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Training for Decision Making

An Interview with John Farnam

by Gila Hayes

Ask someone if they’ve had training for self defense, and they’ll likely talk about classes in which firearms use or hand-to-hand skills were taught and practiced. People equate training with physical skills, and seldom are the mental aspects considered.

John Farnam was one of the earliest firearms instructors to coach students in decision-making under pressure, as part of his Defense Training International curriculum. Not only has Farnam earned our respect for early insistence that self defense requires much more than accurate shooting, it is also testament to his “students first” philosophy that DTI’s curriculum has evolved substantially, keeping pace with the threats and dangers armed citizens face today.

We were privileged recently to sit down and query John Farnam about training for decision-making. Let’s switch to interview format to preserve the effect of Farnam’s words and thoughts.

eJournal: I would like to discuss training for decision-making, an effort you pioneered for armed citizens. At one time, we trained by going to the range, standing in a line and shooting paper targets. We considered ourselves well trained! Then you came along, and in your classes, we did innovative things like gun pick-up drills, physical exertion before shooting, shooting from disadvantaged positions, shooting moving targets and engaging picture targets of various situations in which we were to interact with the targets. That was radical!

Farnam: Our training is more than just teaching people to operate a machine, and I was as guilty as anyone else. We had to realize that because you can operate a toaster, that doesn’t mean that you can make breakfast!

There’s more to making breakfast than just operating a toaster, [laughing, then turning serious] but we have to present it all in the same program.

When you’re in your house and you think someone is trying to break in, there are a number of things that you have to do, but there is a priority list. Calling the police is not the first thing! Yes, that is important, but it’s not the most important. First, it is important that you wake up. You need to get your gun, and you need to get in a strong position, and then try to arrange it so that there is no direct confrontation, if that is possible. Then, at some point, you need to call the police, and then you need to know what to say.

I think Mas Ayoob was the one from whom I picked it up, because Mas was the real pioneer in teaching about interfacing with the criminal justice system, and I learned a great deal from him. So I decided that we needed to include aggressive disengagement in our course, with role play how to disengage from someone who wants to come up and strike up a conversation–how to politely but aggressively disengage and separate.

eJournal: I can remember nearly two decades ago doing drills mixing firearms use with giving verbal commands in your classes. How did you begin moving your curriculum away from the square range mentality?

Farnam: I bought some range equipment, and some shoot-don’t shoot targets, and my whole idea was to teach students what to look for. If something suddenly appears, what do you look for? Well, he has a face and hands, and the threat will probably be in his hands. Students responded, “He has a gun in his hands!” I would ask, “Is he pointing it at you?” Actually, that is largely irrelevant, because in the time it takes him to point it at you, by the time he does, it will be too late.