There are two (2) common approaches to Firearm Safety Rules in practice today. We will explore both traditional methods and explain how they should be correctly applied in practice.
First, let's navigate through the National Rifle Association's (NRA) Firearms Safety Rules:
These published safety rules are widely available in various locations. Agencies or businesses that aren't in direct association with the NRA, commonly accept these rules and utilize them as the industry standard for firearm safety rules. They are truly universal and applicable to all shooters.
Before anything else, the first terms that should immediately standout and strike your attention are the capitalized words "ALWAYS" at the introduction of each rule. This is done to express and emphasize the absolute nature of firearm safety, and there is NO instance where you can make an exception to any of these rules without compromising some level of safety.
One important concept to consider is the NRA's exclusion of utilizing a firearm's safety mechanism. Essentially, this safety measure was omitted due to the reality that firearms are mechanical instruments and sometimes the actual moving parts can break, malfunction or even fail. The NRA and many other subject matter experts strongly believe that entrusting a firearm's mechanical safety as a preventive measure is technically placing faith into something that has the potential of breaking or worse, failing. Hence, why this safety measure was removed from the Firearm Safety Rules.
"ALWAYS keep the gun pointed in a safe direction." The NRA stresses this rule first and foremost under the pretenses of a complete safety measure; if a firearm is always pointed in a safe direction and operated in a controlled environment, this in and of itself can prevent any potential damage, injury, or DEATH. As previously noted, once the bullet exits the barrel through the muzzle, the bullet's trajectory will then travel in a straight line until it impacts 'something' in its line of path or exhausts its inertia. With that in mind, the NRA composed this rule as a means to explain "No matter what else may occur, if the firearm is not pointed at anything that will be dangerous to shoot, then you drastically decrease any overly detrimental outcome that might come from an accident".
"ALWAYS keep your finger off the trigger until ready to shoot." This rule immediately follows Firearm Safety Rule # 1 of always pointing the muzzle in a safe direction considering firearms are designed to fireonly when the trigger is pulled. If you avoid contact with the trigger group and/or actual trigger, you eliminate any possibilities of the firearm to fire or discharge unintentionally or negligently discharge. When you apply this rule in conjunction with Firearm Safety Rule # 1, the two (2) rules can and will eliminate 100% of accidents that occur commonly amongst firearm owners/users.
"ALWAYS keep the gun unloaded until ready to use." This rule was composed and phrased very carefully. In actual practice, an unloaded firearm is inert. However, when you combine a firearm with its intended ammunition, one mistake can have serious, even lethal consequences. In order to ensure preventive measures and completely eliminate any potential of a firearm related accident, the NRA and other subject matter experts urge everyone to keep any and all firearms unloaded at all times when not in use.
This one Firearm Safety Rule has led many skeptics to argue and question the actual objective of owning a gun for "defensive" or "survival" intentions if the firearm is recommended to be unloaded at all times, making the gun itself completely harmless. Once again, the rule was composed very carefully, and in reality, does not read "…keep the gun unloaded until ready to shoot". Instead, the rule actually reads "…until ready to use." Ready to Use can actually reflect a many number of different scenarios, whether the firearm is being stored in a drawer, under a mattress, concealed carry, or any other manner for defensive purposes. However, this does NOT by any means negate Firearms Safety Rules # 1 & # 2.
Next, let's review what are commonly referred to as the Universal Firearms Safety Rules:
The "Universal Firearms Safety Rules" originated from the rules implemented and set-forth by Col. Jeff Cooper when he established his training facility in Arizona (AZ), originally known as the American Pistol Institute. Today, the school is referred to as the Gunsite Academy, and still utilizes the rules Col. Cooper initiated. These safety rules took the common sense of Firearm Safety and conformed them into the standard rules that could be applied to all firearm practices. If you don't know of Col Jeff Cooper, please take some time and look him up online.
"all guns are always loaded." This by far is the most important safety rule of all. All firearms are always loaded…. Period! Do not assume, speculate, or guess if a firearm is loaded, all firearms are loaded and must be handled with upmost caution at all times. This is the universal ethos of firearms and the only frame of mind acceptable when committing to owning one… NO EXCEPTIONS.
Unfortunately, there are many variations of this rule in use today and even though the premise remains the same, the cold hard truth is that words such as "as if", "might be", "presumably", and "likely" all actually undermine the meaning. If you apply the mindset that all firearms are loaded at all times, you will handle each firearm with alertness and eliminate any potential for accidents due to negligent actions.
"Never let the muzzle cover anything you are not willing to destroy." This follows the premise that the bullet can only exit the barrel through the muzzle and the bullet's trajectory will then travel in a straight line until it impacts 'something' in its line of path or loses its inertia. This dictates that you should always maintain complete control over the firearm and the direction it is pointed. Irrelevant of your surroundings, whether at the range, classroom, home or even in the field, only point the muzzle at something that you are entirely confident and comfortable in destroying.
