When introducing Karl Rehn, our other new Network Advisory Board member, I knew that I had my work cut out for me – not in finding enough to talk about, but in deciding upon which elements of his many accomplishments to focus. Visit Karl’s KR Training website and read his curriculum vitae and you’ll see what I mean.
Now in his 31st year of teaching, Karl was among the first of the regionally prominent firearms instructors to join forces with the Network and has introduced many of his students to us. He was one of the first guest columnists for this online journal, writing Beyond the Firing Line about force-on-force classes. We revisited his work several years ago in an article about training. Network members may also recognize Karl from his book, Strategies and Standards for Defensive Handgun Training which we reviewed in 2019.
Karl worked in a research lab for 23 years and taught homeland security courses for the Department of Homeland Security for nine years before retiring from government service. He has attended over 3,000 hours of training with more than 80 instructors, paid out of his own pocket, not by his agency or employer. He is now a full-time trainer and professional musician, spending roughly equal amounts of time on both careers. His practical, down-to-earth approach draws from real life experience. Let’s switch to Q&A format so you can meet Karl through his own words.
eJournal: I was overwhelmed by the bio on your website…
Rehn: [Interjecting] The short version is that I did research for the government for over 23 years, I did training for the Department of Homeland Security for nine years, and all through that I had the KR Training business going on. [Laughing] I think the synopsis of my life history would be that “if he had ever applied himself to just one thing, he would have been really good at it.” I am happy and I have no regrets, but I am not a world champion or big rock star because I was unwilling to give up the day job to pursue shooting or music full-time. Now I teach a few road classes, I teach a lot at home, I play a lot of gigs within an hour or two of where I live and do all those things at a professional level just not at the national, rock star level.
eJournal: How did you get started shooting? Did you just go to a shooting match one day and decide you liked it?
Rehn: Pretty much, yes! My dad died when I was three, and we had guns in the house, but my mom didn’t know anything about them. When I got old enough, she said, “Here are all of your dad’s guns but if you want to learn about them you are going to have to go figure it out because I don’t know who can teach you.”
I ended up at the local USPSA club. Within a year I was shooting all the matches; I was hooked. In 1991, I started occasionally teaching people. In 1995, the Texas carry permit law passed. I already had a training business going, some name recognition, and a mailing list, so it was quite natural to move from shooting matches into teaching classes.
eJournal: Let’s not forget that all this time, you worked full-time at the university. What was your original career plan?
Rehn: My original plan was to be a rock star! I started taking music lessons when I was about five years old. By the time I got to high school, I was in rock bands, playing in clubs, but then my mom gave me a deal: “You can live at home, go to the University of Texas, major in engineering or business, or get the hell out.” That was the deal.
I was able to live at home while I went to college. Through blind luck we knew someone whose dad worked at the University of Texas research lab and they hired student workers. It was an acoustic research lab, so I thought “OK, I am going to learn about electronics and that will help me in the recording studio.” It was a very cool job. I started out as a freshman student worker and ended with a top-secret clearance as a project manager, writing project proposals, going to the Pentagon, traveling internationally and doing all sorts of interesting stuff.
It got particularly interesting after the bombing of the USS Cole. The Navy wanted some of the things the lab had been working on for military port security. All of a sudden, I found myself overseas, in Europe, and in the Middle East. After 9-11, it got even crazier. I was home hardly at all from about 2001 to 2006.
During that whole 20+ year period, I was playing in bands in Austin, writing songs and recording albums – I’ve got multiple albums out on Amazon and iTunes – I was trying to make it as a musician while I also had the KR Training business going on.
eJournal: As a musician, were you exposed to people, shall we say, letting their hair down and behaving badly?
Rehn: Yeah, I was working on Sixth Street in Austin three nights a week when the drinking age was 18. I saw some things. When I was 18 or 19 years old, I got mugged. Getting robbed at gunpoint in an alley was part of my awakening to the need for self defense. That was a wake up for me. It made me a lot more aware.
eJournal: Now, when you play a venue like a club, how do you take care of your personal safety?
Rehn: Well, it is complicated because in Texas you cannot carry in places that derive more than 51% of their revenue from liquor sales; it’s a felony. There, it’s pepper spray, medical and mostly just being aware. Some venues are restaurants, and for the most part, you can carry. You can carry at outdoor gigs. There have only been a few times that I’ve had a problem although I’ve played everywhere from country clubs to rural honky-tonks and biker rallies. I have seen a lot of drunken debauchery, but not a lot of violence.
eJournal: When you were mugged at 18-19 years of age, would you even have had the option to carry weapons?
