We all should know the four cardinal firearms safety rules. But let’s recap:

  1. Treat every gun as if it is loaded.
  2. Never point a gun at anything you are not willing to destroy.
  3. Know your target and what is beyond it.
  4. Keep your finger off the trigger until you have made a conscious decision to shoot.

Those are the four rules every new shooter learns, usually in a hunter education course or some other basic firearms class. The rules are hammered into us as shooters … and yet negligent discharges (NDs) occur. Still, the people who keep track of these things say that the number of people unintentionally killed or wounded continues to fall as the number of people taking safety classes continues to rise.

But only those incidents that result in an injury or death are recorded. The world only knows about my most recent ND because I chose to share that information in this space. I own my failure, and that (insert expletive) will not happen again. No one was injured because I followed rule No. 3.  But I never would have had that ND if I had been paying really close attention to rule No. 4.

I actually like the three safety rules offered at the SIG Sauer Academy better than the four rules we all learn, but I’ll not cloud the waters with that right now. Let’s look at the Big 4, as no one else ever calls them, and pick out which one is most important. I gave you a hint.

Gun Safety Is No Accident

Let me take a few steps back. First, you will never see me put the words “accidental discharge” in print (or online). That’s because I firmly believe any unintended discharge of a firearm is a result of negligence. Guns don’t just go off. They are made to fire. And if a gun you are in control of makes a loud noise, 99.9999 percent of the time, you caused that. Either you intended for it to get loud or you were negligent. The rest of the time, if the gun just suddenly erupts, that is likely the result of poor maintenance or inattentive care, which means someone caused it. The gun did not just go off. Every once in a while, someone will drop a gun and it will fire. That too is negligence. So there are no accidents. Only negligence. Don’t try to change my mind.

But I digress.

Back to the Most Important Gun Safety Rule: Rule No. 4.

Typically, when a gun is made to fire, it is because someone has a finger on the trigger. One might see a piece of clothing introduced to the trigger area as the gun is holstered, but that is negligence too. Be more careful.

Let’s say you pull a gun out of the safe and, while carrying it to the work bench, you accidentally point it at your brother. THAT is a violation of Rule No. 2, but it will not cause an ND unless you have your finger on the trigger. So, Rule No. 4 kept your brother safe in this case.

Have you ever really tried to live within the boundaries of Rule No. 1? Goodness, that’s impossible. You can’t treat a gun as if it is loaded while you clean it. And, if you have a Glock, in order to clean it, you must violate Rule No. 2 just to field-strip the gun. After all, you are NOT intending to fire the gun, but you are pulling the trigger.

Rule No. 3 is pretty much moot if you don’t pull the trigger. True, you could be pointing a gun at a target before you notice the school bus in the background, and at that very moment the sear engagement could let loose and the gun could fire without a trigger press … but the odds of that are so small it is almost incomprehensible.

In the end though, there is, as Ed Combs likes to say, “a non-zero number” that defines that chance. With stakes so high, I would rather not point a gun in the wrong direction just to prove the statisticians are on the right track.

Rule 4 is No. 1

But I’m still sticking with Rule No. 4 as the single most important of the four cardinal gun safety rules. Yes, know them all and follow them all. But if you make trigger-finger discipline a priority, the chances that you experience a negligent discharge drop greatly.

About Kevin Michalowski

Executive Editor of Concealed Carry Magazine Kevin Michalowski is a USCCA and NRA Certified Trainer and is a graduate of the Force Science Institute Certification Course. He has participated in training as both an instructor and a student in multiple disciplines. Kevin is also a fully certified law enforcement officer working part time for a small agency in rural Wisconsin.