With industry experts reporting that about 14 million Americans purchased a gun for the first time during the past two years, the widespread availability of high-quality firearms training for these new gun owners is critical in order for them to become safe, responsible practitioners of their Second Amendment rights.
Unlike in the past, women make up a large percentage of those new gun owners—some 40%, according to the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF). Fortunately for all new gun owners, NRA’s education programs have certified thousands of trainers who have been instrumental in teaching gun safety and responsibility to millions of Americans.
One such instructor, Heidi Lyn Rao, isn’t just any firearms instructor. She is also the 2022 Golden Bullseye Award Recipient for “NRA Women Industry Woman of the Year.”
Rao said, based on what she is seeing in the Houston, Texas, area where she teaches, those NSSF numbers seem pretty accurate. And, according to Rao, many of those new gun owners are seeking training instead of simply choosing to try to learn it all on their own. By going to NRAInstructors.org, they’re able to find quality instructors wherever they live.
“There really are,” she said. “NSSF says that like 50% of these new gun owners are actually seeking out training. They want to learn. They want to get that additional knowledge from a—I don’t like the word ‘expert’—but from someone who knows the industry and knows the training. They are actually seeking out that additional knowledge and information, and I think it’s great. Anytime you are learning something brand new, go to the source and get the proper training to be as safe as you can be.”
In fact, Rao says the number of people seeking beginner firearms training from her has grown at an amazing rate over the past few years.
“Back when I started teaching these classes, I used to offer the whole range usually about twice a year, and mostly to capture the Boy Scout leaders so they could do the ranges at summer camp and winter camp,” she said. “So, I would be teaching RSO (Range Safety Officer), rifle and shotgun twice a year; I could never fill a pistol class, ever—I used to always have to cancel it. Flash forward to 2020, I was teaching pistol almost every single weekend. It was crazy. And there were a lot of first-time gun owners, both women and men. So, it was a great transition and I’ve been teaching like crazy ever since. I love it.”
As Rao acknowledged, teaching yourself to handle and shoot a gun safely is a lot different than teaching yourself to play the guitar or some other discipline. There is just a lot more at stake if you don’t learn the lessons well.
“And I think people realize that fact,” she said. “A lot of the new gun owners are aware of the power and significance of this new purchase that they just made. They seem to really understand how important it is to be properly trained in safe handling, storage and all that.
“And those are the questions we get often. People feel like they need to protect themselves, but a lot of people want to know beyond that. Like, ‘How can I safely keep this at my home with my family and my kids?’ So, they are asking, 'How can I be the most responsible as I can with it?’”
While many who have owned, handled and shot firearms for much of their lives probably don’t realize it, jumping into gun ownership and shooting with no knowledge whatsoever can be daunting simply because of the terminology so many of us take for granted.
“My style, with new gun owners, is you’ve got to teach them the terminology, the safety, the fundamentals so that they aren’t afraid,” Rao said. “We demystify the firearm. We demystify the ammunition and all the terminology that goes with it because it is its own language. You’re pretty much learning a new language if you’re brand new to the firearm world. My first hurdle is just demystifying all that to the new men and women who are coming into these classes.”
For new shooters, whether women or men, Rao believes being hands-on during training helps them learn and be more comfortable with firearms—an important aspect of safe gun ownership.
“In my classroom, I have a ton of training aids, so they can hold it, touch it, feel it, learn the actions,” she said. “Everything is in a controlled environment, and I think they like that. It’s a comfort level when they come into a classroom situation and they see everything safe and secure. When it’s time to talk about revolvers, I walk around the room and everybody gets to hold it, feel it, work the action. You can just see them relax when they understand it, and then when they’re able to do it.”
As far as advice for women looking to buy their first firearm, Rao believes many get the process backward from the way it should be.
“My advice would be to seek out your local instructors—there are NRA instructors across the nation—and definitely find a class to get your feet in the door,” she said. “There are a lot of women shooting leagues and clubs that cater to first-time gun owners all the way up to experienced shooters.”
Along with seeking instruction, Rao is a big proponent of extensive research before making an important purchase that might someday be used to protect life and limb.
“I always recommend people do their research before they just go out and buy something,” she said. “Too many times, somebody that’s going to sell you a gun is there to sell you a gun, not necessarily there to sell you what’s really best for you.
“A lot of stores let you handle different firearms, and a lot of gun ranges will let you rent firearms to shoot on the range, so try before you buy. Also, research not only the different firearms themselves, but go a step further to research the manufacturer, what’s their warranty like, what’s their reputation like. If you’re going to invest, invest. Spend a little extra money. If you’re relying on something to actually protect you and your family, you don’t want it to be something that you ‘cheaped out’ on. You want to make sure you make a good investment and spend your money wisely. We do it on our phones and we do it on jewelry, you might as well invest it in something that is right for you.”
Rao said that through the process of participating in an NRA training class, many people who have had misguided opinions of the Association have changed their thinking and wholeheartedly embraced the organization.
“Because I’m teaching the NRA basic and instructor classes, a big part of that is who the NRA is, and why they started,” she said. “They’ve always been that gold standard of training, and it’s an awesome platform to get the message out of how the NRA is fighting the fight and doing good work.
“A lot of people might come in and say, ‘You know, I’m not really interested in joining the NRA.’ But once they take the training, almost every time I sign up new people. Because they’re like, ‘I had no idea the NRA did this.” By getting the message out on the NRA’s phenomenal education and training division, I’m able to promote what a great job the NRA does.”