A Fresh Look at the Basic Rules of Gun Safety: Which Set Do You Use?

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At least three categories of gun-safety rules exist. We’re examining what people consider the primary set: rules for preventing unintentional discharges. You typically learn these in childhood or whenever you’re first introduced to firearms. They help prevent accidents or, rather, unintended consequences. They apply whenever you’re handling guns in everyday life. You may think you know them.

OLD FAITHFUL? We’d all agree that every set of gun-safety rules means as well as the organizations that adopt them, but everything gets hazy when you begin to probe them even a little bit.

The second set is remarkably different and gets far less attention. They are the gun-safety rules for using firearms in gunfights and surviving — rules for shooting when legally justified and under duress. The third set concerns every citizen and gets discussed in this publication often. These are critical after confrontations so that you won’t end up in more trouble than the criminal(s) you just stopped. While all those rules are important, they rarely come into play for most folks and provide endless discussions for another day.

As instructors, gun owners and students of gun safety who are free to do as we so choose, no one can define a perfect official set of rules for us. As an individual, you learn and develop your own mindset about primary gun safety. You look at the varying versions closely, noticing some stark differences and some commonality. Will you adopt one in its entirety or synthesize your own? They all deal with triggers, targets, pointing and loading, right?

‘Watch Where You Point That Thing!’

As hard as it is to admit, the stupidity rules have to come first. Since time immemorial, people have exhibited an affinity for being stupid. No matter how uniform or well-written a rule is, some people will forget it, ignore it, misunderstand it, believe it doesn’t apply or just plain use it to exit the gene pool. This leads to the horrific English-language expression, “I didn’t know it was loaded.”

The Appleseed Project (a civics program teaching colonial history and rifle marksmanship you may want to learn more about) has a rule that shows up in none of the other standards: “Make sure those around you follow the safety rules.” It’s a tall order. When you’re at the range or even a non-shooting gun class, have you witnessed poor muzzle control or fingers that shouldn’t be on triggers? Do you have what it takes to speak to strangers near you and say so? How about if it’s the trainer? How about Rule No. 100: “Tell the trainer to point that gun at someone else, please, even if said trainer scowls at you.”

This raises the Blackmer Conundrum. Bob Blackmer, a deputy marshal and firearms instructor for a municipal law enforcement agency, laments the fact that no rule stops idiots from being idiots. Rules don’t guarantee they’ll be followed, no matter how well they’re crafted. He sees it at ranges too often, which is why, whether he’s selling firearms across a federally licensed retail counter or training private citizens, licensed guards or sworn officers, he wears a vest. “Where is the rule,” he asks, “that will make average people act like they have brains or can focus?” Such thoughts come to mind when individuals point guns at him or themselves or elsewhere without thinking.

Rule No. 1: Loaded

Not every school of thought puts the “loaded gun” topic first, but it’s common to all. A rule is something you can follow; an instruction you can act upon. Unfortunately, one popular version, “All guns are always loaded,” is a statement, not a rule. It’s also not a true statement because, obviously, all guns are not always loaded, and it’s generated some controversy.

Col. Jeff Cooper, the distinguished “father of the modern technique of shooting,” selected it for his Gunsite Academy for its simplicity. It has been adopted widely by a great range of very talented trainers. Anyone can remember it, as the five words can be drilled into memory. If you keep it in mind, you reduce the chances of foolishly, absentmindedly or ignorantly needing to say, “I didn’t know it was loaded” after thoughtlessly discharging a firearm.

The NSSF version, “Treat every firearm as if it were loaded,” is an actual operation people can follow. Will everyone? The Blackmer Conundrum applies. Cooper dislikes it. The full NRA version, until recently, included a second clause, “…until you have personally proven otherwise.” Obviously, you need unloaded guns sometimes for cleaning, demonstration, sales, repair, dry-fire practice and so forth.

Rules that recommend — or require — unloading guns present special difficulties because unloaded guns are dangerous. They can get you killed if you face a circumstance in which you need a loaded gun. Demands to unload guns “for safety” imply an inability to control or safely handle and maintain loaded guns. At gun shows, stores or classes, with countless people handling guns in close proximity, unloaded guns may make sense. It’s a case-by-case and a private-property-rights issue.

Unloaded firearms are the preferred political-correctness standard of anti-rights advocates. Their approach often equals, “Guns are OK if they don’t work,” which includes empty, locked and disassembled guns. They keep trying to make that legally required as part of their public-disarmament policy. True, guns incapable of firing are dead safe.

If you “treat guns as if they’re loaded,” then loaded guns are fine. For idiots, guns are never fine. Mandatory unloading of personal arms so offends the right to keep and bear that it’s hard to see it as a safety rule. It implies owner incompetence. Like all rules and guns themselves, it’s complicated. In a free country, you choose.

