Update by Grant Cunningham

Posted: January 9, 2012 in Beginner, Handgun, How To, Information, Rifle, Shotgun

Grant wrote a new post about the rules of firearm safety, and I think he makes some great points, though I’m not a huge fan of his Rule 3 (Always remember that you are handling a deadly weapon, and if you do so negligently you may kill someone – including yourself) even though it is also Rob Pincus’ Rule 3 and I generally think Pincus is dead on the money on everything. I don’t like it because it doesn’t pass my “Usefulness of Safety Rules” test.

Here’s my test.

A safety rule needs to be written so that it’s relatively universal. If you say “Keep your guns unloaded until you get to the firing line,” that isn’t going to apply to cops, armed citizens or people keeping guns at home to defend themselves. That is a huge portion of the gun-handling population that has to, by definition, opt out of your rule. Something like “Always keep your gun on ‘Safe’ until you’re ready to fire” leaves out almost everyone with a revolver or a modern polymer handgun. That might be a good rule for some people, but it’s not going to apply to everyone (or at least a significant majority) so it’s not great as a safety rule. A great safety rule is one that applies to all people all the time, or as close to it as you can get. It applies when you’re handling your guns at home for cleaning, when you’re on the range, and when you’re in a gun fight. Safety rules that apply at home but don’t apply in a fight are bad habits to form, and could get you killed in a lethal force encounter.

Also, rules need to be simple enough to remember. “Keep your gun unloaded unless you have a legal right to carry a loaded weapon and it’s in your holster, or it’s in your safe, or you’re on the firing line of a safe firing range” might be a good rule, but who the heck could remember it? A solution for universality isn’t to list all possible exceptions in the text of the rule. You need to be able to say the rule and the average, uninformed person handling a gun would know enough of what you’re talking about to be able to remember it and follow it.

Finally, rules need to be specific. The more specific, the better. That gets tough with universality, but an overly general rule is pretty much useless. Unfortunately, that’s how I see the Rule 3 that Grant recommends. Here it is again: Always remember that you are handling a deadly weapon, and if you do so negligently you may kill someone – including yourself. That’s essentially saying “Guns are dangerous,” or “Don’t do anything unsafe when handling a firearm.” Obviously, we know that guns are dangerous or we wouldn’t have to have safety rules surrounding our handling of them. Anyone who doesn’t even have the basic understanding that guns can hurt or kill living creatures probably needs a more basic lesson on how they work before s/he even gets into the specific safety rules. Saying “Don’t be negligent” isn’t giving us any more useful information, either. If we don’t know proper gun handling, we don’t know what negligence would involve. Also, specificity helps people remember things. I think I mentioned earlier that people can remember and act on positive information better than negative information. So “Off the trigger” is less memorable than “On the frame” or whatever.

So, even though I love Grant and Rob and think they’re both well beyond any level of skill and knowledge I will likely achieve, I have to disagree on this point. I think you can replace their rules three with “Be sure of your target and what’s between you and it as well as what’s beyond it,” or “Be aware of the environment and the path your bullet will take through it,” or any number of other things. Those rules can apply to the range, they’re just made simpler by having a safe backstop behind your target. If some idiot runs out to change a target during live fire, you’d better believe that rule about paying attention to your environment comes into play.

I also think that people struggle to make rules encompass too much. The safety rules are just your baseline. If you follow these rules 100% of the time, there is a negligible chance for unintentional injury to yourself or others (flukes can happen, so I won’t say there’s a zero chance). That’s where you start, and they form the foundation of safe gun handling. They don’t, however, form the entirety of safe gun handling. There’s a whole lot more to handling a gun with maximum safety under all situations than any three rules. There are also range-specific rules that you may have to follow depending on where you shoot. There may be situations in which “Keep the muzzle pointed in a safe direction” gets very challenging because of crowds or a moving target or something. That doesn’t mean the rule is invalid, but it does mean that they can be a bit dynamic when you’re in the real world. If you’re shooting steel core rounds out of your AK, you may over-penetrate your target far more than would be expected with jacketed hollowpoint rounds. That influences how you handle Rule 3, obviously. So these rules are necessary for best possible safety, but they may not be sufficient for all people in all situations. You need to follow them to the best of your ability and the best of your knowledge.

