As any experienced gun owner will tell you, following gun safety rules is not just important; it is essential and critical education that saves lives and prevents accidents.
If you’re new to owning firearms, you may be wondering what the intentions behind each of the classic 4 rules of gun safety are. Learn (or re-learn) these gun safety rules and the potential situations in which they come into play.
Rule #1: All Guns Are Always Loaded
Example alternative names:
- Treat all firearms as if they were loaded.
- Always treat every firearm as though it is loaded at all times.
The first rule of gun safety is the most critical, but it may also be the most confusing to some new shooters depending on the version. After all, how can firearms always be loaded at all times?
The rule exists primarily to prevent lethal accidents. In the best-case scenario, a bullet is fired inadvertently without hitting anyone or anything valuable. In the worst-case, that bullet hits someone, resulting in a grave injury or death.
This rule exists to drill the notion that whenever you pick up or receive a firearm from someone else, you should always inspect it yourself to check whether it is loaded and ready to fire. Never trust someone’s word that the gun is not loaded, especially if that individual is inexperienced. Don’t trust your memory either. Humans naturally make mistakes, but making a mistake with a firearm can come at a high cost.
For example, removing the magazine from a semi-automatic pistol is not enough to unload it; you must also pull the slide and verify that the chamber is also unloaded.
If the chamber was loaded, pulling the slide should visibly extract the cartridge. Always visually check to ensure there is no bullet in the chamber. Failure to do so before pulling the trigger may result in the pistol firing.
Experienced gun owners sometimes pull the slide multiple times to ensure that it is empty, but the best way to ensure that the chamber is empty is to inspect it visually. If you can see (and feel) that there is no loaded cartridge inside and no way for the firearm to receive fresh rounds, then, and only then, you can be sure the gun is unloaded.
Until you personally and visually confirm that a firearm is unloaded, always assume it is loaded. And always treat it as if it is loaded, even after you confirm that it is not. This principle ties directly into the other three rules and what you should do when you do have a loaded firearm in your hands.
Rule #2: Never Point A Gun At Anything You’re Not Willing To Destroy
Example alternative names:
- Never let the muzzle cover anything you’re not willing to destroy.
- Always keep the gun pointed in a safe direction.
This rule explains the concept of muzzle discipline. When your muzzle passes in front of someone, shooters refer to the act as “flagging” someone. Flagging another person, even briefly, is considered a huge faux pas, as it may demonstrate poor discipline or regard for safety.
As the operator of a firearm, it is your responsibility to keep it pointed in a safe direction at all times, even in a high-intensity situation.
For example, competition shooters on practical shooting ranges have to do a lot of running and fast-paced shooting. Despite that, if you observe a match closely, you’ll notice that even when sprinting, these shooters keep their muzzles pointed downrange at all times. This example is just one of many practical situations where shooters observe Rule #2 visibly.
If you break all other rules but respect Rule #2, it ensures that even if you commit an accidental or negligent discharge, the bullet does not end up hitting something (or someone) you didn’t mean to shoot. For this reason, this rule is considered Rule #1 in the NRA rules of gun safety.
Rule #3: Always Keep Your Finger Off The Trigger Until You’re Ready To Shoot
Example alternative names:
- Keep your finger off the trigger until you’re ready to fire.
- Keep your finger off the trigger until your sights are on target.
This rule describes the importance of trigger discipline. Unless your firearm is mechanically exceptionally deficient, it should never be able to fire until you pull the trigger.
Trigger discipline drills the notion that you never “rest” your finger on the trigger. Any accidental movement - tripping, falling, bumping into objects, losing your balance, or even sneezing - can cause you to pull the trigger and fire the gun inadvertently.
It also teaches the importance of making a trigger pull deliberate and the result of fully conscious action. You should only pull the trigger when you’re 100% certain this is your intention.
This principle does not stop applying outside of the range; in fact, there are many legitimate situations where you may not want to keep your trigger on the finger at all times.
For example, there may be some uncertainty regarding a potential assailant’s actual threat if you are in a self-defense situation. When hunting, you need to make sure your shot is as well-placed as possible to hit the vitals cleanly and humanely. Both cases are examples where it is critical to keep your finger away from the trigger and avoid shooting too early.
Newcomers may wonder where exactly their trigger finger should rest when not ready to shoot. Generally speaking, you should avoid resting your fingertip on the trigger guard, as it may slip and fall back on the trigger. Instead, keep your finger away from the trigger, resting it onto the frame or the receiver, preferably away from other controls such as the safety or magazine release.
Breaking trigger discipline is the most common violation of gun safety rules among new and inexperienced shooters. Pioneer of modern gun safety, Jeff Cooper, described this rule as the Golden Rule, as respecting it prevents the firearm from discharging, even if you break all other rules. Cooper estimated that roughly 80% of negligent discharges and related consequences could be directly traced back to a lack of trigger discipline.
In addition, you should never rely on your firearm’s mechanical safety as a way to “cheat” on that rule. It’s easy to become complacent and forget that the safety is not engaged. In addition, a safety mechanism can fail, like any other mechanism.
Rule #4: Be Sure Of Your Target And What Is Beyond It
Example alternative names:
- Be sure of your target and the backstop beyond.
- Identify your target and what is behind it. Never shoot at anything you haven’t positively identified.
An expression among shooters is that there is a lawyer behind every bullet. In other words, you are responsible for every bullet you shoot, and that responsibility does not stop if you miss the target.
If you frequently shoot in your backyard or on private land, you should make. sure to build a suitable backstop to absorb bullets and other projectiles. In situations where backstops may be unavailable, such as hunting or self-defense, it is your responsibility to know with certainty where the bullet may end up if you miss or if it over-penetrates and passes through your target.
Above all, you should never “shoot at a sound” or anything you haven’t positively identified. Many hunting accidents are the consequence of breaking this rule; what you thought was a deer might be a fellow hunter; if you take a shot before visually confirming who or what it was, you run the risk of injuring or killing someone.
If you’re familiar with crossbows, you may have heard a variation; “Do not shoot over a ridge.” This principle also applies to firearms. Shooting over berms or ridges sends a bullet beyond your range of vision, rendering you unable to respect this rule.
Safety should be on your mind at all times when operating a firearm. Fortunately, following gun safety rules is common sense; they are not complicated, and with enough practice, they will become second nature.
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