An Interview with John Farnam

Interview by Gila Hayes

There’s no disputing that the unrest of the past several years has resulted in a lot of new gun owners. While the mainstream media and occupants of academia’s ivory towers issue dire warnings of death and destruction and wring their hands over why Americans of all walks would want to own guns, armed citizens quietly welcome their new compatriots and reach out to share skills and experiences to help these newest members of our community. Perhaps new gun owners feel safer asking friends or family for advice, coaching, and mentoring as they enter the world of the armed citizen because often it is friends and family members to whom they turn for advice, guidance and answers to the many perplexing questions they encounter as they began to carry guns for self defense.

What should be the focus of our support and advice? I had the opportunity to pose that question to internationally-known and loved firearms instructor John Farnam, who with his wife, Vicki Farnam, has been introducing students to the armed lifestyle for over 40 years. When John visited not long ago, we had the chance one evening after his class to talk about the needs of these new armed citizens. We share that conversation here in question-and-answer format.

FarnameJournal: New gun owners, of whom there are many, frequently ask for coaching from gun-owning friends and relatives. As a result, non-instructors often serve as first contact for men and women who are new to guns and self defense. What should be the focus of the non-instructor when approached with this challenge?

Farnam: That is a big question to answer. Let me tell you what we are seeing: there are a lot of new gun owners. Retailers are telling us that people they have never seen before are coming into their shops. In addition to being new to the gun shop, many of these people have recently been on the anti-gun side and many of them are wallowing in hypocrisy. They have said to themselves, “I would never have a gun! I would never want to do anything like that!” They have told people that they do not like guns, and now they are buying one. I have seen this!

Retailers are also telling me that people are conflicted. They are struggling to admit that they have been wrong all this time. That is pretty tough, but, of course, there is some crime situation that compels them to realize that the argument about guns is much more than just interesting conversation. This is real. So, they run out and they buy guns. One symptom we are seeing now is a rash of UDs – unintentional discharges.

eJournal: I suppose the likelihood of misfortune increases if you try to use a tool for which you have received little to no training.

Farnam: You know, the majority of guns that are being bought won’t be used and will probably spend the next 20 years in the box that they came in. People buy them, remain conflicted, and think, “I will just put it in this drawer until I can get to it later.” Well, later never comes and the gun never has a chance of doing anybody any good. After the person dies, their children will open the drawer and say to each other, “Oh! Did you know Dad had this?” That is going to be the fate of a lot of the guns sold.

A few people – the minority – may get past the conflict and say, “You know what? I need to go to a course.” If we can get them into a competent training course, now we can guide them through their conflict. I have had students like this, and I tell them, “Yes, I have heard this all before and what you are going through is fine. It is perfectly normal.”

eJournal: Do they need to hear those reassurances from you?

Farnam: Yes, they do. They need to know that what they are thinking is OK. They need to know that they are not odd, that they are perfectly normal, that they are now among people who also are finally realizing there are several things they thought were true that are not. Many are facing the question of, “How can I admit that I was wrong?” Well, I guess if you can’t admit you were wrong, you will never learn anything, will you?

eJournal: Sometimes the new gun owner is a senior citizen with 40 or 45 years of endorsing an anti-gun agenda; facing such a big change could be really difficult.

Farnam: Yes! I do not want to get involved in the political side of this. I tell my students when they come to a course, “You did not come here to get a political lecture from me. I have opinions, to be sure, but I did not come here to lecture you on politics. We are here to learn a couple of things.”

Number one: We need to learn how to operate a machine. Now, if you can operate a toaster, then you can operate any gun that I know of. You have to learn a set of psycho motor skills, but secondly, you also have to learn a philosophical overlay that makes it all make sense.

eJournal: What do you mean when you say “philosophical?”

Farnam: The skillful shooter who is hopelessly indecisive will be no better off than a flattened squirrel on the street who couldn’t make a decision. All their skills will amount to nothing and will not do anybody any good. So, yes, we can teach you how to run a machine, but then we are also going to have to teach you how what we know as the criminal justice system is likely to work and the type of things you should expect.

This is part of the process that we call inoculation. I would like to inoculate you, to acquaint you with all of the bad things that are going to come your way, so that when they happen it is not so scary because you are not getting blindsided. You have been told what to expect. You think, “Yeah, Farnam told me this might happen.” It is not quite so scary; it is not quite so hard to deal with.

Then we have to teach about lifestyle changes that are going to be to your advantage when you want to be one of us and have guns for defensive purposes – what we call serious purposes – and go armed, as we all do. It seems pretty normal for us, but I know it is a new concept for a lot of people.

Our good colleague and friend, Andrew Branca, has helped us think about this with what he calls the five elements that justify use of deadly force in self defense. While I thank Andrew, I shamelessly teach my students about his five pillars because I think it is a good way for you to think about it. The five pillars are –

  • innocence,
  • imminence,
  • proportionality,
  • reasonableness,
  • and the fifth, avoidance, which in my opinion is the most important.

