Gun Groups Conduct Seminar On Guns for Mystery Writers
by Peggy Tartaro
Executive Editor, Women&Guns
Imagine you are in a room full of people, sitting around three long U-shaped tables in a seminar format. Now imagine that a man is standing at the top of the "U" holding his "students" spellbound with a recitation of the plot of "Macbeth," complete with quotes-and not just the easy, "Out, out damn spot" ones.
Got that image firmly fixed in your mind? For some people, the yawn is already forming. But, let's add a few items to the plot of this story.
The man is using Shakespeare's "Macbeth" as a way of explaining the mindset of law enforcement officers who go bad, and become criminals themselves. He's explaining it to an audience composed of mystery writers. And the guy shooting Shakespearean quotes as fast and as accurately as an IPSC champion is Massad Ayoob, one of the best-known names in the firearms world.
Ayoob's tour de force was part of the third annual Firearms & Fiction Seminar hosted by the Second Amendment Foundation ([SAF]-parent of Gun Week and Women&Guns) and Academics for the Seond Amendment (A2A) with help from the folks at the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF).
The rationale behind the seminars is to provide published fiction writers with the tools to more accurately represent firearms in popular fiction. The format allows for a day and a half of classroom instruction and a full day at the range, where participants get a chance to learn about and fire a variety of guns under supervision.
Participants must have published novels or movie-TV writing credits. At this seminar, all of the writers work in the mystery/thriller genre. At past events, participants have also included those working in the adventure, mystery, science fiction and fantasy genres as well as television screenwriters. Before attending, participants are asked to self-evaluate their firearms knowledge. At the 2002 event, no one identified themselves as more knowledgeable than "intermediate," with most identifying themselves as "novices," and one cheerfully responding that her firearms knowledge was "zip."
As in prior years, the seminar was held in Las Vegas, with shooting done at the Desert Sportsmen's Club, on the edge of town (the edge of Las Vegas keeps getting closer and closer to Desert Sportsmen's). Hands-on firearms instruction chores are handled by the crew from T-CATT in Martha, OK, an outfit headed by John Mullins, who is a writer himself. Returning instructors Trey Minton, Clovis Oyler and Dave Swanson were assisted this time by Larry Locke, Charla Locke and Mary Ann Oyler-plus Ayoob. For the first time in the seminar's history, the T-CATT group provided a full Simunitions demonstration at the range, in which several of the writers got to act out their legally-armed response to a hostage-taking situation.
Before going to the range on the second full day of the seminar, the class took a full day's instruction from presenters who covered a lot of ground. SAF President and Gun Week Editor Joseph Tartaro began the day by taking the participants on a historical tour of firearms and projectiles, starting with what is arguably the first such related example in literature-David's confrontation with the Philistine Goliath-and bringing them into the 21st century. In his presentation, modern automatic and semi-automatic arms are linked to the first hand cannons and gun powder through centuries of mechanical and chemical innovations.
A2A's Prof. Joe Olson, who teaches at the Hamline University School of Law, and the Independence Institute's David Kopel, whose books are familiar to most gun rights activists, offered a presentation on Constitutional issues and the principles of the legal use of deadly force. This presentation was designed to give the authors some idea of what happens in real life when citizens or police use a gun to defend themselves.
Next up, Ayoob and I held forth on some examples of how writers get guns wrong in their books and how those errors affect the interest of knowledgeable readers. Our purpose is not to pick on anyone, but to allow the writers present to see the firearms decision processes and often quite basic knowledge that would go into building a realistically-armed character.
One example I use is the petite female private eye who lives in an artist's loft in Boston. She keeps a 10-gauge shotgun in her front hall closet! Now, as I explain to the writers, a 10-gauge isn't "wrong"-it will function and it could save your character's life. But it isn't a realistic choice for someone who has already been described as small-statured and living in an urban loft.
Ayoob had a few bad examples of his own. While I might merely shakes my head at some of the common mistakes in books, Ayoob confessed to throwing books across the room when the "10-foot flames start shooting out of ordinary rifles."
