“THIS IS WHAT WE TRAINED FOR”
At facilities across the country, gun owners are learning tactical skills, honing their reflexes against a world of pervasive threats. By preparing for battle at home, are they calling it into being? by Rachel Monroe
At facilities across the country, gun owners are learning tactical skills, honing their reflexes against a world of pervasive threats. By preparing for battle at home, are they calling it into being? by Rachel Monroe
1 “Our Numbers Grow Every Year”
ON A MISTY NOVEMBER MORNING JUST AFTER SUNRISE,
I pulled up to a shooting range in central Texas with a borrowed AR-15 and a few hundred rounds of dubiousquality Russian ammunition that I’d ordered over the internet. I followed a pickup down a gravel road and over two cattle guards to the far end of the property. Then I parked in a field ringed by trees whose bark was scarred by stray bullets.
A handful of men had already arrived, and they were loading ammunition into their magazines as the morning birds chittered overhead. 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 asked us not to share any images or videos on social media. We didn’t want information falling into the hands of terrorists or other bad actors, he explained. Plus there could be social repercussions. “This activity is considered … off-mainstream,” one of my fellow students, an orthopedist from Indiana, told me.
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. Once the purview of law enforcement officers and military operators, these kinds of skills are increasingly being passed down to ordinary, armed Americans by a sprawling and diffuse industry. 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 that about half of his students are people who don’t carry a gun professionally. In recent weeks, he’d worked with a 22-year-old mechanic who’d been robbed at work, a teenage girl, and several married couples. “Everyone has different things they’re preparing for, different threats,” he said.
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. “Everything is set up in order for our boog squad,” he wrote. “Our numbers grow every year.”
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. Women make up a growing proportion of students, and the industry is increasingly catering to preachers and teachers who want to know how to face a mass shooter. “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.
As we head into an era that seems destined to be marked by escalating vigilantism and political violence—or, if we’re very lucky, just the fear of them—it’s time to reckon with the whole of American tactical culture. For all its power to shape this moment, that culture has roots that long precede it. 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. It’s a space where paramilitary ideas thrive and where ordinary gun owners learn to see themselves as potential heroes; but it’s also where many Americans have simply gone looking for a way to negotiate living in a country where there are more firearms than people. To try to understand it better, I spent this fall absorbing its mix of skills training, political indoctrination, and camaraderie. Sometimes it felt like Crossfit with bullets; sometimes it was more alarming than that.
2 “IS MY WORLD SAFE?”
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. A host of military and law enforcement organizations, including the California Highway Patrol and the CIA, have trained at Gunsite, as have some high-profile figures, including the actor Tom Selleck, the founder of Godaddy, and King Abdullah II of Jordan. 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.
Since 2015, Gunsite has had a run of record-breaking enrollment. When Covid-19 hit, Campbell expected rampant cancellations; instead, Gunsite had one of its best years ever. 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.
Many states require minimal or no training to carry a concealed weapon, but new gun owners still need guidance. Private facilities like Gunsite and instructors like Dorenbush fill an important gap, doing more than just teaching people to use their guns safely. “Gun instructors are some of the gatekeepers of gun culture,” Jennifer Carlson, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Arizona and author of CitizenProtectors: The Everyday Politics of Guns in an Age of Decline, told me. “They’re teaching what it means to
own and carry a gun, what it means to move through the world as a gun owner.”
On my first morning at Gunsite, which happened to be the day before the presidential election, I was issued a rental Glock 17, three high-capacity magazines, and a cardboard box containing a thousand rounds of 9-mm ammunition. (Most students bring their own firearms.) Campbell, a chatty man in his sixties, stopped by to welcome our class. “Anyone here from California? Or Washington? Or any of those states that aren’t pro gun?” he asked. “Welcome to free America. I hope you all voted before you got here.” Covid was widespread in Arizona in early November. Gunsite had instituted daily temperature checks for students and staff, but Campbell told us he saw the virus as an issue of personal responsibility, and that we were free to wear a mask if we wanted to; no one did.
Gunsite’s clientele that week was mostly but not entirely white, male, and middle-aged, with an air of moderate affluence; they included roofers, anesthesiologists, a homeschooling mom, and a number of retired contractors, engineers, and consultants. 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. For many students, the costs are well worth it. A man in his seventies told me he’d brought his son and son-in-law for some family bonding, but also because “they’ve got to learn to keep their families safe.” Our head instructor and rangemaster for the week, a lanky Special Forces vet
You should feel angry at the target,” he growled.
eran named Walt Wilkinson, made it clear that we were here to accomplish serious business: “We’re not teaching you how to shoot,” he said sternly. “We’re teaching you how to fight when death comes to your door.”
