I Am Not a Soldier, but I Have Been Trained to Kill
Jan 15, 2021 8 mins, 15 secs
After a while, a decorated US Army veteran named Eric Dorenbush gathered us into a circle and gave a short safety briefing—don’t point your barrel at anything you’re not willing to destroy, act as if every gun is loaded—then he asked us not to share any images or videos on social media.

We had all signed up for a two-day tactical firearms course, where we’d be learning how to shoot as if we were engaged in small-unit armed combat.

Gun ranges and private facilities around the country teach the art of tactical shooting, in setups that range from the fly-by-night to the elaborate: At a Texas resort, you can schedule a combat training scenario inspired by the Iraq War after your trail ride; at an invitation-only facility in Florida, you can practice taking down a mass shooter at the Liberal Tears Café; at Real World Tactical, a former Marine will teach you how to survive “urban chaos through armed tactical solutions.”.

Under the aegis of his one-man company, Green Eye Tactical, Dorenbush says he trains SWAT teams and military contractors, but about half of his students are people who don’t carry a gun professionally.

Even before the recent siege on the Capitol by men wearing body armor and carrying zip ties, the idea of civilians learning tactical skills may have conjured up images of militias and far-right violence—and not entirely without reason.

The men who allegedly plotted to kidnap Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer last summer prepared by running their own tactical training camp.

In leaked private chats associated with the Boogaloo movement, a fringe group advocating for a second US civil war, a gun store employee brags about recruiting customers to join his tactical training group.

But the tactical shooting world also attracts a much wider range of people: gun bros and gamers, preppers and adrenaline junkies, LARPers who want to spend their weekends cosplaying as commandos, and crime victims seeking a particular flavor of empowerment.

“We’re getting a lot of nontraditional gun owners, and some people who don’t want people to know they’re learning to shoot guns,” says Ken Campbell, the CEO of Gunsite, which claims to be the country’s oldest tactical training facility.

The tactical world is a byproduct of years of rampant mass shootings and of our nation’s longest wars, the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The entrance to Gunsite Academy, one of first US facilities set up to teach tactical firearm skills to civilians. .

My first stop in the tactical world was Arizona’s Gunsite Academy, which describes itself as “Disneyland for gun lovers.” The 3,200-acre facility includes a number of indoor and outdoor simulators where students are trained in how to stop a home invasion or engage an assailant in a parking lot or perform emergency medical care in the field.

There are classes on night shooting, church defense, active shooter threats, tactical tracking, and fighting with edged weapons.

But as with the much smaller Green Eye Tactical, Gunsite’s bread and butter are what Campbell, a former sheriff from Indiana, calls “earth people”—regular folks who, for a variety of reasons, want to learn how to fight with a firearm.

Firearm sales surged as the pandemic hit last spring, then skyrocketed as protests against racial injustice spread across the country; by the end of 2020, the United States had an estimated 8.4 million more gun owners than it did at the year’s start.

Private facilities like Gunsite and instructors like Dorenbush fill an important gap, doing more than just teaching people to use their guns safely?

One tightly-wound retiree in his sixties who was practically vibrating with excitement told me that training at Gunsite had been on his bucket list for years.

Tactical shooting is not an inexpensive hobby: Gunsite’s introductory five-day course costs around $1,800, and that’s not including gear, ammunition, and travel expenses.

I’d gotten in some practice at my local shooting range before showing up to Gunsite, but it didn’t do me much good.

Tactical shooting is more dynamic than simple marksmanship, meant to mimic real-world action— you’re not just trying to hit a bull’s-eye, you’re doing so while moving or at night or from behind an obstacle.

Cooper founded Gunsite, then called the American Pistol Institute, in Paulden, Arizona, in 1976 to spread the tactical gospel.

It was the first facility in the US with the express purpose of teaching civilians tactical firearm skills, and word traveled quickly.

Civilians trained alongside police officers, who visited Gunsite on their own dime and began disseminating its techniques to fellow law enforcement officers.

After two LAPD SWAT Team officers took the Gunsite pistol class in 1980, they brought the failure drill back to their department, where a modified version was incorporated into their training.

When Cooper founded Gunsite, hunting was the most popular reason to own a firearm, and the right to carry a concealed weapon was tightly controlled throughout most of the US.