Rehn: I didn’t get into shooting until I was in my early 20s, besides, Texas didn’t have a carry permit program at that time. Texas didn’t pass the concealed carry law until I was 30 so it wasn’t technically legal to go around armed at all in TX. When the carry law passed, it got a lot easier.
eJournal: You got busy teaching the permit classes, too. Your curriculum has much more advanced training than the carry license class. Tell us about KR Training and its student body.
Rehn: We teach 500 to 1,000 students a year. A lot of those people are repeat customers because we have developed a 40-hour program that is 10 four-hour classes. If you take the entire series, it is like a Gunsite 250 or a Thunder Ranch four- or five-day class so it includes everything from basic pistol, concealed carry, force-on-force, low light shooting, shooting from cover and all the different topics – it has a little bit of everything. Once folks take a few classes, they think, “I can finish this program and get my shiny challenge coin that means I’ve accomplished something, and I am a better shooter than the average bear.” We get a lot of folks who like that approach.
eJournal: Those short four-hour blocks raise an interesting question. When you start a total beginner, what do you believe the student absolutely must master before leaving?
Rehn: #1: They have got to be safe handling their gun. #2: We really try to motivate people to carry. We want them to carry properly, which means don’t leave your gun unsecured in your car. Find a way to carry it with you, and if you can’t, find a way to secure it in your car.
There were 3,600 guns stolen out of cars in Houston last year, because most of the people with carry permits in Texas do not carry. Their employer will fire them if they carry at work, so the only way they can have their gun while they drive to work or drive home is to leave it in the car. Most stick it in the glove box, under the seat or in the center console. It is easy to fail to put it on when it is time to drive home and easy to leave it in the car in the driveway or apartment parking lot instead of taking it inside. I work with the lobbyist for the NRA and Texas State Rifle Association trying to get the laws improved, and I’ve testified before the legislature several times.
Having worked in real jobs, and having had to deal with workplace restrictions, I get it! Not everybody can wear a battle belt and a plate carrier to work. I am not a fan of instructors whose profile pictures show them with a slung AR, battle belt and plate carrier. A lot of new shooters show up thinking that is what you wear to firearms classes. Tom Givens says if you didn’t wear it as you drove to class or you would not wear it to dinner, then why are you training with that sort of thing? I am focused on the practical, too. You need to learn to shoot that little gun that you are going to stick in your pocket. You need to figure out how to get that gun out of your purse or backpack. If you have to shoot that gun, can you hit with it at greater distances – like the distance across the church? Can you do that with the little gun that you want to carry because it is convenient, not the big gun that you bring out on range day?
eJournal: That reminds me that you are a strong proponent of force-on-force training.
Rehn: You cannot complete our program and earn our challenge coin without doing force-on-force. We have a four-hour decision-making class called Personal Tactics Skills using Brian and Shelley Hill’s Image Based Decisional Drills to teach people to make decisions under time pressure. We put a picture up on the screen and they have seven cards. Can they choose the right card for the scenario on the screen?
You can’t send somebody into a scenario without the tools to succeed, so we start by just sitting in the classroom, making decisions. Then we give you a red gun, and you do and say the right things with a red gun that doesn’t have bullets coming out of it. Once you have that down, we give you a live opponent. They might grab your purse, spray you with pepper spray or “shoot” back at you. It is a progression.
Since we made force-on-force mandatory to get our challenge coin, we do a pretty good job getting people into and through the program. I still get a lot of invitations to teach force-on-force classes on the road but less than 50% of those classes happen because the people won’t come. They want 1,000 round live fire classes where you stand 5 yards from the target and shoot as fast as you can. 1,000 round classes are all kinds of fun, but force-on-force is hard on the ego. Force-on-force makes you think, “I am going to do badly. I am going to ‘die.’ I am going to embarrass myself. I am going to destroy what little confidence I have by screwing up,” so we try to ease people into that, right?
It is too easy with traditional force-on-force training for every scenario to end with the gun being drawn and shot. I think there is a certain amount of danger in programming that response. There has got to be a pathway through scenarios where sometimes the right answer is to leave, where the right answer is to de-escalate, where the right answer is to say, “I’m sorry!” Put up your hands and walk away or simply to draw the gun and give commands but don’t shoot. We try to integrate all of that into our Personal Tactics Skills program.
eJournal: Sometimes students resist practicing de-escalation because they don’t think it’s worthwhile. They came to practice shooting or at least to mime shooting in role-play.
Rehn: I’ve had students do that. I’ve said, “Why did you intervene in that 7-11 robbery? You were in the bathroom, and it wasn’t any of your business. The guy was just grabbing the money and you shot him in the back as he was running out the door. Is that really what you were going to in do a real situation?”
They say, “Oh, I did that just because I was in a class, and I wanted to shoot my gun.”
eJournal: We let our egos cheat us out of valuable training experiences! What other blind spots do you see?
