Most people know the four rules of firearm safety popularized by Colonel Jeff Cooper:
1.) All guns are always loaded.
This one has a double meaning – (1) always check an “unloaded” firearm yourself and (2) once you’ve checked, still follow all the other rules as though it was loaded.
2.) Never let the muzzle cover anything you are not willing to destroy.
This doesn’t mean you’re willing to destroy the wall of your home – just that it’s not catastrophic like pointing at a family member.
3.) Keep your finger off the trigger until your sights are on target.
This is a critical partner for the ‘muzzle’ rule above. It means that you have to violate 2 rules in order to hurt someone – both sweeping a person with the muzzle and having your finger on the trigger.
4.) Be sure of your target.
This is often expanded to “be sure of what is between you and the target along with what is behind your target”. You must know where the bullet will stop.
Let’s expand on these rules and consider some issues faced by almost everyone who owns a firearm:
In the home
- Even with guns that you know are unloaded – check every time. This is very important when kids are around to demonstrate good habits. It’s also essential when handling firearms around people less familiar than you – putting them at ease and ensuring no problems when they invariably violate the muzzle and/or finger rules.
- When unloading, first remove the magazine from semi-autos. Then lock the slide back to inspect the chamber. This ensures that racking the slide does not inadvertently chamber a round.
- Have a safe direction for the muzzle when loading and unloading. Some people keep a 5-gallon bucket of sand in the workshop for this purpose. At least have a safe direction where you won’t penetrate a floor, wall or ceiling into an occupied room or adjacent building.
- The above muzzle advice is also important when moving firearms in the home. Muzzle “up” may be the best option on your upper floor but muzzle “down” may be the best option downstairs.
- Dry fire practice is an excellent way to develop good sight, trigger and follow-through skills. The best technique is to aim at a blank wall about a foot away. First unload the firearm and separate the ammo or loaded magazine to a different room. Then double check the chamber and use a wall where nothing important will be damaged if an accident occurs.
- If you store loaded guns for self-defense, consider having a small safe or lockbox. There are many options that allow fast access via a key code, fingerprint or RFID bracelet. I personally avoid anything with batteries since they can and do fail at inopportune times. I prefer key codes using a Simplex lock – one that is purely mechanical. If you hide firearms in the home, then you may want to keep the chamber empty in case they are found by an unauthorized person. If there is any chance of a child or unstable person finding them, stick with a lockbox or safe.
- ·The ideal holster will conceal well, have adequate retention of the gun and be reasonably comfortable. Another important characteristic is that the holster remains open when the gun is removed so that you can re-holster with one hand. This is important to avoid the muzzle sweeping your weak hand as you hold the holster open. In general, Kydex holsters, hybrid holsters with a Kydex shell and leather holsters with a stiffener will stay open when empty.
- When holstering on the belt, be sure to insert the gun with muzzle straight down – not angled toward your body. If using a shoulder holster, be very aware of where the muzzle is pointing. Most shoulder rigs these days have the gun horizontal to the ground – thereby pointing directly behind you.
- The latest craze is appendix carry – where the holster is inside the waistband on your strong side just in front of the hip. This makes the gun very concealable and fast to access from any position. It also makes it more likely that you’ll point into your abdomen when re-holstering and ensures that the gun will be pointing into your upper thigh / groin area when seated. Note that this automatically violates Cooper’s second rule on muzzle direction.
- Many younger shooters think I’m just old fashioned when I explain my concerns – if you share that opinion, I suggest you Google “appendix carry accidents”. My personal rules for appendix carry are either to have an empty chamber or carry a double action handgun where there is no stored energy in the hammer or striker and a reasonably long and heavy trigger pull. It is also safer to use an inside the waistband holster with a belt clip that allows you to place the gun in the holster pointing in a safe direction and then put the holster onto your belt with the trigger safely covered in the holster.
- While on the subject of carrying with an empty chamber – this is not the best practice if you want the gun to be immediately available. Most self-defense shootings happen very close and very fast. You can’t rack the slide if you are pushing an attacker away or holding onto a child. The exceptions are where your method of carry makes a loaded chamber too dangerous. This is one of the trade-offs when determining how you should carry.
- Off body carry options include waist packs, backpacks, briefcases, purses, etc. This option is not ideal in that you can be separated from your firearm when you put these items down – leaving them open to theft or accidents with children. In addition, the handgun is often carried horizontal to the ground – meaning that the muzzle is sweeping everyone around you. I apply the same rules as appendix carry – empty chamber or double action. At the very least, you must have a holster in the bag to ensure nothing can get into the trigger guard. Purpose-built bags usually have a Velcro panel that allows you to insert a suitable nylon or Kydex holster with mating Velcro surface.
- Pocket Carry is very convenient with small guns. If done in a front pants pocket, you have the same issues as off body carry where the muzzle is sweeping others while you are seated. Jacket pockets are a bit better if the muzzle can be kept angled down. Both require a holster to cover the trigger guard and I use the appendix carry rules when in a front pants pocket.
Vehicles, Gun Stores and at the Range
- Some folks like to keep a gun in the car. If you do, it should be concealed to avoid alarming people or inviting theft. Be sure it is positioned so that nothing can get into the trigger guard.
- If you need to retrieve the gun or are moving it back and forth from a holster, be very aware of the muzzle. It’s very easy to sweep your legs or angle the muzzle toward your body while seated.
- Some of the worst muzzle discipline happens in gun stores. When handling weapons – even those just cleared – be sure to follow the same muzzle and finger discipline as you would at home. Gun store clerks get swept by muzzles everyday and you’ve probably had the experience of some guy sighting a rifle or dry firing a handgun in your direction. There are very few “muzzle safe” directions in a crowded store and you need to be very careful.
- When arriving at the range, some people pull the gun off the backseat or out of the bag and proceed to walk to the firing line with no muzzle control. You should have the gun cased in the car and take the case to the firing line to safely remove the firearm while pointing downrange. The gun should ideally arrive with a chamber flag or you should immediately open the action at the shooting bench to show the gun is clear.
If all the above sounds like a burden – it should. We are blessed with a country where private gun ownership is a right and many states where reasonable laws exist (at least for the time being). As responsible adults, we have the obligation to keep everyone safe while we are exercising these rights. Along with our primary responsibility to avoid injury, we must avoid jeopardizing our rights by providing the anti-gun activists with examples of accidental shootings or reckless gun handling. Be very aware of your muzzle / finger discipline and stay safe at all times.