As responsible gun owners, we take responsibility for safe operation of the tools we use. There is no taking back the bullet from a gun, and every shot fired must be accounted for. A firearm used improperly can damage property or inhumanely wound an animal. In a worst case scenario, poor gun safety practice can lead to injuring or killing another human being and certainly changing the lives of everybody involved.
I see a lot of people who handle guns and don’t seem to have a complete understanding of the fundamentals of gun safety. At the range, I often see people ignoring rules that may seem convenient or safe to do so on a square range. I also work at a sporting goods store selling firearms, and there are a lot of violations that I see in my store from people who think they are being safe.
I am not an expert in the field nor a firearms instructor. What you consider proper application of the rules may be different from what I consider. With that said, I feel that everybody reserves the right to speak up and question common practice when it comes to safety. As a positive community, it is our job to police ourselves and provide the best safety possible.
Here are some things that I take into consideration when I analyze my own handling. I base most of my practice on the four rules of gun safety most commonly applied. These set of rules are credited to Jeff Cooper.
1. All Guns Are Always Loaded
Although seemingly the simplest of the safety rules, I feel there’s a lot of obfuscation with this one in particular. A lot of people like to phrase this rule another way: Treat all guns as if they are loaded. I’m not a big fan of doing so. In my opinion, this rule leaves for a lot of “wink and nod” type understanding — the kind where you say “I’m going to treat this like it’s loaded” after clearing it, but fail to do so.
Occasionally when someone handles a gun and asks if it’s loaded, I have responded with “all guns are always loaded” only to see complete fear in the person’s eyes at the thought that they are now handling a loaded firearm. In this case, the person’s handling of the firearm changed even though the status of the firearm didn’t. It should have been handled the same regardless. It usually doesn’t matter much to me whether the firearm I’m handling is loaded or not, because for safety purposes, it always is. That doesn’t mean to not take other redundant precautions like clearing firearms when they don’t need to be loaded, but to treat them as if that step hasn’t been taken, because there is always the possibility that you don’t know what you think you know about the condition of the firearm.
I personally like to add a little bit on this rule. The way I practice and recommend others practice is that all guns are always loaded and ready to fire. There are some small distinctions. People, especially beginners, may occasionally allow themselves to be lulled into a false sense of security by a gun equipped with one or more safeties. Although they will generally treat the firearm as if it is loaded, they may excuse otherwise dangerous behavior because the safety is on, the grip safety isn’t being held down, etc. In addition to handling all firearms as I would loaded firearms, I like to handle them as if they have a hair trigger and no safeties. Don’t allow safe action triggers, thumb safeties, or any other feature on a gun will change its loaded condition. Mechanical safeties fail. Perhaps more importantly, humans fail. Are you really sure the safety is on and won’t fail? I won’t bet my life or anybody else’s on it.
Finally, clearing a gun does not change its loaded status. Just because you have cleared it and verified it to be clear does not give an excuse to point the gun at another person or otherwise treat it as if it’s not loaded. A good example is this (somewhat graphic) YouTube video showing a Kentucky police officer shooting his hand with a gun handed to him at a gun store.
Although he breaks several other safety rules that will be discussed throughout the article, one in particular strikes me. He probably would not have treated the firearm the way he did if he truly believed that it was loaded. The kicker here is that he cycles the slide at around the 32 second mark of the video, presumably to verify its safe condition. Although he went through the rote process of cycling the slide to clear the firearm, he ended up with a loaded gun with which he hurt himself, thankfully in a relatively minor way.
An attorney for the officer says he was not aware he’d been handed a loaded weapon and that he exercised “reasonable care and due diligence for his own physical well-being” while handling it. I disagree with the quoted part of the statement. A person who knows that all firearms they handle are loaded would not point it into their hand and pull the trigger. As I’ll discuss with the other cardinal safety rules, it is important to not take shortcuts or get complacent — they should be treated as hard rules.
2. Always Keep the Gun Pointed in a Safe Direction
This one seems pretty self explanatory, but is one of the most frequent violations I see. Put simply, you should never allow your gun to point at something that you are not wishing to see destroyed. People, animals, and property are all examples of things you probably don’t want to be destroyed. Of course, there are exceptions of all of those. In a small room where it is difficult to keep the muzzle from pointing at other people, it may be preferable to point the gun at the center table, something you otherwise wouldn’t want destroyed. In this case, it may be the safest direction.
