Firearms course attracts repeat students

March 1st, 2012

Larry Lawson, the IRCC Criminal Justice Department chair and director of the police academy was observing a recent class and expressed respect for the students’ proficiency.

“I’ve been a cop for 20-some-odd years, and they might outshoot me.”


Firearms course attracts repeat students
By J.T. Harris staff writer
October 15, 2003

Jane Hetrich raised her .38-caliber Smith & Wesson revolver, sighted it and quickly squeezed off two shots.

A few feet away, two bullets ripped through a human silhouette facing her on a paper target.

Seconds later, she snapped off two more rounds, and two more holes appeared in the silhouette.

The sounds of Hetrich’s blasts reverberated among those of nine other shooters, shattering the silence in rural Martin County.

Hetrich, 75, is one of 20 students taking a Firearms Familiarization course offered by Indian River Community College. The 13-week course is offered three semesters each year and takes place on Saturday mornings at the Martin County Sheriff’s Office range. The class size is limited to 20 participants for safety reasons.

The purpose of the course is pretty straightforward, according to instructor John “Ski” Pietruszewski, a major with the Martin County Sheriff’s Office.

“Firearms Familiarization,” Pietruszewski said, “is basically about firearms safety and proficiency.”

However, he stresses, “Safety is No. 1. Basically these people have a gun, and they want to know about it, learn how to handle it, learn how to shoot it safely, and learn how to shoot it proficiently.”

Students are expected to furnish their own firearms, said Lori Kandill, another instructor and Martin County Sheriff’s Office Community Policing Officer in Jensen Beach. Students also provide their own ammunition, usually firing 125-150 rounds each week. Eye and ear protection is mandatory.

One of the first aspects of the class is helping students who do not own pistols to select a suitable firearm.

“When they first start the class,” Pietruszewski said, “we can loan them one for a class or two until they’re comfortable with it.

“We go over the purchase of firearms because we want to make certain that they buy a high-quality weapon.”

Usually, lead instructor Glenn Zirkle, who was away during this particular class, joins Pietruszewski and Kandill on the range.

As Hetrich stood on the firing line, she was watched carefully by the two professional firearm instructors and another student standing directly behind her. Students are paired off: one shoots while the other observes, watching for shooting technique and making certain that pistols are pointed at the ground or the target. No more than 10 shooters are on the line at once.

Prior to each class, the students’ firearms are examined for cleanliness, possible defects or any other factors that could detrimentally affect safety or performance.

“We make certain weapons are unloaded,” said Kandill. “We make certain that no one gets hurt.”

Before students even get an opportunity to fire on the range, Pietruszewski said, they receive four hours of classroom instruction and informal evaluation concerning their abilities to safely handle a firearm.

It hasn’t happened often, Pietruszewski said, but there have been instances when a student was judged incapable of handling the demands of the course.

Students have to be 18, he said, “and be able to handle a firearm safely. There might be some people who are too infirmed to handle a firearm safely. We hate to exclude people, but we bring everyone in, and it has happened on occasion that some persons have not been safe with firearms and they were excluded from the class.”

The course is demanding. Students are expected to safely adjust to a variety of shooting techniques and display shooting proficiency at distances that range from 3 to 25 feet. They are also expected to learn when, where, and how firearms can be used or carried legally, including transportation into other states, and laws concerning concealed weapons and use of deadly force. In addition to firearm safety, the course covers nomenclature for automatics and revolvers, the differences of calibers, and shooting techniques, including trigger pull, stance and grip.

Although they might not become as proficient as law officers, the civilian shooters, Kandill says, often derive more satisfaction from their time on the range.

“It’s different teaching civilians than law-enforcement officers,” she said. “These people are happy to come out here; they want to come out here.”

So much so, that many students sign up for the course again and again.

“This is about my eighth time,” Hetrich said.

“I first started this when my husband passed away and my dog passed away. I decided that I needed some kind of protection. But I’ve found it so darn much fun that I keep coming back.

“So many people are so afraid of guns, and that is so silly.”

Students’ motivations for taking the course vary, and often family members — such as husbands and wives or fathers and daughters — take the course together.

This semester, for example, Steven Massar, 39; his father, Tom Massar, 62; and his brother-in-law, Michael Horutz, 40, all of Palm City, are taking the course.

Steven Massar is repeating the course, which he last took four years ago.

“It covers the whole gamut,” he said of the experience. “It’s a good, complete, safe shooting experience. I trust these instructors.”

Tom Massar is taking the course for the first time although he has previous shooting experience.

“In this day and age,” he said, “I think it’s prudent to have a firearm around the house. This course, from what I’ve seen, is the best way to get a good practical knowledge of safety and shooting. It’s not a course where you sit around and listen to someone for four or five hours. You get a good, practical experience — for shooting and safety.”

Ron Hadfield, 62, of Stuart, is a retired law enforcement officer who believes that anyone who owns a gun should take the course. He is particularly impressed with this group of instructors.

“I’ve fired on a number of different law-enforcement ranges,” he said, “and Ski is excellent.”

There’s another benefit, Hadfield said.

“It’s a nice Saturday morning out, and you meet a lot of nice people.”

“I really like coming out here. It’s something I look forward to,” says Karen De La Mar, 48, of Stuart, who is taking the course for the fifth time.

De La Mar originally signed up because she was interested in self defense. Now, she enjoys the challenge of improving her skills.

“I had never shot a gun before,” she said, “so I thought I would see if I liked it.

“And I do like it. And I’ll continue to like it. I LOVE it.”

De La Mar said she used to save all of her targets to gauge her improvement.

Although some students become better marksmen than others do, everybody improves. One woman who has taken the course regularly now competes on a national level.

Larry Lawson, the IRCC Criminal Justice Department chair and director of the police academy was observing a recent class and expressed respect for the students’ proficiency.

“I’ve been a cop for 20-some-odd years, and they might outshoot me.”

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IRCC firearms familiarization course

What: Course to teach firearms safety and proficiency. Students must be 18 or older

When: Fall, Spring and Summer I semesters at Indian River Community College (8:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. Saturdays)

Where: Martin County Sheriff’s Office gun range

Cost: $54 (students also responsible for furnishing own firearms and ammunition)

Information: IRCC Criminal Justice Institute (462-4742)