Over the past 20 years I’ve taught everything from NRA Basic Pistol, to Texas CHL, to Defensive Pistol Skills to students with a wide range of skill, experience, and prior training.
As a competition shooter and customer of commercial ranges, I’ve had the opportunity to observe good, bad, and ugly gun handling habits. That experience has led me to accept an inconvenient truth about gun owners:
Every gun owner believes that his or her gun handling is safe, regardless of how good or bad that gun handling is.
This is an example of illusory superiority‑a cognitive bias that causes people to overestimate their positive qualities and abilities and to underestimate their negative qualities, relative to others. It’s also known as the Lake Wobegon effect, because none of us believe we are below average.
That means, of course, that none of the discussion that follows applies to you, but you probably know someone who would benefit from this article. What separates a gun owner from a “shooter” is how you handle your gun during the 99 percent of the time you aren’t shooting it. Strive to be a “shooter” and ensure that your gun handling is safe 100 percent of the time.
Most gun owners can recite either the NRA’s 3 Rules of Gun Safety or Jeff Cooper’s 4 Rules (see sidebar), and they will claim (even as they violate one or more rules) that they obey those rules all the time. My observation is that while the absolute gun safety rules are common to all situations, their interpretation varies widely, particularly with regard to gun handling at commercial shooting ranges and less formal situations.
Most of them occur because the person handling the gun does not fully grasp the concept of “safe direction” and incorrectly believes that there is an “It’s okay; it’s unloaded” exemption.
In addition to basic gun safely rules, there are fundamental rules of range etiquette, such as only handling guns at the designated firing line, and stopping all shooting immediately if a cease fire is called. Those who have only shot in informal situations or at poorly supervised ranges often are unaware of these range etiquette policies.
What to do when you encounter one of the Terrible Twelve at a range or a gun shop? As they are in the act of committing one of these gun handling sins, ask them, “Would you be willing to fire a shot out of that gun, pointed where it is right now?”
Hopefully they will answer “No.” Then ask, “Then why are you pointing it in that direction?” If enough people start correcting others on these errors, perhaps we can indeed, all be above average in our safe gun handling skills.
NRA 3 Rules
- ALWAYS keep the muzzle pointed in a safe direction
- ALWAYS keep your finger off the trigger until ready to shoot.
- ALWAYS keep guns unloaded until ready to use.
Jeff Cooper’s 4 Rules of Gun Safety
- All guns are always loaded. Even if they are not, treat them as if they are.
- Never let the muzzle cover anything you are not willing to destroy. (For those who insist that this particular gun is unloaded, see Rule 1.)
- Keep your finger off the trigger until your sights are on the target. (This is the Golden Rule. Its violation is directly responsible for about 60 percent of inadvertent discharges.)
- Identify your target, and what is behind it. Never shoot at anything that you have not positively identified.
The NRA rules are each stated as specific direction, with most important first. If you have the gun pointed in a safe direction, if you fire a round you didn’t intend to, it still goes in a safe direction. Cooper uses three of his 4 rules (1, 2 and 4) to address safe direction in various ways. While he’s correct that failure to obey his Rule Three is responsible for most negligent discharges, the safe gun handling failures described in the adjacent article are overwhelmingly a result of failing to follow NRA Rule 1 or the other three of Cooper’s rules.
The Gut Racker
This error most commonly occurs when the shooter rotates the pistol in their hand to be able to more easily lock the slide back. One solution to this problem is to insert an empty magazine and pull the slide back to engage the slide lock, instead of putting the gun in this clearly unsafe position.
This error typically occurs when the gun is carried in a rectangular case that gives no indication as to which direction the gun is pointed inside the case. The simple fix for this is to mark one end of the case as the muzzle end, and be consistent about always placing the gun in the case facing that direction.
This practice is unsafe at all ranges except those which are fully baffled to block extremely high shots, and even in that situation, it’s clearly a case of pointing a gun in a direction that is not the intended target.