We spent most of the first two days learning systematized processes for simple-seeming movements: how to draw from the holster, how to turn and aim at someone approaching from behind, how to press the trigger. 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. We practiced the signature Gunsite “failure drill”: two rounds to the upper chest followed by a head shot (in case those body shots failed), firing at paper targets over and over and over again from 3 and 5 and 7 and 10 and 15 yards, until the muscles in my forearms twitched with fatigue.
The range was rigged with dynamic targets that faced forward for only a second or two, barely long enough to get your shots in. Wilkinson paced behind us, shaking his head at our fumblings. He seemed to have a sixth sense for when I wasn’t taking the exercise seriously. “You should feel angry at the target,” he growled in my ear. “It’s gonna make you do something you’re gonna feel for the rest of your life.” To get our adrenaline going, Wilkinson would throw out a scenario: Our adversary was charging at us, brandishing an ax; our adversary was inside our house, wearing a hockey mask. Someone flubbed his tactical reload? Too bad, the adversary was now eating his liver. After we shot, Wilkinson taught us to scan for other targets, then reload in anticipation of further confrontations. “You ask yourself, ‘Is my world safe?’” he said. “And only then do you put your gun back in the holster.”
The heft of the Glock on my hip, which had felt foreign at first, soon became familiar, almost comforting. When we broke for lunch, I was the only one who unloaded my
weapon. One of our instructors shook his head, disappointed in me. “Where will you find a better opportunity to get used to it?” he asked.
The gun world we live in today, in which millions of Americans don’t blink an eye at the idea of eating lunch with a loaded pistol on their hip, is a relatively recent invention, and part of the credit goes to Gunsite’s founder, Jeff Cooper. Cooper, who died in 2006, is revered at Gunsite, where his photo hangs on the classroom wall and his house is preserved as a museum. An upright, broad-chested man with a stern, scholarly manner, Cooper was a veteran of World War II and the Korean War with a degree from Stanford and a library full of history books.
Cooper was proudly old-fashioned, a fan of Teddy Roosevelt, Rudyard Kipling, and African safaris. After he returned from Korea, he began to apply his systematic, critical mind to one of his other passions: shooting. He concluded that the then-typical posture for firing a handgun—one-handed, from the hip—was inefficient in a real-world context. He helped develop a new methodology, the “modern technique of pistolcraft,” where the gun was shot two-handed, at eye level. Just as important as the mechanics, though, was the mindset. As Cooper saw it, the world was a dangerous place, full of potential threats. He stressed the importance of remaining vigilant at all moments—of cultivating, as he put it, “a tactical approach to life.”
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.
Cooper was at the vanguard of a major shift in attitudes toward firearms, what Wake Forest University sociologist David Yamane calls Gun Culture 2.0. Rhetoric around gun rights increasingly aligned with law-and-order politics that focused on the individual right to armed resistance against crime. A politicized National Rifle Association lobbied for more permissive concealed-carry and standyour-ground laws. Underlying the policy arguments was the belief that the armed citizen—the proverbial Good Guy With a Gun—was a bulwark against anarchy and disorder. Cooper, who was on the NRA’S board for several years, was a strong advocate for this worldview. “Read the papers. Watch the news. These people have no right to prey upon innocent citizens … They are bad people and you are quite justified in resenting their behavior to the point of rage,” he wrote in the early 1970s. By 1983, Cooper insisted, crime and chaos was so bad that “we are in WWIII now.” He suggested that the nation’s top shooters should be presented with a Bernie Goetz trophy, named after the so-called “subway vigilante” who shot four Black teenagers who attempted to rob him.
Cooper had some definite opinions about why the world was, as he saw it, devolving into chaos. As he wrote in his newsletter and his monthly column for Guns & Ammo magazine, equality was a biological impossibility, “and liberty is only obtainable in homogeneous populations very thinly spread.” Diversity was a weakness, he believed, and Africa “was a far better place for both black and white” when it was ruled by colonial powers. He was vocal about his distaste for LGBTQ people
and regularly used slurs when referring to Muslims and Asians. Gunsite has scrubbed most of Cooper’s overt bigotry from its curriculum, although it still screens a video of him talking about Black Africans who’d robbed a gun store, men he refers to as “apes.”
