Let’s Talk About Firearms Safety

Before I delve too much into this subject, I need to make one thing very clear. Firearm safety is not a joke. I take it very seriously. I make it clear to everyone I take shooting that familiarity with firearms has not bred contempt for them within me. However, I do not take the way that some firearm safety rules are presented seriously, and I worry that new shooters might not either.

Just so that we’re on the same page, here are the basic firearms safety rules as I see them.

  1. Treat every weapon as if it were loaded.
  2. Keep your finger straight and off the trigger until you intend to fire.
  3. Do not point the weapon anything you do not intend to shoot.

We are sometimes presented with a fourth rule. There does not seem to be much variation in this rule, and the variations that do exist are not materially different from one another. I do not discuss it in this article, but this does not mean that I find it any less important than the others. It doesn’t matter if you’re shooting M855 steel penetrator 5.56x45mm ammo or subsonic .22 LR ammo, it’s still important.

4. Be sure of your target and what lies beyond it.

All Guns Are Always Loaded?

The most common variation of the first weapon safety rule is “all guns are always loaded.”

If you are not familiar with the term cognitive dissonance, this is a good example of it. Basically, cognitive dissonance is the weird feeling you get when you know two “facts” that are in conflict with one another.

In purely objective terms, it is wrong to say that all guns are always loaded. If I fire a pistol until the magazine is empty, it is no longer loaded. I could keep pulling the trigger, but nothing will come out of the muzzle until I load the pistol again. If I properly clear a loaded handgun, it is no longer loaded.

However, those who insist that all guns are always loaded would tell me that both of these firearms are, indeed, loaded.

I see their point. New shooters must understand that firearms accidents occur quite often when people are handling weapons that they think are unloaded. However, they would be in violation of this rule no matter how you phrase it. Beyond that, the people that I’ve taken shooting – those who have received safety briefs from “all guns are always loaded” ranges – get a quizzical look on their face when they hear the phrase. It simply does not make sense. We might as well say “All guns have bullets coming out of them all the time.”

Frankly, I think it is an insult to the intelligence of the person we are trying to teach firearm safety. I am skeptical of any person who states that all guns are always loaded – perhaps they are skeptical of me when I say that I treat every weapon as if it were loaded. So be it.

Keep Your Finger outside the Trigger Guard?

Instead of being admonished to keep our finger straight and off the trigger until we intend to fire, we sometimes see a variation that simply tells us to keep our finger outside the trigger guard until we are ready to shoot. These are quite similar, and you might gloss over the difference without taking much notice.

I hate arguing semantics, and I’m really going to try to avoid it here. However, I wish to make some an distinction.

By keeping our finger straight and off the trigger, we are naturally keeping it out of the trigger guard (with the possible exception of those with extremely short fingers – bear with me for a moment). While it is possible to exert enough pressure on a trigger with a straight or relatively straight finger to cause the weapon to fire, it is much easier to exert the required amount of pressure in the necessary direction with a curved finger. Those with longer fingers could place the tip of their index finger on the forward edge of the trigger guard, thus being in compliance with the “outside of the trigger guard” rule, and yet be exerting enough pressure that their finger might slip off of the trigger guard and onto the trigger.

I hope that I have made the distinction that this is more than semantics clear.

Never Point a Weapon at Anything You Are Not Willing to Destroy?

The third rule varies between “do not intend to shoot” and “are not willing to destroy.”

I must admit that I violate the letter of this rule quite often. Upon reading this, some might be horrified. Allow me to clarify.

If I am practicing drawing and firing from a car, the muzzle of my handgun is pointed towards the floor of the car (and thus the driveshaft), the shifter (and thus the transmission), the console/radio (and thus the engine), the dashboard (still the engine, and other important car bits), or the windshield, side mirror, etc. I neither intend to shoot nor are willing to destroy any of these items, but reality dictates that the muzzle of my firearm must be pointed at something at all times. We cannot will away the physical properties and locations of items in our universe.

Because we are constantly surrounded by valuable things – living and not – it takes a high level of awareness to not violate the spirit of this rule, which is that we should not point firearms at other people – and, to a lesser extent, valuable objects. I do not say this as an excuse – I say it as a requirement. When we are handling firearms, we must always be aware of our surroundings.

Although the distinction between intending to shoot and being willing to destroy does not reach the same level as whether or not the firearm is always loaded, I believe that the latter is an unnecessary dramatization.

The Bottom Line

I believe that if we present firearm safety rules in a simple and rational manner, we have a better chance of properly educating the public and new shooters. I fail to see any benefit from dramatizing firearm safety into ridiculousness. I only see negatives.

It is my firm belief that the methodology is second to the mindset. By treating safety as an over-dramatized, nonsensical joke, we do not instill the proper mindset.

As shooters, we can best preserve life and property by carefully vetting the people that we take shooting, and the manner in which we introduce them to firearms. Do you treat firearm safety as an impediment to fun? Do you breeze or gloss over the rules in a rush before handing someone a firearm? Do you take people shooting who don’t listen to rules? Are you careless in the way that you handle firearms, setting a bad example for people who are looking to you for guidance?

Reconsider your actions.


Andrew Tuohy works as a firearms technical advisor for LuckyGunner.com. He has been handling firearms safely since his first shots at the age of five. A former U.S. Navy Hospital Corpsman, he served with the Fifth Marine Regiment and deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He writes for Vuurwapen Blog and can be reached on Facebook.

7 thoughts on “Let’s Talk About Firearms Safety

  1. That 4th rule should be a given. Apparently a 15 YO Amish girl was killed by an Amish hunter. He was clearing his ML rifle and fired it in the air. My father fought in WW2, the Bulge. He tells me he was more frightened of all those GIs firing into the air on VE day than he was in combat.

  2. I truly appreciate your post. It really brings to light not only the four main rules of firearm safety but why they are needed. Many people can memorize the rules but only by having an understanding of the rules will assist people in being safe. The bottom line as you put it could not have been more on target.

  3. strict adherence to the rules saved my butt recently.
    I was at the range shooting with a couple of guns, I shot one and then set it in my bag and then shot another. When I returned to the bag I was going to break the first gun down, being a glock that requires pulling the trigger, fortunately I follow the rule that you check every gun to see if it is clear whenever you handle it, I racked it and there was a round in the chamber!
    moral to the story is that every time you handle a weapon you MUST ALWAYS make sure it is clear, even if you just set it down.

  4. Pingback: An Opinion from Both Sides of the Gun Store Counter « Vuurwapen Blog

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