Whether you’re at home, on the range or hunting big game there are a few things you need to know to ensure a fun and unscathed shooting experience. Gun safety rules must come above all else because they guide smart action that allows us to remain protected. But they do us no good if we’re not practicing and applying them at a 100% success rate. Rules are frequently hammered into shooters as fundamentals from a young age (usually in a hunter’s safety or firearm education course) … and still, negligent discharges occur. Why is this? Oftentimes, it’s because one or more of the cardinal rules were not followed. What we can lean into are the statistics that as the number of safety classes being taken continues to rise, the number of people unintentionally injured and lives lost continues to fall. In this blog, we’re going to take a look at the rules of gun safety everyone should know and some spin-offs on them too.
There are different categories of gun-safety rules, all are meant to help you stay safe. No one can define a perfect official set of rules for us, but we can use what we have available to us as guidelines and expand upon them. This allows us to craft our own, higher standards for safety while understanding what the majority of society follows, practices and lives by. If you’re considering buying body armor, it’s likely because you are seeking protection from potentially dangerous situations you may find yourself in, are looking to improve your safety plan, or have a tactical advantage against threats you could encounter either as a civilian or a professional. No matter what your reason is, body armor is primarily intended to protect you against guns (And yes, slashes, stabs, strikes, and Tasers, too). Knowing these rules, especially if you plan to carry a firearm for protection is vital to not only your safety but the safety of others.
Variations in Safety Rules
The first category we’ll look at is the traditional rules that help prevent accidents and unintended discharges. They are known as the four cardinal rules or the universal rules of gun safety. You probably know them already or have at least heard of them, as these are what most people are familiar with. If you don’t, you should because “I didn’t know it was loaded” is never going to fly as an excuse no matter what circle of company you find yourself in. Let’s take a look at them below:The 4 Cardinal Rules of Gun Safety
- Treat every gun as if it is loaded.
- Don’t point your gun at anything you’re not willing to destroy.
- Know your target and what is beyond.
- Keep your finger off the trigger until you have made a conscious decision to shoot.
The second set of rules is for lethal force scenarios and personal protection. These are the lesser-known principles for surviving a modern-day gunfight. While we won’t dive into this topic here, we as individuals must consider how various situations can cause us to change our approach. In this space, one may have rules surrounding engagement, environment-specific protocols and legal considerations.
Rules that ensure the right of the people to keep and bear arms are not infringed upon are the third category. Yes, we’re talking about the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution! Gun policy, much like body armor legality, is still a controversial topic on the home front, especially when we delve into acts of violence, eligibility requirements to purchase or possess a firearm, access via authorized and moral sellers, along with “gun-free zones.” What’s essential that we remember is that this legislation was put into place for our own civilian protection and the protection of freedom. At its core, the Second Amendment is intended to prevent tyranny, whilst also allowing people the ability to improve public safety, protect themselves from crime and defend their rights from encroachment by any government seeking to abuse its authority.
When Rules are Wrong
Keeping safety at the forefront of everything you do (especially with a firearm) is always the goal, right … so, what if I told you the rules were wrong? I feel obliged to tell you that it’s not because the original creators were off par, but because they don’t appropriately address all the topics facing the safe use of firearms. Always question everything and in the words of Ronald Reagan, “Trust but verify.” It’s time to put your thinking cap on as we review where these rules go awry:
1. LOADING: “Treat every gun as if it is loaded…”
…until you’re sure it’s not loaded, would be more appropriate. This rule is all about practicing good habits and addressing your bad ones. You’ll have to treat your firearm differently depending on what you’re doing with it. Instances you may be breaking this initial rule could include:
a) When you’re at gun shows, shopping in a store or taking a class that requires handling.
b) The use of blue guns, dry fire practice and executing training drills
c) If you’re gun is empty, locked away or disassembled
d) During the cleaning, care or repair of a firearm
e) When you’re showing a friend, family member or colleague your weapon
Throughout the review of these rules, we’re going to lay out a few simple exercises to get you thinking more deeply about them. Exercise #1: What would happen if your gun decided to “magically” go off while you were holding it? It may seem silly at first, but this thought helps bring awareness to the potential dangers of improper handling. What could you have done differently to stop this from happening? Would any innocent bystanders have been hurt or worse as a result? We all know guns don’t just go off! That’s a common myth the media and anti-gun groups would like you to believe. They’re tools controlled by humans and unless you compile some really wild circumstances and everything falls into place just right, this is almost never going to happen.