A lunch break provided a stretch of the legs and the opportunity for everyone to network and digest not just the meal but the morning's information. It was also an opportunity to ask more questions and engage current topics. Many of the writers knew one or two others, but no one knew everyone.
After lunch the seminar resumed with a fascinating look at the real world of forensics, courtesy of Las Vegas Metro Police Department criminalist Torrey Johnson. Using slides, props and his own vast knowledge, Johnson showed the writers what was possible, what was probable, and what was just plain wrong in the world of ballistics, stopping power, gun tracing and ballistic imaging. He drew a big laugh when he confessed his wife won't let him watch the popular TV show, "CSI," because it upsets him so much.
Johnson also took the time to discuss the realities of ballistic imaging from the perspective of a working and qualified forensic tool mark examiner.
Kopel returned next with T-CATT's Minton. Both are attorneys, and their segment focused on guns, self-defense, criminals and the differences between the US and other countries when it comes to law and order and individual rights. The main focus, however, was on the vast differences in the mentality of 24/7 criminals and the average law-abiding citizen.
The writers were receptive to a presentation by NSSF's Gary Mehalik, vice president of communications for the group, and Michael Bane, an author who consults with NSSF. Both were able to explain some of the many varieties of shooting sports and the ways in which they could be employed in books to show a character's competence with firearms, or just to add authenticity. Not surprisingly, many were fascinated by discussions of Cowboy Action Shooting, but they were also startled to learn that the shooting sports are not just a young person's game, and that the oldest Olympic competitors are typically shooters. For those writing about characters on the gray side of 40, that was welcome news.
To finish off the first day, participants got their first firearms safety briefing, followed by individual sessions with T-CATT personnel for those who would have volunteered to take part in the Simunitions demonstration the following day.
The full day at the range for the writers was divided into two chapters. In the first, five of the participants-a mix of males and females-went through the Simunitions experience in which functioning handguns fire a special Simunitions cartridge in an environment triple checked to be free of live ammunition. Simunitions can sting pretty good, and if misused cause injury, so protective gear, including a mask with neck protection and padded vest are used by all participants.
Each "responder's" handgun was triple checked and then he or she given a scenario in which a loved one had not returned from outside after parking the car or investigating a noise. Participants were instructed to visualize the face of a real loved one before setting out to investigate. Those who would follow the first Simunitions role player were kept sequestered so that they could not learn anything from someone else's actions.
All of the Simunitions users were confronted with a similar situation, in which a loved one was physically restrained by an armed hostage taker. In some situations the hostage was on the ground, with the criminal hovering above, pistol in hand, and hurling curses and demands. In others, the criminal held the hostage as a shield in front of him. In some cases, the "bad guy" had a gun only; in others, a knife was visible and a gun held back behind the hostage.
In normal practice, Simunitions drills would not be run with novices with whom the instructors had only worked for a short time. Also unusual was the opportunity for those not participating to view the exercises. Here again, safety was stressed, and anyone watching the drills was sequestered in a closed van with an instructor in each van. Even those observing from the vans were issued safety glasses.
Winners and Losers
As might be expected, because of the low level of practical firearms knowledge, most Simunitions participants failed to "win" their scenario. Only two managed to hit the bad guy and several hit the hostage. One participant experienced a gun jam because of an improper gun grip, ending his scenario. And one "rescuer" actually dropped her gun when the "bad guy" told her to do so.
After each Simunitions run, the actor was taken away, sequestered, and "debriefed" in much the same way a civilian who was involved in a real shooting would interact with police.
When all the Simunitions drills were completed, the entire group returned to the main range and discussed the morning's activities over lunch. Both the actors and the observers of the Simunitions experience agreed that it had been valuable to come as close as possible to a real life situation involving a firearm.
After lunch, and another safety briefing, the writers observed a demonstration of energy transference in which gallon jugs of water dyed red were placed downrange. Literally exploding some movie and television myths, the water jugs were shot with a handgun, a medium-caliber rifle and a shotgun slug to show the actual damage done by these guns at fairly close ranges. Only the shotgun provided the visual impact that people are used to seeing on the screen.
