The Life of a Gun Trainer

Photos: Barbara Baird/Jay Grazio/Patrick Roberts

Many of the people who’ve encountered me leading a hunt or teaching at Gunsite have wondered about how I got into shooting. I’ve heard variations of the question over the years, and I understand why – as a small Asian woman, I don’t fit in with an inaccurate and outdated, but lingering, stereotype.

To me, it all comes down to mindset, as with most things in life.

My mindset has been deeply shaped by my parents’ – and their parents’ – own battles, literally. My mother’s father was a general in China. He was part of Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist army and fought both Mao Tse Tung’s communists and the Japanese, trying to save his homeland. He was fighting battles and wars, in one form or another, from 1918 to 1949. Even after being relegated to Taiwan, he never lost his love for his homeland, and I don’t think he ever gave up hope that it could be won back. I never knew him as anything but a warrior.

My father’s father was a Korean boy who, at the age of eight, found himself alone on a ship to a place called America. His father sent him away, trying to save him from the looming Japanese occupation, and hoping his son might someday return to help fight for his country. He did, and is heralded by Koreans today as an independence fighter. In 1919, he helped draft the country’s first constitution – with Korea’s exiled government in Pennsylvania. He based it heavily on the Constitution of the United States. In the late 1930s, my Korean grandfather went to work for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) as the lead agent on a mission to infiltrate Japan via Korea; he hoped it would help the U.S. – as much a home to him as his birthplace – to win the war and to secure Korea’s freedom. He often credited the kindness and character of those in his adopted “hometown” (a word of much significance to Koreans) of Kearney, Nebr., for his ethics of hard work, commitment, and responsibility.

Clearly, with these men as fathers, my mother, and father each had an almost innate understanding of how terribly wrong a person’s circumstances could go. Their mindset was forged by daily lives stormed by enemies. Each had experienced the brutal loss of their birth nations – and of family members and friends, homes and possessions – to armed attackers, whether from within their own country or from foreign invaders. My grandparents and parents couldn’t help but pass along the lessons they learned from such events. And instilling these lessons into me often wasn’t even intentional; in fact, I remember my mother mentioning stepping over bodies in wartime Canton as just an aside to another story. It was just who they were: stoic, self-reliant, and determined to handle what life threw at them. There wasn’t much room for whining, hand-wringing, and passivity in their worlds.

Il Ling New’s maternal grandfather, Gen. Xue Yue

Il Ling New’s maternal grandfather, Gen. Xue Yue (left), and paternal grandfather,
Dr. Ilhan New (right), both understood the need to stand up for freedom.

My parents divorced early, but they still managed to hold the line, together. My mother and I lived in San Francisco at a time when the Zodiac Killer menaced the area. She deftly used this topic on our walks to school to explain the existence of evil in the world – and, more importantly, our individual responsibility to try to thwart it coming into ours. My father – who gave me my first NRA membership for my 10th birthday – would send me articles about the worst atrocities against young women he could find. Subscriptions to gun magazines would come as birthday presents, and later, mace, knives, and other tools for self-defense would find their way to me.

When it came to guns, however, the two did not always agree. They argued when my father wanted me to have my own shotgun in my room. My mother wasn’t against guns – as the daughter of a general who fought overwhelming forces, she understood their importance – but she also thought it was unladylike. Luckily, my father’s logic (and my pleading) ultimately prevailed.

Shortly thereafter, my mother and I were visiting my grandfather, now in Taiwan. He and I sat in the room he always used for receiving guests; a slightly formal place, with chairs well-spaced around its perimeter. As was proper, I didn’t speak until addressed. He asked me to tell him about my studies and activities. Somehow, my shotgun entered the conversation, and I could feel my mother stiffen beside me. Nothing was directly said, but his short nod of approval spoke volumes. He then told us about how he developed a swimming technique so that his soldiers could cross water carrying their rifles (basically, a side stroke with the rifle on the support shoulder).

However, even with all this influence, I, like most young adults, scoffed at the reminders, pleas, and demands for attention to my personal safety. It took another two events for me to truly move toward my own defensive mindset.

Mindset allows people, be they ever-ready Marines or 80-year-old grandmothers, to prevail over evil. 