2. POINTING: “Don’t point your gun at anything you’re not willing to destroy.”
Sure, the wall of a gun range isn’t something any shooter is planning to destroy but it’s necessary to our training. Just like you may point a gun at an upper corner of a gun shop, there are exceptions to this rule that need to be addressed. When we look at this rule more closely, there is no safe direction in all instances because the rules don’t always match reality. The good news is that having this awareness can reduce risk for all. No one wants to be the person who puts someone else on the receiving end of their weapon, creating a terrifying moment. Here are two ways we address this:
a) Amend the original rule to consider the control of the muzzle direction. You can point at a corner, a piece of furniture or the floor. Whatever it is, it should provide the ability to either stop a bullet or a safe direction where no damage can be done to a person and little to no damage can be done to property (That includes ricochets.).b) You could also rephrase this rule to say something along the lines of, “Point in the safest available direction and at the lowest-value targets.” This reaffirms direction, intent and conscious decision making.
Exercise #2: Envision a heat laser coming from the barrel of your gun. Now, anything this laser crosses, it cuts. You can’t turn it off either. That adds perspective, doesn’t it? Ask yourself if you’re comfortable in this exercise or if you need to hone your skills a bit more to better control the possible direction of your projectiles.
3. TARGETING: “Know your target and what’s beyond.”
This rule relies on your ability to be able to hit your target effectively and the knowledge that the bullet you fire will likely not stop after it hits what you are shooting — unless it has a proper backstop. A backstop is anything that will act as a barrier to prevent your ammunition from going further. If you’re ever unsure, it's your duty to show restraint and refrain from discharging your weapon. Here, we have a few other things to take into account:
a) What is between you and your target?
b) What is next to your target?
c) Did you consider the height, shooting angle or environment?
d) Are you in a safe position to shoot?
Exercise #3: Consider the chaos that may be around you in a defensive scenario. There could be innocent bystanders heading in all directions, a hostage situation or people hiding behind objects where you can’t see them. How would you handle that blink of an eye moment differently with this insight?
4. SHOOTING: “Keep your finger off the trigger until you have made a conscious decision to shoot.”
The fact that triggers are natural finger magnets is no joke. Inside the trigger guard is where the vast majority of undertrained shooters (old and new) tend to find their digits landing without intent. The reality is that it takes practice to master trigger finger discipline because guns were designed for a natural, ergonomic fit. When we align our pointer fingers alongside our barrel or the frame of a gun, we’re fighting our instinct to grab with a closed fist.
It’s also important to remember that the goal of shooting in the first place is typically to hit an intended target or stop an imminent threat. You should never, ever have your finger on the trigger unless you are 100% sure you’re going to shoot at that very moment. This is an all-or-nothing state of affairs that demands critical thinking skills, legal consideration, muscle memory and absolute certainty. Anytime you operate or discharge a weapon, you should be taking it seriously. There is no humor to be found in the harm of another or loss of life.
a) Rule #4 is number #1. It can be argued that this is the single most important of the four to abide by because of its ability to reduce negligence. However, we must also consider negligence due to loose clothing and items entering our trigger guard space. Cue Smokey the Bear, “Only YOU can prevent negligent discharges.” With the stakes set just about as high as they could be, it’s better to be safe than sorry!
Exercise #4: Imagine you’re facing a lethal threat in a public place. They’ve already done harm and continue to shoot at anyone who gets in their way as they flee towards an exit. As you chase after them in your protective gear with your finger on the trigger, your gun “accidentally” discharges (meaning YOU unintentionally pulled the trigger) and the round is now free until it hits something or someone. You just became another shooter even though your goal was to help keep people safe.