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. (Earlier concealed-carry bans were put in place in the Reconstruction era, largely to prevent immigrants and formerly enslaved people from bearing arms in public.) Now most gun owners say they’re motivated by a desire to protect themselves and their families, and thanks to heavy lobbying from the NRA, nearly every state in the nation has liberalized its concealed-carry policies. By 1999, 2.7 million Americans had concealed-carry permits; today, when violent crime rates are half what they were at their peak in the early ’90s, some 20 million do. If you exclude California and New York, which have highly restrictive gun laws, nearly 10 percent of the adult population has a concealed-carry permit, and nearly twothirds of Americans think having a gun in the house makes it a safer place to be. 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.
The day after the 2020 presidential election, my third day at Gunsite, the mood was subdued. The fate of the presidency was still up in the air, but Fox News had called Gunsite’s home state for Joe Biden. “Welcome to the new, blue state of Arizona,” one of my classmates said glumly. He suggested that, in order to get into the proper mindset, we could imagine that the target was Nancy Pelosi. Someone else made a joke about how it wasn’t legal to shoot the media—yet!—and then, remembering my presence, apologized.
At lunch, I chatted with Brian Mack, an anesthesiologist from Santa Barbara, California, who’s been making annual trips to Gunsite with his coworkers for eight years. In 2017 he missed the yearly visit. That October, Mack and his wife were attending an outdoor country music festival in Las Vegas—their first weekend away from their kids in over a decade—when a gunman holed up on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay hotel opened fire on the crowd. “I heard a pop-pop-pop, and after you’ve been here, you know what a gunshot sounds like,” Mack told me. He was shot in the stomach, his wife in the head; they were saved by strangers, including a former Mr. California. Being shot didn’t change Mack’s relationship with guns, he told me: “For me, guns are associated with good things. 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. “My wife is very strong—she’s a buck-up
person, she gets tired of everyone saying, ‘How are you guys?’” Mack told me. “But then she heard the first shot here, and I looked over and her eyes were watery—she was trying not to cry. She was just like, ‘I want to go.’ She had a smack in the face of PTSD. But she got through it fine. I don’t think she’s going to be a big gun person. But she’s not scared of it anymore.”
By the end of the week, the drills became faster and more complex. Finally, it was time to enter the “fun house,” a reinforced, roofless structure rigged with photo-realistic targets, where we were supposed to show off our mastery of everything we’d learned. One of our instructors gave us the scenario: Timmy, a “blondhaired, blue-eyed” child, was being held hostage in the fun house by an outlaw biker gang. Timmy was screaming as “unspeakable things” were being done to him, but the police were at least half an hour away. It was up to us to burst through the door, shoot the bad guys (that is, photo-realistic targets depicting armed aggressors), avoid shooting the good guys (targets depicting unarmed civilians), and save Timmy.
This scenario situated us firmly in the role of what sociologist Jennifer Carlson calls the citizen-protector— the armed figure who finds “authority and relevance by embracing the duty to protect themselves and police others.” As institutions crumble and people lose faith in traditional sources of security, the citizen-protector sees themselves as even more essential to maintaining order. No wonder, then, that Americans responded to a year marked by pandemic, protest, and election uncertainty by buying guns in record numbers.
The citizen-protector’s arch nemesis is the stranger with ill intent, a figure that was often invoked at Gunsite and that is a staple of cable news and right-wing social media. A widely syndicated column sponsored by the NRA focuses on stories of “armed citizens” who use guns against menacing criminals. The Active Self-protection Youtube channel features daily footage of “real defensive encounters”—bank robberies, holdups, attempted kidnappings—analyzed by gun instructor John Correia; its videos have been viewed nearly a billion times.
There was also a newer threat on many of my classmates’ minds: protesters and rioters. “The gun is a deterrent,” one of my classmates said as we waited for our turn in the fun house. “That’s what we did with BLM here in Prescott. We just stood there, and they went back in their bus. They were peaceful because there were heavily armed people there.” (He later clarified that he hadn’t actually been at the protest, he’d just read about it on social media.)
“They were peaceful,” someone else said, “because they had to be.”
Danger, of course, doesn’t usually take the form of a rioter or a guy in a ski mask crawling in your bedroom window. 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. But we didn’t talk about either possibility at Gunsite.
When it was my turn, I stood outside the fun house’s front door, my hand gripping the pistol and my heart scudding in my chest. At Gunsite, the scenarios were fake but the bullets were real, and it was difficult to know how nervous to be. I flung open the door and began to move through the house, taking down bad guys. A month earlier, just being in the same room as a gun would have been enough to put me on edge. Over the past five days, though, I had shot many hundreds of rounds; I could now draw from the holster in one fluid movement and reload the Glock without looking. I still had a bad habit of jerking the trigger in anticipation of recoil, but at certain moments, like when I stepped across the threshold of the fun house’s final room and saw a swarthy man holding a gun to little
Timmy’s head, my focus narrowed and my hands and eyes and weapon synced up in a benevolent conspiracy, and I shot the bad guy right in the ocular cavity. It was hugely satisfying, and it felt—i don’t know how else to describe it—like being right.
