Photo by Marcy StamperStudents in the Essentials class in firearm safety spend about half an hour on the firing range to practice basic techniques.

Photo by Marcy Stamper
Students in the Essentials class in firearm safety spend about half an hour on the firing range to practice basic techniques.

County classes draw variety of students

By Marcy Stamper

One woman wanted to learn how to use a firearm because she was moving into town and said it would make her feel safer. But another signed up so she would feel less vulnerable at a remote cabin she owns — when she’s in town, she said her neighbors make her feel secure.

While people’s individual circumstances inform their reasons for taking the free classes in firearm safety and shooting skills taught by Okanogan County sheriff’s deputies, most share basic goals.

Photo by Marcy Stamper Sally Stomberg took the firearms training classes so she would know how to safely handle a gun, even though she doubts she would ever need to use one.

Photo by Marcy Stamper

Sally Stomberg took the firearms training classes so she would know how to safely handle a gun, even though she doubts she would ever need to use one.

“I wanted to be able to safely handle a gun,” said Sally Stomberg of Twisp.

“I took the course because I had no experience with handguns,” said Kate Jennings of Mazama, who recently got a concealed-pistol license even though she doesn’t own a gun. “I was shocked you didn’t have to show proof that you know how to use a gun.”

Stomberg and Jennings were among the 20 women in the Women’s-Only Essentials class taught by Okanogan County Sheriff’s Deputy Michael Blake last month. Blake teaches 20 classes annually, all free, at the county’s firing range outside Okanogan. Almost all of the classes fill quickly, he said.

“Our hope is that we get people prepared and comfortable and able to protect themselves,” said Blake after the class. “People come for proficiency — and go away with safety and proficiency.”

Students in the April women’s essentials class were of all ages. Only three had never fired a gun.

Stomberg was taking the essentials class for the second time because she hadn’t handled a gun since last spring’s class, she said. Before that, she had shot a gun only once. “It made me very nervous,” said Stomberg.

In fact, although Stomberg owns a gun, that gun had never even shot a bullet. She got the gun for personal protection, thinking there could be a long response time if she needed help from a police officer. “I don’t think I will ever need it,” she said. But she wanted to be safe if she did.

After repeating the four-hour essentials class, which is 90-percent classroom instruction followed by a brief introduction to firing a weapon, Stomberg stayed on for another four hours in the intermediate class that afternoon.

“I was really, really nervous, wondering what have I gotten myself into,” she said. But after focusing on what she’d been taught and having a chance to practice, she got past her fear.

In the essentials class, students learn the four universal safety rules: guns are always loaded; don’t point at anything you’re not willing to destroy; keep your finger off the trigger until you are ready to fire; and be sure of your target and what’s behind it.

Blake showed sobering videos in which experienced firearms handlers shoot themselves or others because they are not following these basic rules.

Blake didn’t mince words about the seriousness of the safety precautions. “It’s the reality of training with firearms — they’re designed to put holes in other people,” he said.

After the introductory material, each student was issued a 9-mm semi-automatic handgun, three magazines, and dummy bullets. Blake went over the parts of the gun, explained how to accurately use gun sights, and introduced students to the effects of gravity and distance when aiming. He explained how to safely holster a gun. He and a fellow deputy demonstrated a stable stance for holding and firing a handgun.

During the last half hour, students loaded real bullets and fired about 15 rounds at a target from 5 yards.

Varied experiences

Jennings grew up around firearms. In fact, in her town in rural Minnesota, they had firearms instruction in elementary school. “People had access to firearms all the time. It was no big deal,” she said.

Photo by Marcy StamperOkanogan County Sheriff’s Deputy Michael Blake teaches 20 classes each year in firearm safety and shooting skills. He used a dummy weapon (made of solid plastic) to explain safe handling at the Women’s-Only Essentials class last month.

Photo by Marcy Stamper
Okanogan County Sheriff’s Deputy Michael Blake teaches 20 classes each year in firearm safety and shooting skills. He used a dummy weapon (made of solid plastic) to explain safe handling at the Women’s-Only Essentials class last month.

Jennings never liked hunting, but thought it could be useful to have a gun because she often runs in areas where she may encounter animals. Despite having obtained a concealed permit, Jennings said she would do anything rather than pull a weapon, particularly a handgun. “I’d be more comfortable with a shotgun or a baseball bat,” she said.

Donnie Rieb took the essentials class because she wanted to learn respect for a gun. Although her husband is a retired police officer, Rieb had had little exposure to firearms. But a concern that “the government could try to take away people’s rights” made her take an interest, she said.

Christa (“Teagan”) Levine, of Tonasket, has taken the sheriff’s classes as often as possible since she first enrolled in the essentials class last spring.

In that first class, she shot only five rounds. “But I felt I knew how to pull it out of the holster and not shoot myself. I was totally hooked,” said Levine.

