A friend and fellow firearms instructor asked me an interesting question a few weeks ago. I thought that my answer would have a broad appeal for the instructors who read my articles.
Here is the question, with some details redacted/edited to preserve anonymity:
“Hey Greg, I have an instructor question that I would appreciate your guidance on. In the last two weeks I’ve taught a couple of firearms classes. In both classes, I’ve had to manage a student having difficulties. In both cases, an problem was a male student in his mid-60s who had ‘been around guns all their lives.’ Both students were also woefully ill prepared for the physical/cognitive demands of a one-day class. Both individuals had difficulties with simple commands like ‘keep your finger off the trigger.’
How would you handle this? Do you have a rule up in your head like three strikes, or other situationally dependent guide you use? When do you just say, ‘alright, you’ve got to go.’”
As an instructor, these are the students who give me nightmares. Fortunately, most of my classes are geared towards more advanced students so I don’t have to deal with the issue as regularly as some other instructors do.
It’s a tough problem. I’ve handled it different ways in different classes. I think first of all, we have to distinguish between an event where a student is being unsafe from fatigue, heat exhaustion, or a medical condition from one where a student is being willfully unsafe by violating clearly expressed safety rules.
I’ve had half a dozen students pass out from heat exhaustion in my classes. I had one guy with COPD and other underlying health issues that he became almost catatonic from the mild physical demands in my pistol classes. In all those cases, I got the students medical attention and removed them from class. I offered to allow them to come back to the same class at a future date if they were more physically capable of completing the coursework. None of them ever took me up on my offer.
When we look at someone who is intentionally violating the rules or who is incapable of understanding the safety rules, we have an entirely more complex situation. I don’t have any hard and fast rules. It depends on the class, the other students, and whether I think I can remediate the student’s problems without slowing down the rest of the class.
It also depends on the violation. Someone who has good muzzle discipline but is unintentionally putting his finger into the trigger guard too early is a very different problem than someone who is casually muzzling me or the other students. If a student is truly placing me, himself, or other students in danger, I generally give them one warning before implementing more serious consequences. I might give several verbal warnings before action if the student is violating minor safety rules that don’t actually place him or other people in legitimate danger. It really depends on the scenario.
If the violation isn’t serious and I have assistant instructors or range safety officers, the first thing I will do is to assign one to “babysit” the problem student full time. I’ll also move student to the end of the firing line where he is less likely to hurt someone.
If the violations continue or are creating danger to the rest of the class, I will generally not immediately remove the student, but instead offer him the opportunity to stay in the class and do the drills with an inert training gun instead. I generally tell students about this consequence for safety violations during the initial safety brief. That way they know if they start acting unsafe, they will be assigned to the literal “rubber gun squad” and will not be allowed to continue with live ammunition on the range.
The few people to which I’ve given that option over the years have voluntarily left the class instead of finishing with dry fire or an inert training pistol. None ever asked for a refund. This method reduces the chances of a student being embarrassed or having hard feelings towards me or the other instructors. I gave them a fair warning with an explanation of the consequences. I provided a way for them to finish the class even after being unsafe. They all voluntarily removed themselves. Problem solved.
I urge all you instructors to consider this strategy. It has worked well for me in over two decades of commercial firearms training classes.