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. In a whisper, she told me she’d learned that both her parents had come down with Covid. “I don’t understand how this could’ve happened,” she kept saying. She left early, before the rest of us visited the Sconce, the house Cooper and his wife, Janelle, built in the 1970s and which is preserved as a kind of memorial. Their daughter, Lindy, showed us all
I shot the bad guy. It felt like being right.—
the defensive features Cooper had built into his home: how the walls were designed to withstand small arms fire; how the kitchen had a narrow slit hidden by a flounced curtain, positioned so that if anyone knocked at the door, Cooper could point his rifle at the back of their head. “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. “In these times we’re living in,” she said, “his training seems more relevant than ever.”
3 “SERIOUS TIMES REQUIRE SERIOUS AMERICANS”
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. That’s a $3,000 gun, he said as I slung it around my neck. He handed me a binder emblazoned with his logo—a green-eyed skull over what looked like an Iron Cross— and a quotation attributed to Hemingway: “Certainly there is no hunting like the hunting of man and those who have hunted armed men long enough and liked it, never really care for anything else thereafter.”
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. “I get bored as hell at Disney World, and this is cheaper,” he said. His van’s Hillary 2016 sticker confused me until he explained that it was “urban camouflage.” “Does it look like this car has an arsenal in it?” he asked proudly. Jody, a nurseanesthetist who could quote long passages of George
Washington speeches from memory, described himself as “more on the prepper side of things.” Nate, a thoughtful journalist turned UPS driver, bought his first firearm five years ago. “I was getting into arguments about guns on Facebook, and I figured I should learn something about it firsthand. And I have a little problem with moderation, so …” he said, gesturing shyly at the trove of weapons in the back of his Tacoma. Nate’s mild affect was misleading; over the years, his hobbies had also included cage fighting and cave diving. “My wife is relieved about the gun fighting. It’s the safest one,” he said.
Dorenbush, a strong, stout man whose dark, pointed beard was laced with silver, surrounded his military career in a certain amount of mystery; while he regularly alluded to his time in “the Unit,” an elite, clandestine special operations force, he asked me not to name it specifically.
Many tactical trainers invoke their combat experience as a marketing tool, which is just one way our wars don’t stay overseas. Historian Kathleen Belew writes about the Vietnam War’s “spillover effect” on American culture in the 1980s and ’90s: It was the era of Soldier of Fortune magazine, Rambo, paintball, and combat fatigues—as well as a restive, violent militia movement. “There was some crossover between people engaging in paramilitary spaces for fun and very radical elements using those spaces deliberately to operationalize violent activism,” Belew told me. In the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, paramilitary culture fell out of favor. But in recent years, a new militarized aesthetic and worldview has seeped into our pop culture, a downstream effect of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Those contemporary wars are disproportionately fought by special operations teams, the elite units that knock down doors and conduct midnight raids. Today’s tactical aesthetic is essentially operator culture aimed at the mass market; its signifiers include Call of Duty, digital camouflage, wrap-around Oakleys, Black Rifle coffee (which has been described as a “tactical caffeine delivery system”), and the AR-15. 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. No one wants to be called out as “tacticool,” a wannabe who thinks wearing a black vest with lots of pockets makes him an elite operator.
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. “People will say, oh, that’s military training, we don’t need that. But there are plenty of use cases for law
enforcement or for a civilian,” he said: for cops, a routine traffic stop that turns violent; for civilians, a shooter in a Target parking lot or in the driveway of your home. After Dorenbush’s preamble, Nate pulled me aside. He wanted to assure me that even though he owned two Ar-style rifles, he wasn’t a typical gun nut; he wasn’t even conservative. “If you believe you have a right to use lethal force to defend yourself, your family, your community against a threat,” he asked me, his brow furrowed, “why the hell would you want it to be a fair fight?”