Students need to understand that when they are in a place or involved in an activity that most people would regard as stupid or sleazy and if something terrible happens, they shouldn’t expect sympathy from a jury. You shouldn’t expect much sympathy from a judge or from investigators. They are all going to say, “You know what? Smart people don’t go to places like that. When you went there, what did you think would happen?” This is why I think that of all of the five pillars I mentioned, avoidance is the most important. That is what we emphasize.

Of course, not all bad things are avoidable, but most are. Our students have got to be compelled to look at their life and say, “What can I do? How can I tweak this a little bit to make a lethal encounter less likely?” You can’t make a lethal encounter impossible, but you certainly can make it less likely.

We want you to say, “I need to look at the places I go, at the people I associate with, at the kinds of activities I am involved in and see if I need to make changes.” Making changes is a big problem for most of us because it involves admitting that we are not perfect and admitting that we need to abandon some ways of thinking and we need to take on new ones. But we call that growth, don’t we? We call that growing up.

eJournal: Difficult as it can be, we all need growth.

Farnam: A lot of what I am teaching today, I did not teach as recently as last week. I have been compelled to adopt new ways. The way we were doing this was, well, “wrong” is probably not the right word, what we were doing was not wrong, but now it is obsolete. It is out of date; now there is a better way. I did not invent it, but you know what? I have got to adopt it.

That is how our art grows. Growth involves us worrying a lot less about our personal egos and a lot more about advancing the art and a lot more about the welfare of our students. I teach with a lot of associate instructors who are instructors in their own right. Sometimes a student says, “He told me to do it this way and you told me to do it that way.” I regard that as healthy. This art is developing and evolving. We have not reached the pinnacle of perfection yet.

Well, our students have the same issues. Our students need to understand that learning this art, or any other art, is admitting to yourself that you have been wrong or admitting to yourself that there are things that you should know that you don’t know.

The religious term is “repentance.” Regret is an emotion as common as it is worthless. When things go wrong, don’t we all regret it? Too often, though, we don’t change anything. That ensures that it will happen again! How dumb is that? If you say, “I regret that,” it tells me nothing. If you want to learn, you are going to have to repent. That implies changing direction. That implies looking into a mirror and saying, “You know what? I am going in the wrong direction. I need to change.”

That’s tough. That’s tough, especially for people with big egos but changing direction may save your life. If you come to a course, you are going to have a lot of opportunities to repent. You have heard me say to my students, “Basically, you are here to fail. You are here to fail because when you fail, that is when you learn.” What do we learn from success? Very little is ever learned from success. We learn from failure!

I think it is important for students to fail because then they are confronted with it and have to say, “Do you know what? When I keep doing it this way, I am going to continue to fail.” As the expression goes, when you keep doing what you’re doing, you are going to keep getting what you are getting. When you do not like it, you are going to have to change.

We are here as instructors to guide you. If we say, “Here is the direction in which you need to go,” then you need to go there. You are the one who needs to look in the mirror and say, “Yep! I am going the wrong way. I need to change. I need to repent.” Use whatever word you want to use. Just as I don’t deliver political lectures in my classes, I don’t deliver religious lectures.

The goal of the instructor and the student is always the same: the improvement of the student. We have to do whatever we have to do so that the students can improve. Often times, the student is not going to like it; often times it is going to be bitter medicine. I tell students in advance, “You are not going to have fun. This is not going to be enjoyable. This is not going to be entertaining. It is going to be work. It is going to be drudgery. It is going to be frustration and failure over and over again. Then you might learn something.”

eJournal: That’s also a warning to folks who are approached by a friend, loved one, or valued associate who wants coaching in how to be, as you expressed it, “one of us.” The hard lessons required may be better administered – not by a close friend, family member or coworker – but by professional instructors, like you and Vicki.

Farnam: [grins as he interjects] … or go to any of my very competent colleagues. I am not going to name names because there are so many that I am sure to forget someone, but there are many instructors. As you know, I am in my 70s now, so I represent an aging generation. I enjoy what I am doing, and I am reasonably healthy, so I want to keep doing this for as long as I can, but there are limits.

In another decade I will be ancient history and, I am sure, a fading memory. In the time I have that God has seen fit to give me, I want to influence the next generation of instructors. I want to pass onto them what I have stolen from all of the wonderful instructors before me. Our new generation of instructors will develop new techniques that I never even thought about. That is how the art will be advanced. We can take some comfort that, in the time we have been here, we have advanced it and we have influenced some people. What better thing is there than that?

eJournal: When did you start teaching?

Farnam: When I was a young Marine officer in the 1960s [laughs] A.D. That is when I realized that was what I really liked to do. It has been close to 60 years.

eJournal: Then you got out of the service and entered policing…

Farnam: Yes, and I was just as frustrated there because the training was poor. We were not taking advantage of the lessons learned and I got this nutty idea that I could do a better job than the people who were doing it. I started teaching and, of course, I nearly starved to death.

That was over a half a century ago and I have been doing it ever since. As you can probably tell I would make a poor employee, so I have to be independent. I have been an independent consultant my entire adult life. I have been a soldier. I have been and still am a police officer. Teaching and influencing the next generation of both students and instructors is where the real joy in my life comes from. Our students say that I am more of an evangelist than a teacher.