Please stop for a second and digest what you've read thus far; if a firearm is in a drawer, on a table, holstered, in a bag, and so forth, it is not physically being handled and therefore, loaded or not, is technically not a threat, as the firearm is incapable of discharging a cartridge on its own. A firearm is a mechanical extension of you and can only be discharged when the trigger is pulled or the weapon is otherwise manipulated.
Firearm Safety Rule # 2 follows Rule # 1 to ensure individuals recognize that even if a firearm is clear and unloaded, you should still treat it with the absolute respect that all firearms are loaded at all times until proven otherwise and can harm, damage and even destroy anything in the path of the muzzle. It is never acceptable or safe to point the muzzle at anything or anyone that you do not want to shoot!
"Keep your finger off the trigger until your sights are on target". This rule is by far one of the most overlooked and even worse, misrepresented rules within media, movies, and even range instructors. Keep your finger off the trigger until you've drawn your firearm, evaluated your surroundings, followed all the necessary steps, and are finally ready to shoot. Then, and only then, should you transition your shooting finger to the trigger in preparation to fire, with no doubt what-so-ever that you will destroy whatever is in line with your muzzle and sights.
By keeping your finger off the trigger until your sights are in proper alignment with the target, you're preventing any negligent discharge as well as ensuring proper acquisition of the target. This Firearm Safety Rule is not only a preventive measure, but an absolute in mastering your chosen firearm. Once you master it, you will not only be a safe and proficient shooter, you will be able to place the bullet exactly where you intend for a solid shot group, every time.
"Be sure of your target (Identify the target and what is behind it". Very simple, stop and asses the target, identify exactly what it is, and evaluate your surroundings. NEVER pull the trigger until you are 100% certain what your target is and its surroundings. Regardless of the situation, whether on the range practicing, in a forest hunting, or at home in a gun-fight, ALWAYS evaluate your surroundings and their conditions and be completely aware of your actions.
In conjunction to Firearm Safety Rules 2 and 3, this rule illustrates that bullets don't always cooperate by impacting the intended target and then simply stop. Bullets are designed with ballistics that have the ability to penetrate through any given target. A bullet will always travel on its directed trajectory or flight path. Bullets can sometimes shift flight paths after impacting an intended target and the kinetic energy is redirected. In conclusion, you only have control of the bullets trajectory as it leaves your firearm's muzzle. Hence, the importance and safety measures necessary in identifying your target and evaluating all surroundings before firing.
Whether you choose to adopt the NRA's Firearm's Safety Rules or the Universal Firearm's Safety Rules, both have proven track records and have dramatically altered the approach to the safe handling of firearms. What is relevant is how you apply these safety rules into your lifestyle. Bottom line, these rules should become a part of your character and select the curriculum of rules you will be most comfortable with. In addition to the two (2) firearm safety approaches we just explored, here are some additional pointers to consider in regards to safe firearm practices:
Use of Correct Ammunition ‑ Please refer to your firearms "User's Manual" that was included with your purchase, and identify the manufacturer's specific instructions for the proper ammunition recommended & tested for the specific firearm make & model. If you don't have a copy of your manual, you should contact the manufacturer or download a new one. If you are considering utilizing a different brand, load, or type of ammunition than the manufacturer's recommended & approved ammo, then accept the responsibility of researching the intended ammunition completely. Employing the wrong brand, load, or type of ammunition can cause severe complications with your weapon; such as feeding issues, firearm malfunctions, discharge problems and other severe consequences, potentially resulting in serious injury, damage to property, or even DEATH.
Wear the correct protection ‑ Ears and Eyes! Always wear ear and eye protection when shooting and practicing with your firearm. Over exposure to a firearms discharge can cause hearing loss. The appropriate eye protection should always be worn to prevent debris, gases and particles from injuring the eyes, not to mention hot ejecting cartridges.
Learn your firearm ‑ Understanding the basic mechanics & moving parts, overall functions and handling characteristics of your firearm will always insure safe firearm practice habits.
Store your firearmproperly ‑ Practicing proper storage habits can prevent unwanted person(s) gaining access to your firearm. Securing your firearm properly from children is solely the responsibility of the owner, and should be taking seriously. Ignoring this rule can have dire consequences.
Educate your friends and family ‑ The more people in your life that have the potential of coming into contact with your firearm can increase the chance of the negligent discharge of a firearm. Taking the responsibility to educate those around you in proper handling of your firearm will help to ensure their safety as well as yours.
Properly maintain your firearm ‑ Keeping your firearm in proper working order and cleaning it regularly will greatly increase not only its lifespan, but the chances that the firearm will not malfunction. Refer to your user's manual for manufacturer's instructions for the proper way to clean and maintain your firearm.
NEVER mix alcohol or drugs with firearms ‑ You should have a clear head and heightened sense of awareness when operating a firearm. Mixing drugs or alcohol with shooting can lead to unsafe and dangerous handling of a firearm, resulting in possible serious injury or even death.