Depending on who you’re asking, there are either three or four major rules of gun safety. Both methods cover the same ground but are phrased a little differently. The NRA often uses the following three:
- Always keep the gun pointed in a safe direction.
- Always keep your finger off the trigger until you’re ready to shoot.
- Always keep the gun unloaded until ready to use.
Gunsite Academy teaches four:
- All guns are always loaded.
- Never let the muzzle cover anything you’re not willing to destroy.
- Keep your finger off the trigger until your sights are on the target.
- Be sure of your target and what’s beyond it.
Both sets of rules are safe and effective. They have built-in redundancy, so that if a person should accidentally or negligently break one rule, as long as they’re following the other rules, the chance of disastrous consequences remains extremely low. You’ll find these rules posted at nearly every shooting range in the nation, and for good reason—they are vital in helping to keep the shooting sports safe and enjoyable for everyone.
There is no substitute for the Big Four rules of gun safety, but there are several rules that go a step or two beyond them that can help you have a better firearms experience.
1. Store the gun securely. What this looks like and how you accomplish it is up to you, but for safety’s sake, you should store your firearms so that they’re not accessible to unauthorized persons. Whatever form that takes in your home, be diligent about making sure children, visitors or anyone else who shouldn’t be handling your firearms unsupervised cannot get to them.
This applies to outside the home as well. Be sure your gun is secure in your purse, your car or anywhere else you might need to keep it and that no one else can get to it.
2. Understand how your gun operates and what ammunition it needs. It’s easy to accidentally create a dangerous situation when you don’t have a firm grasp on how your gun actually functions. Spend time shooting it at the range, but also spend time taking it apart and putting it back together so that you know it intimately and understand how it operates.
Also, be careful with ammo. It is obvious to long-time gun owners, but a newbie might not know that .45 Colt and .45 ACP are not interchangeable in the same gun, for example. Always double-check that the ammo you’re loading into the gun or magazine is the correct ammunition for the gun. Don’t forget that this applies to shotguns, too. Loading a 20-gauge shell into a 12-gauge gun will lead to disaster.
This is why some ranges have a “live ammo that hits the ground stays on the ground” rule, especially during training classes. It’s too easy to pick up a live round out of the dirt thinking it’s the one you dropped, only to find out (hopefully not the hard way) that it was someone else’s and they’re shooting a different cartridge than you are.
3. Never rely on the gun’s safety alone. Take advantage of the safety if your gun has one, but remember that as a mechanical device, it is subject to failure. You cannot trust the safety to keep you completely safe—you must still observe the Big Three or Big Four gun rules even when the safety is on.
4. Keep the gun in good working order. Preventative maintenance will go a long way in helping you catch potential problems before they occur. Keep the gun in working order, give it a visual inspection each time you clean it, and don’t ignore small problems or red flags.
5. Always wear eye and ear protection at the range. This should go without saying by this point, but please heed the lesson that generations before us didn’t know or didn’t care about: Protect your hearing and your eyesight when you’re shooting. Too many shooters of all ages are suffering from tinnitus or hearing loss because they’ve exposed their ears to too many loud gun reports without protection. Hearing loss is cumulative, and what you lose, you never get back.
6. Dress appropriately for the range. If this doesn’t seem like a safety issue to you, let me just point out the number of YouTube videos you can find where a girl gets a spent casing ejected down her tank top and starts doing the dangerous hot-brass dance, waving the gun around distractedly in her hurry to stop the burn. Don’t wear low-cut tops when you’re shooting, especially semi-automatic guns. Close-toed shoes are a good idea as well, to avoid hot brass ejecting onto the top of your flip-flop-clad foot.
7. Never handle firearms when you’re under the influence. Enough said.
8. No showboating, horseplay or casual handling. I don’t know what it is about carrying a new gun for the first time that makes everyone want to whip it out and show their friends, but resist the urge. Keep it holstered. If you’re going to hand a firearm to someone to inspect, always clear it first and hand it over in a safe condition (bolt back, action broken open, or slide locked back).
Guns aren’t toys, and you shouldn’t treat them as such. That means no practicing your quick-draw in the mirror at home unless you’ve triple-checked that the gun is unloaded. No twirling a loaded gun around your finger like an Old West gunslinger. No shoving a loaded gun down your pants or in your purse without a proper, secure holster.
And lastly, don’t tolerate people who violate safety rules. I don’t hunt or shoot with people who exhibit lax safety behavior, and if someone shows up at an unmanned range doing something I consider unsafe, I pack up and leave, even if I just arrived. You are welcome to have a discussion about safety with them if you are so inclined, but keep it exceedingly polite, and be willing to back out if you get any pushback.
Hunting and the shooting sports are among the safest sports in the world, statistically speaking. Let’s keep them that way by observing the major and minor safety rules.