Levine has since taken the intermediate and advanced classes three times each, always learning new techniques. “I got sunburned and got my knees scraped. I was on the ground doing different things. I thought, ‘This is so much fun — can you do this every week?’”

In the intermediate and advanced classes, students practice techniques such as lying on the ground, shooting in low-light situations and shooting with the non-dominant hand. They practice scenarios such as how to be safe if someone is shooting across a parking lot, said Levine.

The women’s-only class appealed to Jennings, who said she expected it would be a noncompetitive environment. But Levine preferred to be with people with more varied experiences.

“As intimidating as it is, the instructors do a really good job of making it not feel overwhelming,” said Levine.

“I want to be able to say I know what I’m doing,” said Jennings. “I’m not an advocate, but I think you should be educated.”

Twisp forum on guns

With high interest from the public in guns and recent episodes at Methow Valley Elementary School — one involving a pellet gun and the other, spent cartridges — Twisp Police Chief Paul Budrow held his own educational session on firearms last week.

Many people have been calling, saying they want to buy a gun, said Budrow. But when he asks if they’ve ever touched one and they say ‘no,’ Budrow says, “Then maybe you shouldn’t buy one.”

“They would be more safe with a bat than a gun if they don’t know how to use it. You may as well give it to the bad guy,” said Budrow.

Budrow said the number of questions he has been getting from the public had increased significantly in the past two years, since Washington voters approved an initiative that requires background checks for private firearms sales.

A dozen people — all gun owners — came to hear Budrow’s talk and to ask questions about laws governing guns in vehicles, on school property, and about the use of guns to defend oneself or one’s property. They also discussed safe interactions with law enforcement.

Even people with concealed weapons permits face some restrictions — for instance, it is against the law to go into a bank, courthouse, bar or liquor store with a firearm. You can be liable if your gun is not properly secured in a safe in your home or vehicle and someone steals it and uses it to commit a crime, said Budrow.

Particularly around children, aBudrow reminded people that guns and ammunition must be locked away at all times.

While airsoft guns — toys that are designed to look like the real thing (and which can hurt) — are supposed to be identified by an orange tip, kids may remove the tip, and some people add an orange tip to a real gun to disguise it, said Budrow.

No state requirement for training

Washington, like about half the states in the country, has no requirement that people complete firearms or safety training before obtaining a concealed-pistol license.

“I believe we should have mandatory gun-safety training for anyone who wants to handle a firearm,” said Budrow. “I may lose my life membership in the NRA [National Rifle Association] for saying that, but we have mandatory courses for boaters.”

Blake also supports safety education. “I am a huge advocate of the right to keep and bear arms, but I’m also a huge advocate for training,” he said in an interview after the class.

One of the attendees at the Twisp talk was surprised to learn that you can buy a gun without knowing how to use it. “Wouldn’t they be better off with pepper spray?” he asked. “They know how to use air freshener.”

Sheriff’s firearms safety classes

The Okanogan County Sheriff’s Office has been offering free firearms classes for about seven years. Sheriff’s Deputy Michael Blake said interest in classes grew after he taught a safety class at a private shooting club.

Okanogan County Sheriff Frank Rogers wanted to offer classes for citizens in safe handling, defending yourself and the appropriate use of force, as well as in laws covering firearms, said Blake.

Blake said he found virtually no police or sheriff’s departments anywhere in the country that offered classes to the public. Most firearms instruction is private, he said.

Since Okanogan County started the classes, interest has grown, and several Washington counties have offered a few classes, said Blake.

Everyone is required to start with the essentials class, which emphasizes safety, covers familiarity with the firearm, and teaches students to stand, pull and aim, said Blake. “It’s heavy on safety — we drive home that this is a dangerous thing.”

The intermediate-level fundamentals class includes a safety review before students learn to shoot at different targets and at different distances. The advanced class, Gunfighting 101, covers reloading, taking cover and potential malfunctions.

During the first two years of classes, the county had 50 to 75 students, but that has grown to about 250 a year, said Blake.

The sheriff’s office also offers a class entitled Home Defense and the Law, which Blake co-teaches with a county prosecutor. The class covers topics such as where people can lawfully carry a weapon and distinctions between self-defense and assault.

The law class prompts people to think about their responsibility and conscience in advance, said Blake. Some people come to the class declaring, “If they’re in my house, I’m going to shoot him,” said Blake in an interview. “Really?” he said. “The 16-year-old neighbor kid who’s so drunk he can’t find his house? Is your stereo or flat-screen TV worth someone’s life?”

A lot of minds are changed in that class, said Blake. “Just because it’s legal, it doesn’t mean you want to do it,” he said.

The county offers classes 10 days each year, with two classes each day, generally from late March through September. Blake schedules classes and levels based on public interest; typically half a dozen are the essentials class. People are allowed to repeat a class as long as there are still spaces available. The law class is held in October.

To register, email Blake at mblake@co.okanogan.wa.us. For more information on the classes, go to the Okanogan County Firearms Training Facebook page.