Rehn: Here is my favorite! I’ll ask, “Why don’t you come to a class beyond the carry permit?” Here’s the answer people always give me: “I shoot good enough.” I hate that phrase.
I ask, “What is good enough? Can you define that standard?”
“I shot a perfect score on the concealed carry test.”
I’ll ask, “How do you know that means anything? How do you know if that is related to realistic standards?”
People don’t want to be tested against higher standards because they might have to think, “Oh, now I have to go and work to get better.” They do not want to go down that rabbit hole. It is right out of Dunning-Krueger – they can stand at the top of Mount Stupid and say, “Yeah, I can shoot good enough,” and be convinced their draw is fast enough and that they are going to make the right decisions. They do not want to explore or test those things. If the testing turns out bad, #1: I have lost my confidence, and #2: now I have got to go work on things.
You have to find what motivates people. I push minimum competency because people need a realistic standard that they can get to and maintain without a ridiculous amount of effort. We don’t tell them, “You are going to die if you do not have a 1-second draw from concealment.” What you need is a 2-second draw all the time and you need to be able to hit an 8-inch circle. We tell students, “If you get to this level, you dramatically improve your odds of success if you need to use your gun.”
Those standards are based on real life, not some arbitrary standard that some bureaucrat forced on us. I was around when they made the state standards for carry permits. There was terrible pressure not to set the standards too high. They didn’t want to deny permits by requiring people to be experts, so they based the standard on what it would take to be safe if they carried in public, not to be successful in an armed encounter. Nearly every state has gone down that same road.
eJournal: The state shouldn’t be involved at all! Washington state has no training requirement but doesn’t have more injuries or mistakes with guns than the neighboring state of Oregon which requires training before you can get a carry license.
Rehn: That is why we now have constitutional carry in Texas. Look at the data from Vermont and Washington and other places; the licensees are not the problem. It is the career criminals with stolen guns in neighborhoods and cultures with chronic violence problems that account for the majority of the violence.
eJournal: Some say, “Just don’t go to those problem areas,” but not everyone can choose, due to work, economic stress, or other reasons. Sometimes, the problem comes to you even in your lovely, safe neighborhood.
Rehn: Look at the Highland Park shooting in Chicago. You don’t know when it is going to be your day. One of my students was in the parking lot of the Whataburger in Pfluegerville across from the high school in the middle of a weekday afternoon when a gang member shot at him. He drew his pistol, shot back and one round was enough to deter the kid who drove away. There is a lot of that kind of stuff.
eJournal: Your students and our Armed Citizens’ Network members don’t need training to go on SWAT raids. They are more likely to be in a parking lot when they encounter some idiot too stupid to know the value of human life. They’re going to have their carry gun concealed and have to draw and control the threat. That’s hugely different from either concealed carry permit training or emptying your 30-round rifle magazine into the target at 5 yards. The man who stopped that gang member is lucky he chose you as his trainer.
Rehn: I am heavily influenced by Claude Werner, who is one of the unheralded, big thinkers in our industry. Claude and I are of the opinion that firearms trainers should be more like the local golf pro with whom students have an ongoing relationship. Training is not a “one and done, give me a pile of money and you will never see me again” kind of thing. We have ongoing relationships. You finish one class, and we hope you will come back and take another. I have students who have taken my classes for 15 to 20 years. Maybe I only see them once a year now, but they get the newsletter and they think, “Oh, I would like to come back and take low light shooting for the ninth time.” I give half price retakes and push the idea that people can benefit from repeating classes.
That is what new shooters need. They need the continuing opportunities; they need the reason to come back and refresh their training because when they go to the range by themselves, the practice isn’t structured. We are trying to educate people on how to practice effectively and I think it is working.
You need to do something useful with your gun at least every two or three months. You need to do some realistic practice and training. You do not need to be a grand master, but you need to be better than the state carry permit requirement because that is what you are going to need for self defense.
I am a big advocate of Kathy Jackson’s philosophy that the beginning students need the best instructors. The beginning students do not need amateur instructors. If you’re a beginner and want to get good, go find somebody who really knows what they are doing to help you get started. You will get better faster, and you will make fewer mistakes and waste less time.
Unlike a lot of the big-name traveling trainers, I still teach absolute beginners. I have a lesson in the morning with an 83-year-old lady. This is her third lesson. She has got a carry permit now, and we are working through the curriculum. We have finally got a gun figured out for her, and now we are going to start drawing from a purse and some other stuff.
eJournal: It is exactly that realism that adds such value to your instruction. You lead by example. No one can say personal safety is theoretical to you. No one can say you don’t have to deal with nasty stuff that happens to ordinary working people. That brings so much credibility to the things you teach. It makes you a great resource. Now, the Network is fortunate to add you to our Advisory Board. Thank you for this interview and joining our Board.
To read more of this month's journal, please click here.