3 years ago, I packed up my guns and headed west on my way to Gunsite Academy for an experience that would change the way I think about my personal awareness forever.
I remember the day well. I woke up for my 5 a.m. flight to Phoenix with an AR-15 and my 9mm handgun unloaded, locked and ready to take as baggage at the airport. The woman who checked me in was wearing American flag glasses and gave me a supportive nod when I said, “I need to declare a firearm.”
It was April 2013, just a few months after the unspeakable mass shooting in Newtown, Conn., and the Second Amendment was under attack. The media narrative smeared all gun owners as complicit in the attack and heavily promoted gun control as the only solution. My goal at the time was to have an impact on the national debate by telling the story about why good, law-abiding Americans own handguns for self defense, and, more important, why they invest in firearms training to improve their skill set and mental capacity for dangerous, life-threatening situations.
My opportunity to do so came when a friend of my father put me in touch with Buz Mills, the owner of the world-renowned Gunsite Academy in Paulden, Arizona. Within two minutes of our first conversation, he invited me to come out to do my work. His wife, Sonja, talked to me on the phone about what to pack; she was adamant about bringing enough sunscreen and Chapstick. We all quickly became close friends.
Buz purchased and saved the 2000-acre ranch a little over a decade ago, ensuring the teachings of its founder, Col. Jeff Cooper, would continue for thousands of students and future generations. Cooper’s wife, Janelle, still lives on the ranch and opens her home to students, serving brownies and lemonade to make them feel at home.
I’ll never forget the peace, comfort and belonging I felt as I drove down the dry dirt road that leads to the Ravenguard gate. Gunsite Academy isn’t just a place to go train, but instead a place where you visit old friends who have become family and make new ones with each class you attend. It’s also the place we remember those who are no longer with us, like my 250 instructor, Mike Hughes, and his wife, Joy, who died in a plane crash on the property two years ago.
On October 6, Gunsite celebrated its 40th anniversary with the largest alumni shoot in its proud history. In preparation, staff returned the original names of the onsite buildings by putting up signs featuring books of the Bible. People from all over the country, from all four decades of classes, flew in to be part of the occasion. Ronin Colman, a student from Cooper’s first class back in 1976, made the trip and reminisced about his original experience and some of his old classmates. He was just a teenager when he first came to Gunsite all the way from northern California; he’d become a big fan of Col. Cooper’s work through his books.
40 years is certainly a milestone, and, God willing, I’ll be there for the 80th anniversary celebration, too.