ammunition. She released the slide and put a dummy round in the chamber. She then reversed the steps and made the gun safe again. By practicing those steps ahead of time, she said that she felt much more comfortable and confident. At that point she was ready to go to the range.

5. Actual shooting

Now was the moment of truth. At the range, I explained the specific rules that were in place and how each was designed to keep everyone safe. I instructed Sherry to load one round in the magazine. I didn’t know how she would react. As she was getting into her shooting stance, I stayed close beside her. She went through each step slowly and precisely. She gently squeezed the trigger. The look of excitement on her face was priceless.

Not only had she faced her fears, but she also had hit the target. We repeated the “load one, shoot one” sequence several times before I suggested that she load the full magazine. Each time she was careful and accurate. I was so proud of her. When she was done shooting, we collected her target, put the date on it, and I signed it as a witness. She couldn’t wait to bring it home and show her husband.

Since that day, I can’t count how many times Sherry and I have gone to the range together to practice. Sherry has continued to learn by taking various other firearms training courses and now has her concealed-carry permit.

By taking the time to go through these steps with a new shooter, you set them up for success. The first experience that they have with a firearm will stay with them for the rest of their life