Speaking of that, there’s a danger with safety rules of having a Monday Morning Quaterback interpretation of them. By definition, any direction you are pointing your gun when it fires that causes an unintended impact was not a “safe” direction, because we define a safe direction as one in which bullets fired while in that direction will impact our intended targets. But that’s not helpful to the guy handling the gun in the moment. If he sees a man pointing a gun at him with a concrete wall behind, our armed citizen will reasonably think he is safe to fire. If a bullet ricochets in some bizarre direction or the bullet strikes a one in a million structural flaw in that concrete and penetrates, it’s easy to say that he was in the wrong and wasn’t following the rules. But he was, and sometimes bad things just happen. Those are the flukes I mentioned, and they’re exceedingly unlikely if you’re following the rules to the best of your knowledge and ability. There are simply some things you can’t know, and you can’t let those things prevent you from acting to save your own life.

So, where does that leave us? Well, if I were to write my own ideal set of rules, it would look something like this:

  • Rule 1: Only point the gun at things you are willing to destroy.
  • Rule 2: Keep your finger on the frame of the gun until you are ready to press the trigger.
  • Rule 3: Be aware of your environment and the path your bullet will take through it.

What do you think? Does that cover as much stuff as you can think of in most situations? I’m certainly open to suggestions, and I’d love some discussion on it. This is a bit of a rough cut, but I’m hoping it combines the best of what I’ve learned from classes and books and all the rest.

  1. Isaac says:

    So, the full text of his rule: “Always remember that you are handling a deadly weapon, and if you do so negligently you may kill someone – including yourself.”

    I think the most important part is the first two words, “Always Remember.” That’s what makes it a rule.

    I don’t necessarily or completely agree, but here’s a reason why I think the idea has some merit: People often (quite often!) forget that guns are lethal. That’s their whole point, their entire reason for existance: to kill things. As creatures so prone to death as we are, we must never forget what these things are capable of.

    Even though a firearm is near worthless at this without bullets, the fact that it’s hard to tell if a firearm is loaded just by glancing at it, it means that you have to assume that it is, unless you’ve explicitly checked (and hopefully rechecked) yourself.

    So, the crux of the situation is: Some people assume the default state of a firearm is unloaded. And it’s not a conscious assumption like, “I assume I’m awesome” or “I assume that Captain Picard will find a way out of that mess”, it’s one of those deep-down unconscious ones that’s hard to shake, that you don’t even know you have.

    So the point of any rule should be to get people to assume the default state of the firearm is “loaded”, and until the handler has confirmed it’s state as otherwise, not once, but at least twice, it is to be treated at such.

    I’d put my rules as something like the following:

    1) Thou shalt only place thy finger on the trigger of a loaded firearm solely when thy sights be upon thy target.
    2) Point thine firearm only at that which thou wish to kill or destroy.
    3) Thou shalt always be aware of thy surroundings, target and path of thy bullets.
    4) All firearms are to be treated with the care of a loaded firearm unless explicitly confirmed thrice over by the handler that they are unloaded.
    5) It is generally recommended that thou shalt follow rules one through three to the best of thy ability, even for unloaded firearms.

    Or something like that. Basically though, I completely agree with the idea that saying “All guns are always loaded” only sets us up for catastrophic failure and we need to understand at a basic and core level, that the firearms have two distinct states, the handling rules for those states should vary as little as possible and our default assumption state should be “loaded”.

  2. Septimus says:

    I think you make a good point about people assuming guns are unloaded as a default, but I disagree that people are forgetting that guns are dangerous. I think it’s more an issue of them just not knowing how to handle something dangerous properly. It could just be that they’re not very conscientious people, and they don’t pay attention to what their limbs are doing, regardless of what’s in their hands. A lot of people are so insulated from danger on a daily basis, that they just have limited experience handling things that can hurt them. Especially small, handheld things.

    I think getting people to assume that guns are loaded as a default would be awesome. That would definitely be helpful. And not in an “All guns are always loaded” way, but more of a “Assume that the gun is loaded until you’ve confirmed otherwise. And re-confirm any time it leaves your control. Just because you unloaded it before you set it down on the counter doesn’t mean it’s still unloaded 5 minutes later when you come back.” But that’s a long rule.

    I think Hollywood has a lot to do with why people assume guns aren’t loaded, too. Every time you see someone pull a gun out of a holster or pick it up off a desk or something, they rack the slide. Even if they’ve been pointing it menacingly, they rack the slide to show they’re serious. With that level of nonsense being the majority of information most people get about guns, it’s no wonder they don’t know how to handle them safely.

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