Some of the violations I see on this one range from mind boggling to seemingly simple. Most people who have been shooting regularly for even short amount of time have run into “that guy” who claims it’s OK to point a gun at you or somebody else because it’s “not loaded”. I see this one in my store a lot. Although all guns I hand to somebody are new in box, verified unloaded, and locked at the trigger, this does not make it safe to ignore this basic safety rule. Many times I have allowed a customer to look at a gun and had them carelessly point it in the direction of their husband, brother, or even child. When I bring it up, I have even had challenges thrown back to me such as, “You wouldn’t hand me a loaded gun, would you?”. Whether recognized or not, this is an attempt to transfer the responsibility of safety to the person who handed the gun over and not the person currently handling it. Attitudes like this are frankly dangerous, as everybody involved in handling a gun is responsibility for its safety at all times.
Other considerations for this rule may be things we should, but don’t, think about in our every day practices. To use another example of people in my store, one that I see often is picking up the gun and covering the muzzle with your hand. This is an attempt to show that the handler of the gun is following gun safety rules properly – a non-verbal way to say “I understand that we want to be safe, so this way it won’t point at anybody”. This may be guided by good intentions, but is ultimately bad practice. First of all, it’s not very likely you wish to destroy your hand. Most people enjoy having full use of their hands, to say nothing of the amount of occupations that would be very difficult or impossible with one hand being impaired.
In addition, something we should consider is that a hand is not sufficient to stop a bullet. Bullets, even those of a low caliber, are designed to go through 10-12 inches of flesh and bone while inflicting damage. The half-inch thickness of your palm is not enough to stop any bullet from continuing through the room with potentially deadly energy. If a gun did inadvertently discharge while pointed at your palm, it could very easily and cleanly continue down the length of the room, hitting anybody who might be standing down the line. A floor, back wall, or counter is much safer to be pointing at in the event of a discharge, and more likely to stop a bullet from causing harm to somebody else. Although nobody wants to see these things destroyed, it may be the only object in a room which could be considered a “safe direction”.
To this end, I recommend everybody have an idea of a safe direction they can use all of the time at home. Objects like buckets of sand or stacks of phonebooks taped end to end are easy to make and are really great at stopping a bullet as well as dispersing the energy. I recommend everybody look into finding or making one of these for use if they have to handle their guns extensively inside the home for any reason, such as choosing to load and unload their guns each day.
3. Keep Your Finger Off the Trigger Until You Are on Target and Ready to Shoot
Another simple rule often ignored, is one of the easiest to implement when practiced correctly. If a firearm is intended to discharge a projectile capable of destroying something, and the action by which the projectile is sent is pulling the trigger, why would you place your finger on the trigger unless you’re ready to send a projectile and shoot something?
Unfortunately, this rule may not be inherently natural to follow without conscious effort – especially for new shooters. Centuries of development and design changes have resulted in firearms that are very comfortable and ergonomic with a finger placed on the trigger – the way they’re meant to be when fired. A curled hand wrapped around the grip of a gun will tend to cause the index finger to curl sympathetically, often right into the trigger.
In my opinion, new shooters are especially prone to this for another reason. People learn by watching and imitating. From watching TV and video games, we see lots of characters who are supposed to be highly trained in firearms breaking this rule. It’s not hard to see how it would be easy to pick up and handle a firearm the same way if you had no other training or experience.
Your finger should be indexed alongside the firearm, well outside of the trigger guard or away from the trigger. For the rare rifle that doesn’t have a trigger guard, it is important to keep the finger well away from the trigger in a position where it would be difficult to reflexively freeze and unintentionally discharge a round.
Another important aspect comes from the last four words of the rule. “…and ready to shoot.”
Although you may have your sights on the target you’re going to shoot at, your finger should not move to the trigger until you’ve decided to shoot it and you’ve settled into a good sight picture. If you are aiming at a game animal, for instance, you would not want to put your finger on the trigger if your reticle is bouncing around from an elevated breathing rate. Unintentionally pulling the trigger before you’ve settled your sight picture could result in an inhumane shot. You should also check that your windage and elevation don’t need adjustment, you have a clear backstop (which will be talked about later), and there are no obstacles behind the animal that you wouldn’t want to shoot into such as other animals, roadways, buildings, or bodies of water.
At a shooting range, you will want to make sure your muzzle is high enough to avoid ricochets over a backstop and low enough that it never points over the backstop altogether. You should also check anything that may be behind your target such as other steel targets which could cause ricochets or even other shooters who might be behind the target.
Although it’s possible to draw out examples forever on this, it’s a relatively simple bottom line. If you’re not ready at the immediate moment to send a bullet downrange of the muzzle and accept where the bullet will be going, keep your finger indexed off of the gun. This is something that can be practiced safely and easily at the range until it becomes a habit. Keep your finger along the side of the gun until you’ve got your stance and sight picture lined up with exactly where you want the bullet to go. When you are done with your shot (or string of shots if you’re shooting quickly), immediately pull your finger back off the trigger as you view your target. As with all other safety rules, perfect practice makes muscle memory which you will always be able to fall back on.
