Lakewood Ranch's Larry Johnson gives back by teaching gun safety at Manatee Gun and Archery Club in Myakka City.
Holding a life-sized, cut-out of one of America's most prolific authors, River Club's Larry Johnson slid Mark Twain behind a cut-out of a "bad guy" with a gun.
He then moved 10 yards away from the cut-outs, looking back as if he was going to shoot the aforementioned bad guy, who only was slightly in front of Twain.
"Do you want to shoot Mark Twain?" Johnson asked rhetorically. "No!"
He then took a couple of steps to his left, and suddenly with a different angle to the target, the scribe was out of harm's way in case his rescuer wasn't a crack shot.
Johnson, a counter-terrorism expert and a former key official with both the Central Intelligence Agency and the U.S. State Department, has seen gun sales soar in the U.S. as the COVID-19 pandemic and social unrest has spurred many to consider a gun purchase for self defense. A National Sport Shooting Foundation report said 5.5 million guns were sold January through March in the U.S. The NSSF reported 40% of those sales were to first-time gun buyers.
Johnson worries Mark Twain is going to get shot.
So Johnson, a National Rifle Association certified safety instructor, decided to give back to his community by becoming a firearms safety instructor at the Manatee Gun and Archery Club in Myakka City.
"The thing with firearms, is that it's a physical skill," Johnson said. "It's connected to your brain. You need to have repetition for it to be natural. When you are threatened, your brain goes back to caveman. The things you should be thinking about, you are not thinking about."
Such as moving two steps to the left to change the angle to the target.
Johnson is hoping first-time gun buyers, or those who haven't shot a firearm in years or haven't taken a safety course, get out to the range to practice with their weapon. The fear is that the gun gets stored in a nightstand, then might be fired for the first time during a moment of extreme stress.
"Proper instruction shows people what they can or can't do," Johnson said. "In a crisis situation, you get tunnel vision."
Johnson walks along the range's firing line, looking to see if he can offer safety tips. Some of the most basic gun safety rules are the most abused. He said you must assume every gun is loaded. Simple enough, but often ignored. To Johnson, a gun's safety is your trigger finger, which never should be on the trigger until you are ready to fire. Like golf, a proper grip is needed to produce an accurate, and safe, shot. Which is a shooter's dominant eye? Do you aim with both eyes open when using your handgun at close range?
While many of Johnson's generation grew up with guns, and therefore were exposed to gun safety, he said new generations were not raised that way. And even the older generations could use refresher courses or practice.
"I've seen remarkable things as a volunteer safety instructor," he said. "I saw a Vietnam veteran and I assumed he knew what he was doing. No, he didn't."
East County's Warren Strauss, who identified his age as "older than 60," knew before he met Johnson that he was a complete novice.
"The only thing I knew about guns was from the movies," Strauss said. "I didn't want to be like the old guys running around with guns and they don't know what they are doing."
In January, Strauss went to the Manatee Gun and Archery Club, which is open to the general public, and was told to ask for Larry Johnson. He took Johnson's safety course and now is a regular visitor to the range.
"The course allows us to be confident and not feel you're a newbie," Strauss said. "I understand safety now. If you use a circular saw improperly, it could ruin your life. It's similar. I'm trained as an accountant and I have an eraser. Guns don't have erasers."
Billy Franklin is the manager and senior chief range safety officer at the Manatee Gun and Archery Club. He said the club has seen tremendous growth that corresponds with the national trend of more gun sales. The club has 650 members and has gained more than 100 members in the last 12 months.
Franklin notes that every shooter who comes to the club must take a safety briefing before going to the range. For those seeking more safety tips or training, the club has more than 30 range safety officers, mostly volunteers.
"Basically, you are getting safety instruction every time you come in," Franklin said.
Although shooters have many options, Franklin said Johnson is a good pick.
"Larry is patient and he is able to express himself clearly," Franklin said.
Franklin said one problem he sees is that new gun owners base their purchases on their friends' favorite guns. The range's instructors often can give advice about a gun that is a better fit for the individual. Johnson noted that while, for example, a woman might believe a short-barreled gun would be perfect, it might be harder to control.
Eventually, gun owners can try the club's Steel Challenge, a course that shooters walk that offers different challenges and targets, and more adequately represents the scenario that a gun-owner might encounter if threatened. The course was designed by Sydney and George Fisch of Parrish and they, or other volunteers, accompany the shooters as they navigate the course and evaluate their performance.
Johnson likes the Fisch's course, and that means a lot since he had to take a 12-week para-military course with the CIA.
"Looking back on my training, it actually was terrible," he said.
In contrast, the Fisch's course teaches shooters to consider their angles and movement as they walk the course.
"The reality is you aren't likely to be standing and shooting at a stationary target," Johnson said.
He isn't suggesting gun owners come out blasting if someone is breaking into their house.
"The first thing is to barricade yourself in, and call 911," he said.
If things escalate, preparation could be key.
"Most people in urban areas and the suburbs haven't been taught (safety instruction)," he said. "That ignorance represents a danger. They need to be taught to load and operate their weapon, and to handle malfunctions. Knowledge equates to being in control"