Boundary-Setting and Safety Rules – Kathy Jackson

As instructors, we are in a position of authority over our students. For a variety of reasons, this isn’t always a comfortable place to be, but it’s an unavoidable reality of keeping students safe in groups as they learn to work with deadly or potentially deadly skills.

That authority is voluntary, limited, and temporary.
It is voluntary because our students choose to enroll in our classes. The students who end up in our classes get there because they have made a choice to do that. They have lots of other things they could have done this evening or this weekend, but they chose to rearrange their time to spend it with us. They have lots of other things they could do with their money, but they chose to buy a class from us. We have to treat them with the same respect a shopkeeper would give a customer, because that’s what they are—customers.

Our authority is limited. We can tell them what to do for the duration of the class, in the space or on the range we control. But we don’t have even a tiny bit of authority to tell them what to do outside of class. Unless we do a good job selling our safety procedures and defensive techniques, our students won’t take our ideas home with them no matter how much they paid us to share them. We have to be good salespeople to help our students get the most out of our classes.
Our authority lasts exactly as long as the class lasts. It is temporary. As soon as the class is over, the tables turn. When our students are done with class, they will go home and hop on the internet to tell other potential students about us. At that point, they will have all the power they need to make or break us as instructors. If we provided solid information in a safe and enjoyable format, we’ll be in good shape. If we didn’t, we won’t.

Responsibility and Authority
You may wonder why I began an article about boundary setting and safety rules by talking about our authority as instructors. There is an important reason for that: when we step up to teach students how to use potentially deadly skills, their safety while they learn becomes our responsibility. When we teach students how to use firearms, the shooting range is our range for the entire duration of the class. When we teach in a dojo, the safety of everyone on the mat is our responsibility. That is what being an instructor of defensive arts really means. It means it is our obligation to make sure things go right during class, and it is our responsibility when things go wrong. As leaders and teachers, we absolutely have a responsibility to keep our people safe.

Responsibility and authority go hand in hand. They cannot be separated. We have a serious responsibility to each one of our students, and the only way we can meet that responsibility is to properly use the authority that comes with it.
Exercising authority is not easy for many of us. It does not always come naturally, and it’s even more difficult when our students are also our friends and our peers. These are adults we’re talking about, not overgrown children, and we must always treat them with respect.

Nevertheless, when someone signs up to learn how to defend themselves, they absolutely expect their instructors to provide a safe environment. They want and need us to keep them safe from the actions of other students while they learn. When we use our authority to keep our students safe, we are doing exactly what they have paid us to do for them.

For me, one big key is that many students do not already know how to stay safe inside our specialized learning environments. They may not know how they’re supposed to act on the mat. They may not know edged weapon etiquette. After a lifetime of watching flashy but utterly unsafe gunhandling on the television screen, they almost certainly do not yet have good habits built into their behavior around guns. This means that – big surprise here! – teaching students how to stay safe will be a big part of our jobs. We are not simply enforcers. We’re instructors.
Even those who do already know the rules really appreciate it when we take time to make sure everyone is on board with the same protocols. It creates a much more comfortable learning environment for everyone.

Firearms Safety
Setting boundaries at the outset of a firearms class involves little more than stating the safety rules clearly enough that every student understands them. And yet it’s surprising how easy it is to muff this simple step. We shortchange students by rushing through the safety brief, or by reciting rules without paying much attention to meaning. When we just go through the motions rather than treating it as the serious core of the issue that it is, we prime students to disregard the safety boundaries we’re trying to set.

Here are the universal safety rules understood and used by most defensive handgunners:

  • All guns are always loaded. Even if they are not, treat them as if they are.
  • Never point the gun at anything you are not willing to destroy.
  • Keep your finger off the trigger until the sights are on target and you have made the decision to shoot.
  • Be sure of your target and what’s beyond.

Although many people happily argue for minor variations of these rules, or criticize some specific part of the wording, these core concepts remain the most widely-accepted safety protocols in the firearms community. Deceptively simple at first glance, they contain a hidden world of application that students should understand and take home with them as words to live by. Good instructors help students understand how to apply these rules in a variety of settings.

Beyond these universal rules that apply everywhere and all the time, every range has some rules unique to that facility. Some of these are simple management tools, such as a rule about who can pick up brass and when they can do it. Some provide an added layer of safety in group settings, such as a raised flag that signals when shooters are downrange adjusting targets. Others allow individual shooters to more easily follow the universal rules within that environment; for example, setting aside one particular well-contained area for live gunhandling.

We have class-specific rules for similar reasons:

  • Easier crowd management,
  • Reducing group-specific dangers, and
  • Helping each student more easily follow the universal safety rules inside the class setting.

We need specific rules for class because when we spend time working with firearms in a group of people, we encounter some dangers that we wouldn’t run into if we were alone on the range doing our own thing.

For example, having a lot of people firing at once tends to increase the risk of hot brass landing where it shouldn’t. There are also physical reactions to stressors in class: hot or cold weather, fatigue, dehydration. And, of course, some dangers are increased simply because people work harder at looking cool when other people are around. Class specific rules address these challenges that we encounter within the context of the class setting.

Setting Boundaries – the Safety Brief
As a retired Marine officer once told me, “The usual problem in a safety briefing is, if you don’t explain your reasons, your recruits think you’re stupid – or worse, they think you think they are stupid.” Unlike many other types of boundary-setting, explaining the reasons for the boundaries of our safety protocol tends to reduce student resistance to following them.

Safety briefs work best when all students are present. While we might be casual about students missing other parts of the program, our responsibility to the students means we need to assure that every person knows the rules. For easier time management, we might begin class with less-critical introductory material and go over safety rules after that. This assures that latecomers do not miss the briefing or delay the class while we wait for them to arrive. If we have students who need to step away from the group for any reason, we can ask them not to do so during the safety briefing.