Rule No. 2: Pointing

This rule needs the greatest attention:

  • Always keep the gun pointed in a safe direction. (NRA)
  • Keep the muzzle pointed in a safe direction. (NSSF)
  • Guns should always be pointed in a safe direction. (SAF)
  • Never point your weapon at anything you’re not willing to destroy. (Gunsite)
  • Never point a weapon at anything you do not intend to shoot. (Marines)

Three “dos” and two “don’ts.” The flaw is that there is no safe direction. There isn’t anything you’re willing to destroy. Look around you right now as you’re reading. Is there anything — anything — you would be willing to hit if your gun “went off?” It’s rhetorical. The answer is “no.” If your gun fired, whatever got hit would be a personal disaster, with legal consequences and mental scars forever. That unintentional discharge would stay with you for as long as you live — your personal dark tale.

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police have two rules on this that have merit: “Control the muzzle direction at all times,” and “Point the firearm in the safest available direction.” American versions lack this advice. Controlling muzzle direction is crucial, extremely difficult at first and what we’re really after. It requires constant conscious control, which even highly trained individuals may find hard to exercise. For newcomers, it’s borderline impossible. I start newbies holding loaded rubberband guns and watch as they mess up.

I was trained to envision a laser exiting the barrel; anything it crosses, it cuts. That adds perspective, wiping out the “safe-direction” deception. The Canadian “safest direction” ethos is a good alternative but still leaves rounds in the floor, wall, ceiling or something else you don’t want to destroy.

Two exceptions exist to the safe-direction flaw. At a shooting range, the safe direction is simply downrange, which instructors get to repeat constantly. And when facing an adversary, “safest” is at the adversary, knowing overpenetration and surroundings are extremely dangerous complications to the safest-direction point.

If you think of this as Rule No. 2, the problem shrinks: “Keep a gun you carry holstered or cased until ready to use.” This eliminates the not-willing-to-destroy paradox. Your carry firearms are rarely in a condition where pointing is an issue. In training, in an emergency or at home when arming or working with your arms, that changes. Conscious muzzle direction is something you learn to do through practice. To the extent guns stay holstered or cased, pointing problems reduce.

One gun owner mentioned to me he learned the not-willing-to-destroy rule as, “Don’t point at people or animals.” Framed in the affirmative, that becomes, “Always point at lower-value targets,” and this, in fact, is what people do when properly handling firearms, right? We point at the floor or the ceiling, the wall or distant sky. These aren’t things we’re willing to shoot. They’re not safe directions. They’re merely lowest-value targets and “safest” behavior. Rule No. 2 is really: “When holding a gun, always point at lowest-value targets.”

Now the rule matches reality. It’s where people actually point when clearing a firearm — workbench, bed, backyard, corner, floor, you know the drill.

Rule No. 3: Triggers

All the versions seem OK, even with their varieties. Don’t touch the trigger until you want the gun to fire. Do that, and unintentional discharges remain nearly impossible. The focus and mental clarity needed to do that are difficult because triggers are natural finger magnets. Constant practice seems the best way to make this rule work.

Rule No. 4: Targets

Whenever you examine firearms mishaps, at least one safety rule has been violated. Knowing your target, what’s around and beyond it, and the unspoken rule, “Be able to hit your target,” are likely culprits. Again, constant practice, and the right kind of practice, is what makes this rule work. Get some.

Make It Hold Up

Handling guns is pointing guns. This requires the highest concentration level because holding is synonymous with pointing. Because you don’t want to shoot or destroy anything, that gun should always point at and judiciously focus upon previously identified low-value targets for as long as it is unholstered or uncased.

We all know what we think we mean when we instruct a student on the “basic rules of firearm safety,” but it is imperative that what we are saying actually makes sense under scrutiny.

Gun-Safety Rules

GUN-SAFETY RULES

NATIONAL RIFLE ASSOCIATION (NRA)

  1. ALWAYS keep the gun pointed in a safe direction.
  2. ALWAYS keep your finger off the trigger until ready to shoot.
  3. ALWAYS keep the gun unloaded until ready to use.
  4. Know your target and what is beyond.

NATIONAL SHOOTING SPORTS FOUNDATION (NSSF)

  • Treat every firearm as if it were loaded.
  • Keep the muzzle pointed in a safe direction.
  • Keep your fingers off the trigger. Don’t rely on your firearm’s “safety” device.
  • Keep the firearm unloaded when not in use.

SECOND AMENDMENT FOUNDATION (SAF) TRAINING DIVISION

  • Guns should always be pointed in a safe direction.
  • Unload all firearms when not in use.
  • Never touch the trigger until you’re on target.

GUNSITE ACADEMY

  1. All guns are always loaded.
  2. Never point your weapon at anything you’re not willing to destroy.
  3. Keep your finger off the trigger until your sights are on the target.
  4. Always be sure of your target and what’s beyond.

UNITED STATES MARINES

  1. Treat every weapon as if it were loaded.
  2. Never point a weapon at anything you do not intend to shoot.
  3. Keep finger straight and off the trigger until you are ready to fire.
  4. Keep weapon on safe until you intend to fire.

The Brady Campaign and Center to Prevent Gun Violence, Everytown for Gun Safety, Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, and Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America: no gun-safety information provided.

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