Another safety lecture followed and, guided by the T-CATT group, with assistance from Ayoob and Washington state firearms instructor Linda Pendleton, participants took one-on-one instruction and tried a variety of firearms, ranging from .22 revolvers to a .50 Barrett. The writers were encouraged to try as many as they would be comfortable with, with most taking at least one shot with each gun. As usual, many writers stuck literally to their guns, determined to master a particular firearm before moving on to another one. Targets were placed at different distances from 7 yards for handguns and out to 400 yards for the Barrett .50 BMG.
As they came off the line they were able to discuss their experiences
with the other seminar presenters and many asked questions related
to character-why a particular person might choose to own and use
the gun they had just fired.
After a long day at the range under beautiful fall desert conditions, participants returned to the hotel for a group dinner in which the discussions most often centered on the day's experiences.
Wrapping up the program on the final half day with classroom activity, Bane, Ayoob and I began by returning to the theme of character. Because the writers had now experienced for themselves the use of firearms and witnessed the Simunitions demonstration, they were better able to understand some of the points concerning why a particular character would realistically act in particular ways with different firearms. It was here Ayoob used "Macbeth" as his jumping off point. I've known him a long time and believe him capable, confident and competent in any number of fields, but I wouldn't have thought to put Shakespearean scholar on the list before!
Minton, Oyler, Swanson and Locke then led the class through a discussion of the Simunitions experience with those who had participated reporting on their feelings and actions.
Alan Gottlieb, founder of SAF, and NSSF's Mehalik then discussed a variety of current topics in the firearms rights movement, including waiting periods, ballistic imaging, accident statistics and so-called smart guns. This allowed the writers to get an overview of some issues which appear in public from time to time and to understand the reality behind the headlines.
All of the presenters then took part in an open question-and-answer session with the writers, which also included details on finding and using references, experts and other resources in their work.
The main reason for this program, and for similar programs NSSF runs for journalists, is to provide the opportunity for those who write about guns to have actual hands-on experience, demystifying the process for many and to provide a continuing resource of firearms knowledge for them in the future.
In the three years SAF and A2A have been running the program, we've found the writers come to us with some skepticism-and in some cases trepidation-but end up with a positive experience as well as a resource to return to for further exploration of firearms and the issues surrounding them. Surprisingly, most of the new classes are filled with professional writers who have asked to attend because of the recommendation, or urging, of a fellow writer who attended a previous seminar. Many are already recommending people for seminars which are planned for 2003 and beyond.
The seminars are an outgrowth of SAF and A2A understanding of how public opinion is shaped by popular culture. Yes, many people form their ideas as a result of news reports and commentaries in newspapers, magazines or the evening news. But more people watch movies, or TV dramatizations, or read novels than pay attention to news reports. Thus, more people form their opinions about guns through popular culture.
SAF started conducting seminars for scholars and professors back in the 1970s, and that program helped produce much of the great non-fiction gun issue articles of recent years. Then SAF determined that it was important for the firearms community to reach out to print and electronic journalists in an effort to educate them to the facts about guns and gunowners, and encouraged other gun groups and gun clubs to join in the effort. In more recent years, the Foundation has focused more on educating those who shape public opinion through various entertainment media. As a result, the first Firearms & Fiction Seminar was held in 2000.
This educational effort is an important part of SAF's fulfillment of its objectives and those of its supporters. It is funded by contributions from individual gunowners, and could be greatly expanded if the Foundation had the benefit of the kind of large grants the anti-gun organizations enjoy.
Anyone interested in assisting this educational effort with recommendations, referrals or donations may contact: Fiction Seminars, Second Amendment Foundation, PO Box 488, Buffalo, NY 14209, or SAF, 12500 NE Tenth Place, Bellevue, WA 98005.
While the Foundation invites assistance and contributions, we also wish to commend those who support our partners, Academics for the Second Amendment and the National Shooting Sports Foundation.