JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – From terrorist attacks in U.S. cities to mass shootings in offices and public places, active-shooter threats are causing legitimate concern across the country and raising the questions: Should you carry a firearm? If you have one, would you know what to do?
If you have a permit to carry a concealed weapon, like nearly 1.5 million people in Florida and 750,000 in Georgia, could you react until law enforcement personnel arrive?
News4Jax traveled to Cartersville, Georgia, just outside Atlanta, to participate in a course offered by weapons expert Aaron Cowan. The U.S. Army veteran and former federal officer with the Department of Defense owns Sage Dynamics, and teaches proper tactics to not only law enforcement and military personnel, but also civilians who carry guns legally.
The training Cowan provides is intense, hands-on and at times very chaotic, and shows students how owning a gun is just the beginning of protecting their families.
"I think the thing a student’s going to get is the realization that for firearms, for self-defense with a firearm, that being able to mechanically work the gun is literally the lowest level of operation," Cowan explained. "It’s the beginning."
The class News4Jax took part in was geared specifically for civilians, not military or law enforcement, but the students wanted the same skills to know what to do if they ever had to react in an active-shooter situation.
"If you’re ever unlucky enough to find yourself in a situation where you’re present, you have to make -- and it’s a cliché -- but a split-second decision," Cowan told his students the first day. "You have to decide right then if you get involved or not. You have to decide right then and there, 'Am I going to get involved? Do I possess the equipment necessary to get involved, and is getting involved the wisest decision for me?'"
Day 1 involved classroom instruction covering everything from what a shooting situation might look like from a good Samaritan's perspective to how a person's body might react when realizing the reality of what is happening.
Cowan cited statistics and history, and then pointed out how things have changed since the Columbine High School massacre in 1999. That school shooting was the first time people at home saw that type of tragic event as it happened on live television.
"I’ve taken two classes with Aaron. Both times I’ve walked away with knowledge that changed my perspective on how I do things, and a lot of considerations for real life," said student Jeffe Heyde, who drove in from Ohio to take the course with Cowan.
Another student, Chris Willis, who is a single father, said his children are his motivation for taking part in the classes.
"Basically it comes down to: There are bad people out there who may try to either keep me from my sons or try to harm my sons, and my job is to not let that happen," he said.
Willis said he doesn't believe just owning a gun is enough for anyone.
"Really the only way one can be ready for this type of situation is to have proper training," he said. "There’s a lot of people out there that’ll buy a gun and think that’s the end of it, and, in fact, I believe that’s the beginning of it."
Willis, Heyde and seven others went through Day 2 of Cowan’s training: the practical experience.
"We get more and more proficient with the use of a firearm, but just being able to run the gun isn’t enough," explained Cowan. "You need to understand when to use the gun, how to best employ the gun and then factoring in a 360-degree environment working in a real-life situation where you don’t have a convenient berm or backdrop. You’re not against a paper target. You’re actually dealing with human beings."
Cowan created more than a half dozen active-shooter scenarios, based on real situations, including attacks at a movie theater ticket line, a crowded and dark theater, a bank, a doctor's office, a conference room, a typical workplace and restaurants.
"Treat it like you would the real world," Cowan told his students before the scenarios started on Day 2. "If you wouldn’t draw your gun in the real world, don’t draw your gun in the scenario. Some things may be painfully obvious. Some things may not be.”
The designated "bad guy" and the designated "good guy" in each scenario fired what’s called "simunition." Everyone involved wore a protective mask, including the News4Jax participant. The students were hit during a shootout in two of the scenarios, acted like they'd been shot in others and dove out of the way when bullets started flying.
With only the designated "bad guy" knowing what was going to happen, Cowan let his students loose to decide when, how or even if they should shoot. And while it all played out, Cowan stood near the "good guy," the concealed weapons holder, explaining what the student was doing right, what the student was doing wrong and what can be done better to stop the active shooter from doing more harm.
"When you drew your gun to deal with the threat, did you have time to give your verbals and tell all these guys you're a good guy?" Cowan asked one student at the end of a scenario.
Willis was the designated "bad guy" in one scenario, but the good guy in another. He got both perspectives and learned something from each.
"Probably the most interesting thing is how quickly the scenarios move. It will go from normal everyday life sitting in a movie theater or restaurant, to all hell breaking loose in less than a second. And before you know it, there's bullets flying, and you're trying to figure out what to do," he said. "So I think, really, the speed of it has been probably the most harrowing thing. It's scary."
Heyde encouraged everyone who legally carries a gun to take this type course.
"I can't encourage training for responsible citizens enough. It's a right to carry a firearm; I get that. It's also a responsibility," he said.
Cowan teaches that mindset to all of his students. And while his classes seem to fill up faster following mass shootings like those in Paris or Charleston, South Carolina, or San Bernardino, California, he said he believes his efforts can ultimately change outcomes in the world.
"One citizen at a time, we can make everybody safer by building on the fact that the better trained we are as a society, the better trained we are as gun owners, the less likely or the harder target we're going to create for anyone that wants to create chaos and death," Cowan said.
Cowan said that while he knows not everyone who can legally have a gun wants to have one, those who do choose to be gun owners need to continue their education and acquire appropriate skills.
The city of Houston's Public Safety and Homeland Security Office produced an educational documentary entitled "Run, Hide, Fight" which has gone on to be used by multiple agencies and companies as a training tool.
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"Would you trust a medical professional who graduated medical school but never did any continued education after that? I wouldn’t," he said. "I want someone who is constantly learning in some way to maintain their proficiency."