In this article I will discuss principles of gun handling safety.
NOTE: While I have had gun safety training and many years of experience, I am not a certified gun safety instructor. This article is not intended as a course in gun safety and is not a substitute for formal, individualized, qualified instruction in the safe handling, use, or storage of firearms. For example, you cannot safely check whether a gun is unloaded (safety rule No. 3) unless you know how that specific gun operates, and this requires individualized instruction. You should do additional research and take a gun safety course from a certified instructor:
- NRA Gun Safety Rules
- NRA Gun Safety for Children
- NRA Certified Courses
- Official website of The National Rifle Association
- Official website of the Gun Owners of America — no training here, but very politically active, and a good source of reliable information.
Gun safety is your personal responsibility. If you hurt someone with your gun, even by accident, you might escape legal liability depending on the circumstances, but your conscience will torment you. You will be depressed and mortified for a long time.
According to the CDC, the population rate of death by guns in 2012 was lower than the rate of death by falls, poisoning, or motor vehicle. These data don’t account for intent (i.e., murder, suicide, or accident), they don’t account for justifiable killing to prevent harm to self or an innocent third person, and they don’t account for the rate at which guns are used without discharge to prevent deaths.
But by any measure or comparison, any rate of death or injury by gun accident should be mitigated whenever possible. The primary responsibility rests squarely on you, the gun owner. It depends entirely on your training, skill, and judgment with a firearm. You, as the one possessing this deadly implement, are primarily responsible for the consequences related to your manipulating it.
The Fundamental Principle of Gun Safety
Safe gun handling begins with a state of mind. You must at all times maintain this critical, overarching concept in mind: That this object you’re handling is deadly. One mistake can be tragic. One mistake on Facebook and you might embarrass your friend. One mistake with a gun and you might kill him.
This concept is the basis of what many people consider the First Rule of gun safety, primary to the NRA’s three rules below: Always treat the gun as if it were loaded. However, I don’t treat this as a rule, but rather a conceptual principle that provides the context in which NRA’s three rules apply.
Nothing you do with the gun should ever be accidental or unconscious; everywhere you point it, wherever you place it or store it, however you handle it, everything you do with the gun should be deliberate and intentional.
This is a simple concept to state, but it is actually difficult to internalize. Maintaining this heightened crisis mentality is not a natural part of your daily experience. You tend to relax. You must train yourself to maintain this state of mind when handling a gun, and it comes only with practice. It doesn’t happen on its own.
Even if you have handled guns all your life, you should often refresh your approach to safety.
Gun Safety Rules
The NRA has over 140 years experience advocating the safe use of firearms. Here are their three rules of gun safety:
- Always keep the gun pointed in a safe direction. A safe direction means that the gun is pointed so that if it fires, no one will be injured. The key is to maintain muzzle awareness and control — know which way the muzzle is aimed, and make sure you have physical control of the gun, i.e., don’t be clumsy, don’t be sloppy. The rules that follow are intended to prevent an accidental discharge, but this primary rule is intended to prevent injury or death if the gun is accidentally discharged. A safe direction is dictated by common sense based on the circumstances.
- Always keep your finger off the trigger until you’re ready to shoot. Be very conscious of the trigger at all times; when you pick up the gun; when you aim it; when you cock it; when you holster it; and so on. Whenever you’re touching the gun, be aware of the trigger and be certain you’re not touching it until you’re actually ready to shoot. You’re not ready to shoot until you have identified your target and all subjects of “collateral damage,” and made a determination to shoot that target.
- Always keep the gun unloaded until ready to use. This requires you to clear the gun (i.e., make sure it’s unloaded), every time you pick it up, which of course you cannot safely do unless you’ve been taught how that particular gun operates. Whenever you pick up a gun (having first applied the previous rules), engage the safety if it has one, remove the magazine if it has one, open the action, and look into the chamber to make sure it is clear. If it is a revolver it will have several chambers to inspect. If you don’t know this gun, leave it alone.
Application of the Gun Safety Rules
You must train yourself to apply these rules to the point that they become automatic. This comes only with frequent practice. It’s like putting on your seatbelt; it becomes automatic. I have moved the car just up the driveway to wash it, and found myself having to remove my seatbelt, and didn’t even realized I’d put it on.
Similarly, I have filmed gun videos in which I was frequently, automatically clearing the gun to the point that it looked ridiculous. As I talked about the gun, my mind would focus on the camera and my audience. I’d talk to the camera, and then get ready to demonstrate a feature, and I would automatically clear the gun again for the nth time before I “re-engaged” it. I already use jump cuts in my videos, but the gun videos have even more.
Whenever I train someone or just show them a gun, I clear it before I hand it to them and then require them to clear it as well. Then, when they return the gun, I clear it yet again. It’s automatic. Good; make it so.
Let me walk you through a real-life scenario. Suppose your gun is on the dining room table. Maybe you were cleaning it. Maybe you were testing holsters. Whatever; there it is, and now you’re about to pick it up to store it or equip it.
- The first thing you should do, before you touch it, is stop and remind yourself: This is a lethal device. This mindset creates the context for applying all the rules of gun safety with common sense.
- To make sure it’s pointed in a safe direction, you have to know which direction will be unsafe. Determine the location of everyone within range of harm; everyone in the room; everyone in the next room; everyone outside. You have to maintain a vivid awareness of your surroundings. Find out where everyone is.
- As you reach for the gun, put eyes on it first. Don’t reach for it like you do a pencil, with your eyes still on the page. Actually look at the gun and observe your hand reaching for it to make sure you don’t touch the trigger.
- Now the gun is in your hand. Make sure you maintain muzzle awareness and control, and keep it pointed in a safe direction, so that if the gun fires accidentally it will not shoot you or anyone else. You must observe this rule from this point on, until the gun is no longer in your hands.
- Rest your trigger finger on the trigger guard or along the side of the gun. You’re in the house, so presumably you’re not going to fire it — don’t touch the trigger. Deliberate every action before you take that action.
- Now clear the gun. Remove the magazine, if it has one. Open the action (the method will vary depending on the gun) and look into the chamber; make sure there is no ammunition in the chamber.
- If you do intend to pull the trigger, STOP. This is the point of no return. This is the moment of truth. This is when you’ll discover, with possibly tragic consequences, whether you have properly observed the rules of gun safety. Only pull the trigger when you are certain that if the gun fires, no one will be hurt.
Should You Have a Gun?
We’re not addressing whether you can legally have one (that’s another issue entirely), but whether, based on your circumstances, you can safely have one. Let’s be clear: Guns are not safe; like cars, swimming pools, and gasoline, they’re very dangerous. Whether you can safely possess a gun depends entirely on the care you take.
Guns have been horrendously politicized, with gun-banners stigmatizing the mere possession of guns. According to them, the very act of owning a gun makes you a menace to society. But we must not be reactive in our gun ownership; that is, we do have the constitutional right to possess them, but remember your responsibility to your fellow man. Use guns safely, just on principle.