By doing this, we make sure that everyone in class has heard the rules themselves and that each person knows that every other person has heard the rules. This helps set student expectations, and helps reduce nervous fears among newcomers. It also puts us as instructors in a stronger legal position if anything goes wrong during class. There’s little sense in setting a boundary that the intended recipients don’t catch.

But what should we do when students violate the safety protocols? How can we help students respect the boundaries we’ve set?

As one of my mentors, Marty Hayes, was going through law school, he and I would often talk about the things he was learning and how his new knowledge influenced his decisions at his firearms school. Those discussions had a deep impact on the choices I’ve made as I’ve been teaching under my own banner. Probably the biggest effect has been a sharp reduction in how willing I am to let an unsafe student continue on the line after a repeated verbal warning. As a result, I’ve developed a simple set of procedures that help me be sure I’m not shortchanging the other students – the ones who paid for and expect to learn in a safe environment.

To more easily show how this works, let’s look at a common, and usually inadvertent, rule violation: the student has allowed their gun to point at anything other than the target and its safe backstop. This happens more often than untrained people would expect, and it’s a non-trivial concern. Although it doesn’t always mean another person ends up directly in front of the muzzle, it certainly can mean that. In any case, it’s a behavior that we must correct immediately if our class safety rules have any meaning.

We start enforcement early, before any other person could be in the line of fire. This means we notice what the students are noticing, and draw their attention back to where they are pointing the gun whenever they lose track. Crucially, students must develop the habit of constant muzzle awareness. Helping them develop that habit will often preclude the need to correct them later, and certainly helps maintain student safety throughout the day.

Important Note! The sequence below begins with the assumption that the student has simply allowed the muzzle to drift, but has not pointed the gun directly at anyone else. If they did directly point the gun at another student or an instructor, even if they did not mean to do so, we go straight to step three.

Inadvertent offense / Step One
Verbal intervention: “Muzzle!”
Physical intervention: Grab and control muzzle direction if student is within reach.
Instruction: “Please keep the gun pointed at the berm. [Explain how to do whatever task they were doing while keeping the muzzle pointed at the berm.] Do you understand?”
Observation: For at least the next few drills, stand in a place where it’s easier to physically intervene if needed.

Repeated offense / Step Two
Verbal and physical intervention.
Gather information: “Do you understand what just happened?” (LISTEN to the answer.)
Verbal warning: “[Name], I like you and don’t want you to get hurt or to hurt anyone else. So if this happens again, you will have to sit down during the next drill. Do you understand?”
Inadvertent offense with immediate danger OR Repeated offense after warning /

Step Three
Verbal and physical intervention.
Unload gun and verify that it is unloaded.
Gather information: “Do you understand what just happened?” (LISTEN to the answer!)
Issue first consequence: “Okay. [Name], because I like you and don’t want you to get hurt or to hurt anyone else, I need you to sit down and think about what you just did for a few minutes. Take a break, get a drink of water, get yourself back together. You can rejoin the class in [15 minutes, 30 minutes, after the next drill].”
If appropriate, add: “I know you’re upset.” Acknowledge the sting without erasing it.
Repeated or willful offense with immediate danger / Step Four
Verbal and physical intervention.
Unload gun and verify that it is unloaded.
Gather information: “Do you understand what just happened?” (LISTEN to the answer!)
Issue final consequence: “Okay. Because I like you and don’t want you to get hurt or to hurt anyone else, you’re off the line for the day.”
If appropriate, add: “… but you’re welcome to stay and watch the rest of the class.” If they are not welcome to stay and watch the remainder of the class, call a class break so that you can supervise them as they pack up their things. Never allow them to pack and leave without supervision.

Discussion Points
None of this is pleasant, but it can be done in a pleasant way. It’s best to stay calm and professional throughout, even if the sequence ultimately ends with dismissing the student from the class.

Always unload the student’s gun and be sure it is unloaded before you start issuing consequences. This definitely reduces the pucker factor in cases where the student does not take the consequence in stride.

Working as a line coach, I once had to throw a really nice, really sweet old lady off the line. It’s easier when they’re jerks. She wasn’t. She was a good person doing the best she could. But I’d been standing with my hand two inches from her gun hand for nearly an hour, and during that time I’d had to redirect the muzzle every single time she came off target because she just wasn’t aware of what she was doing with it. Talking did not fix it, nor did my repeated physical intervention. She just wasn’t able to absorb the lesson in the time we had available.

That’s the key, by the way. If you get as far as step one with anyone, then for at least the next little while, you should stand next to them with your hands poised to immediately intervene. Physically step in as soon as it’s needed and stay there as long as needed. When you see a trainwreck coming from someone who inadvertently violates a safety protocol, simply don’t let them get to the next step, and especially not to step three. Failure to stay on top of early indications is likely to result in someone getting a gun pointed at them … or worse.

Because I had taken such complete control of this woman’s actions while she was handling the gun, at no point did the muzzle actually cross another student, but the students on both sides of her were very uncomfortable with what was happening. She was also taking 100% of my attention, which is inherently unsafe even when other coaches also have eyes on the line. Having her put her gun down felt like giving up, but we’d reached the end of what we could do within the limits of the class and the resources we had available. And that was it. She had to simply watch the rest of the drills without shooting.

Although setting and enforcing boundaries isn’t always fun, it’s an important part of the job we do as self-defense instructors. When we set the boundaries clearly and enforce them early, we can help our students stay safe while we teach them how to protect themselves from danger.

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