Firearms safety goes beyond knowing how to shoot
By Marcy Stamper
Okanogan County wants its residents to be safe. But it’s not enough for people to know how to defend themselves — they also need to take into account the legal, moral and emotional components of self-defense.
That was a fundamental message of a detailed four-hour class on Self-Defense and the Law given last month by the Okanogan County Sheriff’s Office, in partnership with the county prosecutor.
Okanogan County Sheriff’s Deputy Michael Blake, a certified instructor who also trains sheriff’s deputies and leads safety trainings in county offices, reminded the 135 attendees to think about the criminal, civil and emotional ramifications of their actions. “You’re there to stop them. And then you stop — don’t keep shooting. Your ultimate goal is to be safe, not to hurt the person,” said Blake.
People need to think about what will happen when they pull the trigger. “What if you shoot at a bad guy but hit a family member instead?” said Blake.
Okanogan County Prosecutor Karl Sloan reminded the class that the standard in court is whether the force employed was reasonable. “You can’t use deadly force on a nonviolent trespasser — it’s not worth shooting to prevent someone from stealing a stereo,” he said.
For example, most people would not consider it reasonable to shoot through a closed door, said Sloan. “Facts are not always in your favor when you’re making split-second decisions about personal safety,” he said.
Blake and Sloan reminded people of the potential for tragic scenarios, such as when the neighbor’s kid stumbles into your house late at night, drunk and confused, or your bullet penetrates a wall and strikes a family member on the other side.
Sloan and Washington State Supreme Court Justice Steven González, who joined the county officials for the class, explained what is likely to happen in court. “It’s a very different lens — you need to be cognizant that your actions will be scrutinized by people who weren’t there and who have all the time to scrutinize,” said González.
“Courts have all the time in the world to pick it apart, and you just have that one moment,” said Blake.
Blake suggested non-lethal methods people can use to protect their homes and family, from installing motion-sensor lights to planting thorny bushes outside a window. Being prepared with a bright flashlight or noisemaker could be enough to disorient an intruder and give you time to escape, he said.
You don’t need a firearm to protect yourself, said Blake. “There’s nothing wrong with being a pacifist. Christ himself was a pacifist,” he said.
Several Methow Valley residents took the class on the law. Robin Wheeler, who took that class as well as hands-on firearms safety classes the next day, could recite the key points.
“The No. 1 rule is that all guns are always loaded, all the time,” she said. “Don’t shoot at anything you’re not willing to destroy. And be aware of anything around your target — and behind it.”
As an outfitter for hunting trips, Methow resident Lorah Super has seen varying levels of awareness about firearms. “It’s like having a chainsaw — you have to have a lot of respect, because they can really mess you up,” she said.
Super also took one of the county’s essentials classes that was scheduled for women only. “There’s a responsibility of having a gun — you need to be very proficient to stay out of trouble,” she said.
Bill Stolberg attended his third class on the law this year. He has also taken many of the county’s hands-on classes, including Gun Fighting 101 and advanced instruction in low-light shooting, all of which emphasize safety and proper handling, he said.
The classes have been invaluable. “Like most people, I thought I know enough but, like most people, I don’t know nearly enough,” said Stolberg.
Stolberg has enough experience that he’s been asked to help out as a “volunteer bad guy” when the Sheriff’s Office conducts active-scenario trainings for county employees and for its own deputies. Sometimes he is issued a fake red or blue gun or a special gun that shoots little pellets so officers know they’ve been hit, said Stolberg.
Firearm safety training
The Self-Defense and the Law class is just one component of free public training the sheriff’s office provides in firearm safety, including hands-on instruction.
The county began offering intermittent firearms classes about 12 years ago. As interest grew, Okanogan County Sheriff Frank Rogers decided to expand the program, said Blake. This year the Sheriff’s Office is offering 24 classes, from beginning safety to advanced self-defense, and expects to have more than 250 students.
The Sheriff’s Office has received several grants from the Friends of the NRA, totaling about $17,000, for firearms and ammunition for the classes. The former Big R Store in Omak donated eye protection and Walmart gave them ear protection, said Blake.
Offering these free classes — particularly teaching the public to fire weapons — is unusual for a county sheriff’s department, said Blake, who said he’d been unable to find other examples when they launched the program.
Other agencies in the state have begun to offer similar instruction, and many have called the county for advice, said Rogers. “We wanted to do citizen classes,” said Rogers. “If people want to own a gun, we wanted to teach them how to use it, and about the law.”
“Karl’s class [on the law] — that’s an eye-opener,” said Rogers. “If you’re going to pull the trigger and shoot somebody, you better know this.”
Sloan reminds people to be aware of concerns beyond the mere legality if they’re going to employ deadly force. “How do you think that person felt for the rest of his life?” he said.
“With a firearm comes a moral responsibility, because the consequences are so extreme,” said Blake.
For more information or to sign up for classes, contact Blake at firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit the Okanogan County Firearms Training Facebook page.