Now and then I consult with attorneys on legal matters, and I get involved in cases. I am often asked, “How much of this do you do?” and I answer, “As little as possible! I hope this does not hurt your feelings counselor, but I would rather work with students than lawyers.”

I do find it good to get involved in cases because that enhances my experience. I can see firsthand how things work. I don’t enjoy some of the things I do as much as I enjoy others, but I know there are some things I need to do to expand my résumé and my experiences.

eJournal: Well, that is true for all of us, so there’s another Farnam lesson – do some things you don’t particularly like. Learn new things for yourself.

Farnam: I tell my students you need to listen to me, of course, but I also need you to start forming your own opinions. Get your hands on different weapons so when someone asks you, “What do you think of this pistol, or that one?” you won’t say, “Well, Farnam says…” No! I want to know what you say! I might have started you out, but I don’t want to over-influence you because I might be wrong. Maybe I don’t like a gun for the wrong reasons and maybe you will be the one to discover the real benefit of a piece of equipment that I don’t like.

I like to get as many experiences as I can. Some are more enjoyable than others, some are painful. I certainly have not won every case that I have been involved in. The lessons may be pleasant or bitter, but they are still lessons which I can share with my students, which is the very definition of education. Education is learning from other people’s mistakes.

We have made all of these mistakes. You do not have to make them. We have made all of these mistakes! We’ve learned. Now you can get out there and make your own mistakes.

eJournal: Both education and experiences of trial and error await today’s wave of new gun owners. Inevitably, mistakes will be made. Hopefully, we can provide enough guidance that they will be small, survivable mistakes, not fatal errors.

Farnam: Listen, life is tough. Frankly, right now I am not very optimistic about the future. I don’t think anything is going to get much better for a while, which means we’re going to have to be able to look after our own best interests. That may mean not being able to rely so much on societal forces to protect us. As you mentioned, many will fail that test. They will die in amazement. They will die with, “This is so unfair!” on their lips. Whether or not it is fair won’t matter; they will be dead anyway.

eJournal: As hard as it is to watch, reality dictates that we cannot save every life. Some people will fall victim to bad choices or bad people. We hope to save our loved ones.

Farnam: Maybe we can save a few. Maybe we can introduce a few to the true way. I realize those will be in the minority, but that is the joy in what we do. You know, I said on the matter of avoidance that you have to look at the people you associate with, the places you go, and stuff like that. I don’t mean to say you should spend your whole day sitting alone in your room. I want to experience every good thing this life has to offer. I want adventure; I want accomplishment. I want to fall in love. I want to have a family; I want to have children; I want to have grandchildren.

There is no risk-free version of any of that. Risk attaches to everything. The alternative is not to accomplish anything. When we talk about risk avoidance or risk management, we have to do that within the context of what we want to accomplish in this life. I intend to go places and do things and influence people. None of that is risk-free.

In our business, especially in regard to guns we can distinguish what we refer to as normal risk which attaches to everything, and we can distinguish foolish risk or suicidal risk as doing dumb things with guns or dumb things with cars or dumb things with motorcycles. People get hurt all the time doing dumb things in this high-speed world of ours. I don’t know – I don’t feel very sorry for them. What did they think was going to happen? That is easy for me to say, as I am sitting here at my age, having been through that. When I was a teenager, I was just as dumb. How I lived through it is a mystery! Now, I tell my students, “I don’t want you to act my age; I want you to act in a way to where you can get to my age.”

eJournal: John, I think if you keep spreading the light and showing us how through your actions and life choices, perhaps we can do just that. I sometimes think when younger friends or family members come to me for guidance that if I could channel John and Vicki Farnam, I could help them a lot more and if I could get them to one of your courses or classes taught by your associates some of the life-changing lessons could be taught with greater effectiveness. There truly is much more to getting the new gun owner off to the right start than going out plinking with friends or relatives.

Farnam: I tell my students right at the beginning, my goal in this course is that we all die of old age…

eJournal: …and you, John, please keep in mind that none of us are old enough to go yet! We still need your influence and guidance.

Farnam: Maybe tomorrow, but today I have things I need to accomplish.

eJournal: That’s right! Thank you for taking the time to share your knowledge and experience with us today, and for all the mentoring and redirections you’ve courageously given to so many of us these many years past.


About John Farnam: From the Network’s first months of existence in 2008, we were fortunate to be enjoying John’s guidance on our Advisory Board. He is president of Defensive Training International and has personally trained thousands of federal, state and local law enforcement personnel, as well as non-police, in the serious use of firearms. In addition, he has authored four books The Farnam Method of Defensive Handgunning, The Farnam Method of Defensive Shotgun and Rifle Shooting, The Street Smart Gun Book, and Guns & Warriors – DTI Quips Volume 1.

John and Vicki’s teaching schedule is listed at Reader, if you are able to attend one of those classes, don’t hesitate, take a class with the Farnams!


To read more of this month's journal, please click here.