There are a few things in the world where belief is so strong that, for some, no debate, no deviation and no discussion can be tolerated. One of those topics happens to be the firearms safety rules.

Specifically, the FOUR CARDINAL RULES of firearms safety are — to some — inviolate, and any discussion of the topic is strictly forbidden. If you discuss the topic, you are a fool … or that thing that’s even worse than a fool (whatever that is). This topic has come up again because occasionally, alert viewers of USCCA videos or readers of the magazine will see something they simply cannot abide and will accuse us of “gross negligence” or a “failure to train the next generation of shooters.” My personal favorite? The letter that begins with “I typically love your fine publication, but I noticed…”

These comments will then go on about how terrible we are because of some “safety violation.” I even had a person complain that I was pointing a Ring’s Blue Gun at a person during a training exercise.

Firearms Safety First

Let me assure you that safety is at the forefront of everything we do here at the USCCA. We require safety officers on every photo shoot, and we hire a STAFF of safety officers for every large video production.

But I have some issues with the Four Safety Rules. So let’s talk about them.

Here are those rules.

Repeat after me: “Rule Number One: Always treat every gun as if it is loaded. Rule Number Two: Never let the muzzle point at anything you are not willing to destroy. Rule Number Three: Keep your finger off the trigger until your sights are on the target. Rule Number Four: Know your target and what is beyond it.”

Let me point out that I found no less than six variations of these four rules in a two-minute internet search. So, it is safe to say there is not even consensus on the exact wording of these rules.

Flaws in the Four Fireams Safety Rules

Because I woke up this morning in the mood to start a great big fight, let’s talk about the flaws in these rules, how they are sometimes impossible to follow and how breaking one of them does not put you in grave danger.

Let’s look at Rule Number One. This rule is impossible to follow. If you must ALWAYS treat every gun as if it is loaded, how would you load your gun? You can’t insert rounds into the chambers of a revolver because that is treating it like it is unloaded. You can’t insert a magazine into an autoloader because that is treating the gun as if it is unloaded. How would you clean your gun? How would you disassemble your gun or prepare it for long-term storage? All of these questions and many more prove that you cannot ALWAYS treat every gun as if it is loaded. You just can’t. So, how do you chastise someone about breaking Rule Number One?

Let’s take a look at Rule Number Two. I am not willing to destroy the shooting bench in front of me, but my muzzle sometimes points at the bench. I am not willing to destroy my holster, but the pistol goes in muzzle-first. How does a police officer hold a person at gunpoint without breaking this rule? The officer is not yet willing to destroy the person, but the officer may want to have the sights aligned on the target just in case things go south. But technically, that officer is still breaking the rule. Is there a better, more specific way to say what we mean with this rule? We will talk about that later.

Moving right along, we get to Rule Number Three. If you own a Glock, you have problems with this rule. You must pull the trigger to disassemble the gun. Should you aim at a target before you do this? What if you are conducting dry-fire drills and shooting from the retention position? Hmm. I guess the sights are on the target, but they are not aligned with your eye. Can you still pull the trigger?

Finally, Rule Number Four is patently incomplete. You must not only know your target and what is beyond it but also what is between you and your target and what is next to your target. This is especially true for a self-defense situation.

Breaking the Firearms Safety Rules

Now here is where people will call me a blasphemer, lash me to a post and begin piling sticks around me. Are you ready for the next statement? You might want to sit down.

Even if you could follow all of the four rules, you must break at least two of them at the same time in order to have a negligent discharge with injury. Read that again. Let it sink in.

That’s right. Let’s use that example of the officer holding a person at gunpoint to explain this. The officer is pointing the gun at a person he does not yet wish to destroy. But his finger is off the trigger and his sights are on the target. Still, he knows what his target is and, I hope, what is before and beyond it. And, of course, he is treating the gun as if it is loaded because who would try to get someone to comply with orders by pointing an unloaded gun?

In the scenario above, we have all sorts of violations of the four safety rules. But no one is getting injured because the officer is not breaking more than one rule at a time.

Or consider this scenario: If you are one of the people who regularly complains about violations of the firearms safety rules, how on Earth do you manage to ever enter a gun shop? All those guns in the display cases are pointed right at you and everyone else who walks in. Again, no matter where the gun is pointed, if it is not loaded, there is no danger. And, if it is loaded but there is nothing pressing the trigger, there may be some danger, but it is minimal. You see? You must be breaking more than one rule at a time for there to be danger.

Better Rules for Gun Safety

I put forth there are better rules than the four listed above. I learned these at the SIG Academy (you may have heard of it — a little training school in New Hampshire):

  1. Know the status of your firearm at all times.
  2. Maintain trigger-finger discipline at all times. Do not put your finger on the trigger until you have made a conscious decision to fire the gun.
  3. Maintain muzzle control at all times. The muzzle should be pointed in such a direction that if there was an unintended discharge, it would result in no injury and only minimal property damage.

Let’s review why these rules are better. Knowing the status of your firearm at all times allows you to treat that gun according to the status. If the gun is unloaded, you may load it, clean it, disassemble it or train by dry-firing it. The only way to truly know the status of a firearm is to check that status EVERY time you pick it up. Remove the magazine. Open the action. Lock it to the rear. Visually and physically inspect the chamber. Now you may treat the gun accordingly.

Maintaining trigger-finger discipline is imperative to safety and shooting success. Guns do not simply “go off.” They are made to fire. A very specific sequence of actions must take place, and that sequence ends with the operation of the trigger. Very rarely will a gun fire if the trigger is not pulled.

Finally, let’s talk about muzzle control. Be alert to the direction your muzzle is pointed. We want no unintended injury and only minimal property damage.

Again, in order to have a negligent discharge with injury, you will need to break two or more of these rules at the same time.

I’m not asking you to be less safe or to ignore the rules. I am asking you to be realistic in your understanding of what makes for an unsafe situation and to think long and hard about those four rules. There might be a better way.