4. Be Sure of Your Target and What’s Beyond It
We’ve all probably heard the stories of inexperienced and excited hunters who hear or see brush moving around and fire into it, hoping to get their deer or turkey. To set aside obvious issues with getting an ethical shot this way, it’s easy to see the flagrant safety violations inherent. Although I have no data to find out how often this accounts for hunting accidents, it’s a story I hear often enough from hunters who say they’ve witnessed it themselves.
To be sure of your target is to know exactly what it is that you’re aiming at, and that it’s a thing you are willing to destroy. That means obviously identifying the species and size of the animal you’re shooting at, something which immediately removes the option of shooting at the shaking bush. Before shooting, you should be entirely sure that it’s exactly what you want to shoot. In almost every occasion, simply taking a second to observe fully the animal you are wanting to shoot and considering the situation will be enough to tell you whether you’re in a safe situation to shoot.
It’s my opinion that this decision making is the perfect opportunity to consider other aspects of the shoot. Is it the right sex and size for any limits on the animal? Have you chosen the proper cartridge for the animal in front of you, and do you need to reconsider your shot placement? Finally, are you sure of the shot you’re about to take? A shot which you are not comfortable taking due to instability, equipment issue, or distance is a shot better left alone. Consider all of these things part of your checklist for being sure of your target, as well as any other thing that would make you hesitate.
Don’t forget that in addition to being sure of your target, you need to be sure of what’s beyond it. Bullets can retain lethal energy for several miles, and it’s important to find a suitable backstop for any shot. If you are in a mountainous area, be aware of the “cresting shot”. Looking from a low position to the silhouette of an animal on a ridge can be a very dangerous shot. Shots angled upwards will travel an extremely long distance. In this situation, even a clean hit can be dangerous if it results in a clean pass-through.
Consider what is beyond the animal and what will happen if you miss it or even shoot a bullet clean through it. It’s always good to have a sturdy backstop, such as large mounds of dirt or hills which will easily catch a bullet. Less suitable backstops include large rocks, trees, and water which have the potential for ricochet, especially with the relatively fast and powerful rounds used in common hunting rifles. Simply relying on a tree to stop the bullet somewhere along its path in wooded areas is not sufficient. Have a very good idea of where your round will go before shooting it. Also consider other animals in the group. If you are only allowed to take one animal or only have the capability to process and pack a single one out, you certainly wouldn’t want a bullet to over penetrate and wound or kill an animal behind it. Even if you have confidence in your bullet to expand and not exit, it’s still my opinion that you don’t want another animal directly behind it which will be hit.
This rule (and all others) apply even to gun owners who aren’t hunters. The shooting range I go to has many rules about target awareness to reduce the risk of ricochet and injury, and I would expect many ranges to have similar rules. These include setting the target at least halfway to the maximum distance of the shooting bay, shooting only at targets oriented straight in front of you, and observing minimum distances for steel targets – 15 yards for pistols and 100 for rifles.
For those who own firearms for self defense, this rule is extremely important to be aware of and practice consistently. Urban environments rarely offer abundant backstops, and the relatively high population densities of these areas makes it extremely important to understand where your rounds are going. Contrary to popular belief, shotguns (loaded with any useful defensive load) and handguns will continue through many interior walls, making them a danger to any others who might be on the other side or even in the neighboring house. Expert self defense trainers will be able to discuss these issues at length and help you find a solution for them.
Safety is a Mindset
Although these rules may be long-winded to the average reader, there’s a good reason I’ve chosen to talk about them in such length. Although the four rules of gun safety championed by Jeff Cooper are groundbreaking in their simplicity and redundancy, it’s nearly impossible to condense all possible and common scenarios into easy to remember pieces and cover every situation.
There may be scenarios in which some of the above rules are not possible to follow, rare as they may be. There may be situations where the above rules are not even enough to maintain a safety standard. If something doesn’t feel safe, don’t do it. If something helps you maintain a safe and vigilant mindset, do it even if it seems ridiculous. I personally will not look down the muzzle end of a barrel even on a gun which is disassembled or swung open. I will inspect all of my barrel from the breech end at all times, even if that means some slight disassembly, for the purpose of safety. Complacency and (even muscle memory, to some extent) are dangerous. Even if others may disagree or even poke fun at you for something they see as ridiculous, don’t compromise your own personal rules for safety.
As I said earlier, I’m not an instructor or trainer or expert. My credentials considered, I am really nobody to be giving expert advice on a topic like this. However, I feel that the shooting sports community is at its safest when we police ourselves and contribute as a group to the safety of all who want to enjoy our lifestyle. We should each be our own range officers, and if we are not comfortable enough doing that, there are plenty of experts in the field who are happy to teach us. No matter how much we think otherwise, each of us has something we can learn. When the alternative may mean death or serious injury, we can’t afford not to.