Creating Your Own Guidelines
What if I told you that *gasp* you could create your own gun safety rules? They might be something like, “Make sure those around you follow the safety rules” or “Never hand a loaded firearm to someone else” or “Always double-check and have another person verify clear” or “Use reliable equipment.” Either way, it can be anything that helps you to work diligently to maintain a safe environment while handling firearms. There are industry professionals and organizations who have done this like George Harris and the SIG Academy … and when we combine them with our own flare, we get something like this:
- Know the status of your weapon at ALL times: I will check every time I pick up my firearm; is it loaded, unloaded, round chambered or not?
- Maintain good muzzle management at ALL times: I will point my muzzle in such a direction that if there was an unintended discharge, it would result in no injury and minimal property damage.
- Maintain trigger-finger discipline at ALL times: I will not put my finger on the trigger until I have made a conscious decision to fire the gun. I recognize that guns don’t just “go off.” They’re made to fire when certain mechanisms, which are my responsibility, are handled.
These rules present a slightly different but more comprehensive variation as compared to the aforementioned ones. For starters, they are easy-to-understand, comprehensive and require a personal statement of understanding. Each symbolizes the next step as they intertwine with the former rule and overlap with the next. This helps to cover gaps in the safety rules and causes people to think more deeply about why they’re different (Pssst, it’s for good reason!).
Rules are great, but they’re still only as good as the person who abides by them. Know this; even if you follow the four traditional rules, you would have to break a minimum of two of them (at the same time, mind you) in order for a negligent discharge with injury to occur. Let that sink in. If you’re trying to instill life-long safety habits, nothing speaks quite as loudly as following established, and well-respected rules, as well as your own actions. Lead by example, speak up if you see a fellow shooter using a gun inappropriately. It may cause some friction, but it also could save a life. If you’re at a range with a Range Safety Officer (RSO), you can also turn to them for assistance if you prefer not to get directly involved or find that an individual is unwilling to follow the gun safety rules prescribed in that location. When all is said and done, gun safety is pretty easy if you remember to apply it in all circumstances.
Other Tips for Gun Safety
While those we mentioned above are the big ones everyone should memorize, there are also other useful safety tips you can consider, too. Here are some of the top ones:
- Secure locked storage for your firearms like a safe and limit access to only those whom you trust to act responsibly.
- Learn proper stationery and migratory handling, as well as the mechanical characteristics of the guns you are using.
- Maintain the efficacy of your gun with effective cleaning practices suitable for your model after the range and as needed.
- Always transport your firearms in a safe and legal manner, whether that’s at the airport, in your vehicle or on your person.
- If you plan to carry, learn how to do it safely and within the bounds of the law. Use quality gear and seek out consistent training.
- Know your range safety rules, like uncasing in front of the safety lines, keeping your slide locked open/mag removed when not in use, and respect the requests of the on-site RSO or Range Master.
- In a group hunting setting, pick one person to act as your safety officer for the day, establish zones of fire and know where everyone will be at all times.
- Always use the correct ammunition and understand the difference between the types available for use such as ballpoint and hollow point.
- Make sure the barrel of your gun is clear of obstructions like dirt, lint or other debris before loading and that no damage is apparent.
- Never climb up, over or under obstacles with a loaded firearm in your hand or on a sling that could lead to negligence.
- Dress for the occasion! When at the range use close-toed shoes, a tight neckline on your shirt, avoid hoods that casings can land in, use a ball cap and don’t forget your eyes and ears. If you’re hunting in blaze orange season, gear up ASAP and keep your colors on until you’re out of the field.
- Know how to wear body armor the proper way and consider light-weight, comfortable and lab-tested armor options that can protect you from the most common rounds. There are many modern ballistic vest options available.
- Learn the basic fundamentals of shooting like sight picture, alignment, managing recoil and if relevant, home defense fundamentals.
- Understand how to pause if you experience “hangfire” and know how to correctly clear your weapon if you encounter the most common firearm malfunctions.
- Don’t use your gun scope as you would binoculars. Scopes are for shooting, binoculars are for searching and viewing.
- If and when you are in doubt, don’t shoot. Listen to your gut, there will always be more opportunities to hunt and we are each only granted one life.