Dorenbush had set up half a dozen steel targets at the far end of the field. Next to them was an ad hoc maze made of orange netting stretched between door frames and meant to mimic a house; it was left over from the Close Quarters Battle course. We spent the morning on an assault drill, simulating how to advance on the targets while under fire: Drop into a prone position, shoot, leap up, bound forward, drop down, and shoot again. The exercise was akin to doing burpees with a high-powered rifle clamped to your side. The intensity may have been artificial, but it was effective. “Cover me while I move!” Nate shouted. “I got you covered!” I hollered back, and as he sprinted I aimed down the field and felt my focus sharpen. The ping of the steel target, when I managed to hit it, was viscerally satisfying. It wasn’t until I returned to my hotel room that night and the adrenaline began to leach out of my body that I discovered my hands were scraped from the dried grass and a bruise was blooming on my clavicle where I’d absorbed the rifle’s recoil.
For a person with certain appetites, this could be a fun way to spend a weekend. 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, service members, and ordinary citizens. This helps explain some of the notable deference law
enforcement showed to right-wing rioters in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and during the Capitol siege—a guy in a tac vest doesn’t necessarily look like a threat or a criminal but rather someone they could’ve trained next to.
And when regular folks learn military and police tactics from the same people who teach professionals, sometimes alongside those professionals, it’s easy for them to feel that they, too, are charged with protecting the social order—or what they see as the social order. 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. Carlson, the sociologist, pointed out that many of the men who paraded with guns at this summer’s protests described what they were doing as a form of community defense. “Community sounds really great, but it is not an inclusive concept,” she told me. “People within it are protected, and people outside it are not only not worthy of protection but worthy of violence. And in this country, community has been drawn in terms of class, but primarily in terms of race.”
Proposed legislation promises to give even further legitimacy to self-deputized individuals. Over the past two decades, Nra-backed laws have expanded the scope and circumstances in which people can use deadly force to defend their private property. Now lawmakers are attempting to extend those rights further into public space, particularly during times of protest. In 2020, Florida governor Ron Desantis drafted legislation that would allow armed citizens to use deadly force against anyone they suspect of looting; a proposed Ohio law would permit anyone escaping a “riot” to kill protesters if they felt threatened.
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. “This means Use of Force rules are out and it will be up to individuals and groups to determine what is ‘Reasonable,’” he wrote. “Serious times require serious Americans.”
On Sunday afternoon, the final day of my Green Eye Tactical course, Dorenbush announced he’d be testing our skills with an improvisatory exercise. The scenario: A bunch of meth heads had kidnapped his son. We had to track them through the field, moving as a unit, then enter a wooded area and react to what we found there. He appointed me team leader over my objections (which were, essentially, that I didn’t really know what I was doing).
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. At the far end of the field, we entered the woods, descending into a gully clogged with downed branches. Ahead of us I could see parts of photo-realistic targets peeking through the trees. Nate gave me an encouraging look, and I shouted the command to begin engagement. 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. The woods filled with gunfire and shouting, the percussive sound of bullets meeting targets. The shots seemed to be coming from everywhere around me. I understood that Dorenbush was keeping tabs on us so we wouldn’t accidentally wound one another, but my body didn’t believe it. I huddled behind a tree stump, too frightened to move, and felt the sharp taste of panic on my tongue.
It was over fast— we’d secured the hostage, Dorenbush declared. During the debrief, I cried. Dorenbush stood next to one of the targets, a visibly pregnant woman gripping a pistol. “You just shot a pregnant female—how does that make you feel?” he asked Jody. Realistic training was important because it helped acclimate the body to stressful situations, he explained. “You’re taking steps to help yourself so it’s not such a drastic departure from your reality. You inoculate yourself to trauma. It takes time to build that up to where it’s not bothering you that much anymore.”
We replayed the scenario and did another exercise after that, but I’d lost my spirit and took my shots half-heartedly. As the afternoon turned chilly and the wind picked up, Dorenbush handed out certificates of completion. Along with mine, I got a speech about how I should believe in myself. But it wasn’t my failure that had upset me that afternoon in the woods. My panic had been partly an animal terror of bullets and chaos, but I’d also been paralyzed by a deeper dread— the fear that in preparing for combat, we were training ourselves to see opportunities for it all around us. That by rehearsing for a situation, we were, in a small way, calling it into being.
The sun was setting and Dorenbush’s energy was clearly flagging, but my classmates wanted to get in more practice. Dorenbush agreed to let them run hostage-rescue scenarios in the Close Quarters Battle “house.” They gathered at the door with their nightvision helmets on, ARS at the ready. Nate gave the command and they burst in, each turning to a different corner and firing at the target there. It was fascinating to watch, in a way, this tightly choreographed dance of violence. When I drove away into the lowering evening, they were still at it, charging into rooms in a house that wasn’t there.
RACHEL MONROE (@rachmonroe) is a writer based in Marfa, Texas, and the author of Savage Appetites: True Stories of Women, Crime, and Obsession.