This is also known as the “my gun is heavy” position and occurs when the person holding the gun gets mentally or physically fatigued, and simply lets the gun drop. Would you be willing to fire a loaded gun from that position? If not, then it’s unsafe. How to avoid this? Holster the gun or set it down on a downrange table or bench.
Last year, a shooter in Houston was shot in the leg and suffered serious injury when a range customer took an uncased rifle out of his vehicle. The trigger of the rifle snagged on something in the vehicle, causing the loaded, off-safe rifle to fire. How to avoid this? Carry your guns in cases, bags, boxes, holsters—something that covers the trigger guard of the gun.
The Side Racker
This is why the dividers between stalls at indoor ranges are bulletproof. As I heard one range user say to a side racker, “If it’s okay for you to point your loaded gun at me, that means it’s okay for me to point my loaded gun at you, right?” If you physically cannot rack the slide without using this technique, the solution is simple: turn your lower body 90 degrees so that your muzzle is pointed downrange, and not at the person next to you.
The Lone (Up) Ranger
Don’t handle your gun when you are behind the firing line. If you are on the firing line, don’t handle your gun when shooters are downrange resetting targets. Is it possible to handle your gun behind the firing line and keep it pointed in a safe direction? Maybe, but unless you are under attack, there’s no reason to violate range etiquette rules.
This often occurs immediately after the user has already fired one shot without hearing protection, and they reach to adjust their earmuffs, loaded gun in hand, pointed at the sky. Would you be willing to fire a loaded gun from that position? If not, then it’s unsafe. How to avoid this? Holster the gun or make it safe and set it down on a downrange table or bench.
The Trigger Guardian
The trigger guardian will insist that their finger is “off the trigger.” Technically it is, but when the finger is placed in that position, it’s extremely easy for the finger to get to the trigger, should the shooter be startled or bumped. Some argue that it’s tactically important to have the finger that extra quarter-inch closer to the trigger, resting on the trigger guard and not on the slide, because they believe that it makes them faster to the first shot.
Nowhere in the shooting world does speed matter more than at the IPSC Grand Master level, where multi-day matches are sometimes decided by fractions of a second. If that marginal change in trigger finger position made a measurable difference in speed, one would expect that the top shooters would use that technique. They don’t, and I state that as a Master class shooter who has taken courses from, practiced with, and RO’d top level shooters.
The Palm Shooter
The disassembly procedure for a Glock handgun requires that two levers be pressed down, one on each side of the frame, and the trigger pulled to release the slide. Unfortunately, one technique that many shooters adopt for this procedure places the muzzle pointed into their palm. There are multiple first-hand accounts documented online (including photos of the resulting injury) of shooters putting a hole in their hand as a result of failing to remove the round in the chamber before pulling the trigger.
The Barrel Looker
This usually occurs after a malfunction has occurred, and the shooter is trying to determine whether the barrel is blocked or the chamber is fouled. Unfortunately, this method requires the shooter to point the gun in an unsafe direction. Safe alternatives include removing the barrel from the slide before inspection or using a Bore Snake or cleaning rod through the barrel.
The Ammo Saver
This usually occurs while unloading a semi-auto pistol. After the magazine is removed and the slide is racked, the ammo saver stops paying attention to muzzle direction and becomes obsessed with the ejected live round. Often this results in the muzzle pointing at the shooter’s feet or pointing up range. To correct this unsafe behavior, the shooter should ignore the ejected round and instead complete the unloading process by checking the chamber to ensure that it’s empty, and then holstering the pistol or setting it down, muzzle in a safe direction, before bending over to pick up the ejected round.
[ Note: all the photos taken to show these examples were done using a handgun with a training barrel or other non-firearm props, to ensure that no gun safety rules were broken. ]
[ Karl Rehn is the lead instructor for KR Training (www.krtraining.com) and has taught classes in the Central Texas area for the past 20 years. He is an NRA Training Counselor, Texas Concealed Handgun License Instructor, and a Master class competitor in IPSC, IDPA and Steel Challenge, who has trained with dozens of well known tactical and competition instructors. ]