Of all the bad things to say to a woman who is just thinking, for the first time, about learning a little something about guns, one of the worst is: “Don’t even think about it, unless you are really sure you could use it against someone.”

I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard variations on this theme (“Are you really sure you could shoot someone?” “Are you prepared to kill?” “Don’t buy a gun unless you know you would be able to use it” etc.).

The reason this is a bad question is that it is often applied too early, like asking someone in the process of applying to medical school if she is really certain that she could do open heart surgery.

It is not the right question to apply to women who haven’t yet had enough training to enable them to make an informed decision about having guns for defense.

Unfortunately, this advice often comes from otherwise reliable sources. For example, Paxton Quigley, in her new book (Not an Easy Target, p152) says, “If you don’t know whether you’ll be able to shoot an attacker if you or one of your loved ones is attacked, then you shouldn’t own a gun.”

If you had never been on the back of a horse before, imagine being told “If you don’t know whether you’ll be able to hang on and keep your seat if the horse bolts, then you shouldn’t take riding lessons. In a crisis situation, if you can’t control the horse, you could be seriously injured or killed.”

Of course, if you have never been on a horse before, you don’t have any basis on which to judge whether you would be able to control it in a dangerous situation. If you are like most non-equestrians, the idea of being on the back of a skittish horse is terrifying, and it is much easier to imagine being thrown off than keeping one’s seat. So, if you are honest, you’d have to say that you probably couldn’t control a frightened horse.

But is that any reason not to take riding lessons?

It is the lessons that give you the expertise you need to control a horse. The lessons turn you from non-equestrian to a novice, and perhaps all the way to an accomplished rider. Along the way, you learn to evaluate horses’ behavior and to be a better judge of your own gradually increasing capabilities. Eventually, you will be able to answer, truthfully, “Yes, I can manage a skittish horse” or “No, that horse is still too much for me.”

It’s the same with a gun. If you’ve never even pulled a trigger at a paper target, it is very easy to imagine doing the wrong thing with the gun in a crisis. But the more you learn, the better prepared you are to evaluate your own competence and say, “No, I’m not ready yet to carry a gun on the street” or “Yes, I have enough confidence in myself to keep a gun for protection. I know I won’t misuse it any more than I would misuse my automobile.”

I know women who have owned guns for years, considering them as hobby equipment, not personal protection gear. Although comfortable handling a gun, and shooting it, those women are still right when they say, “I don’t want to carry a gun, or have one loaded at home, because I’m not prepared (they mean, they aren’t properly trained, and committed) to use one in a crisis.”

I don’t like to make generalizations based on sex, but in my experience, men tend to buy a gun first and get training (if at all) later. Women tend to get firearms training first, and buy a gun (if at all) later.

Expecting anyone, particularly a woman, to answer yes to the question “Are you sure you could use a gun in a crisis” without ever having fired one, is preposterous!

Expecting anyone, particularly a woman, to commit to the idea of using lethal force before she has been taught when the use of lethal force is (and isn’t) justified, is preposterous!

Expecting anyone, particularly a woman, to say how she would act in a complex, frightening situation before she has had a chance to get satisfactory answers to all the “what if” questions that crowd her mind, is preposterous!

Don’t let fear of being on a runaway horse keep you from taking beginner’s lessons on a gentle old nag. Don’t let fear of being in a violent confrontation keep you from taking firearms lessons.

Get the training first. Not just marksmanship training, but tactical self-defense training. Learn how to avoid a bad situation, and how to deal with one if it is unavoidable. Get answers to all you “what if” questions. THEN, and ONLY THEN, are you ready to look deep within yourself to ask the question, “Could I pull this trigger and possibly take a human life, if that person were about to kill me or my family?”

If the answer is “No,” then a defensive firearm is not for you (though recreational shooting is still a possibility). But if it is a strong “Yes,” you will feel the confidence that comes only from competence, and you will know that you are, finally, ready to take your place among the ranks of armed civilians.

This article was reprinted from Women&Guns January 1996, Copyright © 1996, Lyn Bates