The first was being robbed at gunpoint. I was a college student, and on the school shooting team, so no shrinking violet. I lived off-campus in a town that was a little “edgy,” and where we students were obvious targets. I’d been subjected to presentations about campus security and even knew of a classmate being stripped of his bicycle and everything else that a group of assailants could carry off during freshman orientation week. Yet, I managed to set myself up to be robbed. I say I “set myself up” because I had many opportunities to avoid the incident. I observed – but then dismissed – several indicators pointing to something not right. For example, as I searched for a parking spot, I noticed two young guys I didn’t recognize and whom I thought should be in school at that time, but I dismissed those thoughts as I concentrated on parking in front of my building. Before I got out, I noticed that I couldn’t see those two anymore, but I dismissed that thought as well. I made my way around the building to the back entrance and had my key in the door when I felt a large, gloved hand cover my mouth. I had mace and other parent-safety-gifts in my bag – the bag that the man’s accomplice immediately took from me and fled. The gunman stayed, stripping me of my jewelry and seeming to need to decide what to do from there. I used one of the few defensive tools I had available at that point: talking. I talked so much I seemed to overwhelm him, and, finally, he fled.

Thankfully, I survived that incident and even learned a few things from it.

Shortly thereafter, another experience pushed my defensive awareness even further; I went to my first Gunsite class and met Lt. Col. Jeff Cooper.

My enrollment in that course had nothing to do with being robbed – my father had actually signed me up months before. My father had been a student of Cooper’s writing for as long as I could remember and often shared that writing with me. He also followed the creation of Gunsite – then called the American Pistol Institute – closely. I think he would have liked to attend, but perhaps it seemed a better investment to send me.

When I attended my first pistol class, called the 250, back in the early ’80s, Gunsite was just five years old, but it was no less a draw then than it is now. Two-thirds of my classmates were active-duty military or law enforcement personnel. Yet, it never occurred to me that I would be out of my element. The Asian stereotype is that you enroll, show up, work your ass off, and achieve. Well, I definitely showed up – with my very first 1911 (a shiny new AMT Hardballer) on my hip – and tried my hardest, but I fell far short of the achievement part.

Il Ling New

Much of the week was a blur. Coming from a heavy wingshooting background, learning to handle and shoot a pistol was learning both a new piece of machinery and an entire technique. Pretty much everything I did to be a good shotgunner was the opposite of what I needed to do to be even a proficient handgunner. It was frustrating, and it was, to say the least, challenging; in fact, it was downright embarrassing. I’m sure I was the worst-performing shooter on the firing line.

But, neither Cooper, who was a big man with a bigger presence, nor any of the other instructors or students belittled my efforts. The instructors firmly corrected, reminded, and commanded. But never did I feel that I was begrudged my place on the line.

Everything about the course improved my defensive mindset. That the instructors treated me just like everyone else on the line? Mindset bump. My experienced classmates helped me but pushed me to keep up? Mindset nudge. And, of course, when Cooper saw me stealing a look at blood seeping through bandages on my firing hand (those AMTs were rough) and bellowed: “Don’t stand there licking your wounds!” Major mindset shift.

Most impactful of all was the ever-present focus on Gunsite’s mission – to give us the best possible training to keep ourselves safe. It really wasn’t (and still isn’t) all about shooting. From hearing each other’s real-world experiences, to visualizing threats on the firing line, to listening to Cooper’s beautifully articulated thoughts, it was about developing fortitude and mindfulness, and confidence. And some skills to back them up.

What a force Cooper, and my entire Gunsite experience, was and still is; in fact, I still watch Cooper’s recorded lecture on mindset at least once a year. I try to live that defensive mindset, to stay situationally aware, to think through possible scenarios, and to never, ever ignore indicators of potential trouble, though I still fall short of my own standards.

My becoming a teacher is a result of my deep appreciation for the mindset I learned, that we each own the responsibility for our own security. I try to pass on this tenet – this duty we have – just as my parents and grandparents did for me. Because mindset is the key that allows people, be they ever-ready U.S. Marines or 80-year-old grandmothers, to prevail over evil.

And mindset matters beyond the individual level, too. As much as my forebears’ experience and sacrifice inform my dedication to, and gratitude for, our Second Amendment, I also realize that it is nothing without the mindset to utilize it and the mindset to actively support it. We Americans may regard a “right” as a passive thing – by its definition, it exists in and for us. And yet, we and our rights are constantly challenged. We must maintain vigilance against bad actors small and large, near and far. After all, as Lt. Col. Cooper once remarked, “Evil is not overcome by fleeing from it.”

A version of this article appeared at

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