In the tactical world, the spectacle of police shootings of unarmed suspects amounts to an argument for more, rather than less, police funding; if every officer had the kind of training I was receiving at Gunsite, the argument goes, they would keep cooler heads and be less likely to fire in panic.

It’s me and my friends, we’re shooting at steel targets.” His wife, however, had never handled a gun before deciding to join her husband at Gunsite in November.

It was up to us to burst through the door, shoot the bad guys (that is, photorealistic targets depicting armed aggressors), avoid shooting the good guys (targets depicting unarmed civilians), and save Timmy.

A white man killed by a firearm in the US is much more likely to be a victim of suicide than of murder; if a woman dies from a gunshot, it is probably at the hands of her current or former partner.

In my final hours at Gunsite, I noticed that the one other woman in my class, a homeschooling mom from a nearby town, seemed fretful.

“He liked to say that if an intruder showed up, he would call the police,” Lindy said, “but only so they could help him clean up the mess.” She’d heard that a few other members of the Gunsite community were incorporating similar features into their homes.

Although Gunsite is widely respected in the gun world, it’s also considered a little old-fashioned—your dad’s bucket-list destination, or maybe your granddad’s.

The fresher face of tactical training has a different style and attitude from Jeff Cooper’s manly erudition; it’s not Kipling-quoting devotees of the Colt 45 but rather guys who love MMA, listen to Joe Rogan, decorate their pickups with Punisher skulls, and display an affinity for long guns.

To get a better understanding of how tactical training has evolved, I signed up for a Small Unit Tactics course taught by Eric Dorenbush of Green Eye Tactical.

Dorenbush, like many of his contemporaries, prefers the AR-style semiautomatic rifles like the ones he carried while deployed in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Kosovo.

Green Eye Tactical is a one-man operation without a permanent facility, and the courses are strictly BYO-firearm.

After I unpacked the weapon I’d borrowed for the weekend, Dorenbush fiddled with it for a few minutes before decreeing it was not up to snuff—there were issues with the scope—and instead lent me his own custom rifle.

My three classmates were all repeat Dorenbush customers who had driven in from the Midwest.

One, an orthopedist who asked me not to use his name, had taken 15 Dorenbush classes spanning everything from countersurveillance to close-quarters combat.

“Pistol range day” at Gunsite.

A number of Special Operations veterans have built brands on the back of their wartime experiences, peddling tactical sponcon on Instagram, landing brand partnerships with energy drink companies and firearm manufacturers—and, of course, teaching tactical firearms courses.

Like any lifestyle industry, the tactical world is self-conscious about authenticity.

Earlier this year, my classmates at Green Eye had taken a Close Quarters Battle course, where they learned to fight an armed opponent inside a building—essentially learning to clear rooms and rescue hostages.

In this weekend’s Small Unit Tactics course, Dorenbush explained, we’d learn strategies for fighting outside.

Spent shell casings on the ground at Gunsite.

But even the more innocent reasons for embracing the tactical mindset—with its ingrained assumption of a world under constant threat—can lead in volatile directions.

Tactical training, and the spread of the tactical aesthetic, blurs the line between police, servicemembers, and ordinary citizens.

The danger is that training for combat implies an enemy, and that militarized civilians, like militarized law enforcement, increasingly identify that enemy among their fellow Americans.

After the election, some of these latent strains in the tactical world became more overt.

Texas-based tactical trainer and special operations veteran Paul Howe, who teaches both law enforcement and civilians (as well as other tactical instructors), announced a special Patriot Tactical Training course, which would “cover actions that may be needed during these dangerous times.” He declared in his newsletter that Biden’s election was illegitimate.

On Sunday afternoon, the final day of my Green Eye Tactical course, Dorenbush announced he’d be testing our skills with an improvisatory exercise.

I used what I remembered of the hand signals Dorenbush had taught us to move the group into a wedge formation as we advanced silently toward the trees, our rifles held at the ready.

Within seconds, the situation felt like it had spiraled out of control; I got overwhelmed and forgot to give commands, and the other guys started bounding forward and shooting on their own.

I understood that Dorenbush was keeping tabs on us so we wouldn’t accidentally wound one another, but my body didn’t believe it.

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