How many shooters out there ever get tired of someone – a range officer, an instructor, another shooting buddy – shoving “gun safety” at you? Do you have a relative who won’t allow his 6-year-old to even hold a toy gun because “he’s much too young to understand safety rules”? Yeah, me too… I’ve run into all of these at one time or other. All of these scenarios show gun safety advocates going over the top in their response to perceived lapses of safety rules. I admit, some folks can really be a pain about these safety examples, but as shooters it’s our responsibility to take gun safety very seriously.
If you have read many of my reviews or blog articles, you know that I tend to lean toward humor and wit (or at least I attempt to do so) in my writing. But… this is a topic that I won’t be doing that with. Gun safety is something that we all should take very seriously. Without getting into a lot of sad detail, we all have seen news reports (or even have first-hand accounts) of gun accidents. These are tragic; most could have probably been avoided with proper adherence to gun safety rules.
I Lost A Friend…
I have a first-hand account of a gun fatality that could’ve been avoided. Our neighbor three houses down in our very rural subdivision included three children. There were two girls (the youngest of which graduated with me and has loyally served on all the reunion committees, bless her) and one boy who I’ll call Jim (obviously not his name).
Jim, who was 2 years older than me, and a buddy were out groundhog hunting on a local farmer’s field and each had a .22 rifle. They were crossing a fence and had rested their rifles against it when one of the guns fell and discharged when it hit the ground. You can guess the rest. Jim was a sophomore in our high school – that was as far as he got. Talk about a tragedy!
We were devastated, as our neighborhood was pretty tight and we all went to the same school. They ignored one the NRA’s principle gun safety rules: keep the gun unloaded until ready to use. They should’ve opened the bolts at least before crossing that fence. Rules are there to help us where guns are concerned.
That’s all well and good for those of us who are older and understand rules, but what about those horrific accidents that involve very young children and guns? Those are instances of someone having left a loaded gun where it shouldn’t have been. That’s another type of breach of gun safety.
We have to remember that not all who are physically able to grab a gun have the understanding of just how destructive it can be. Guns are supposed to be deadly weapons – that goes without saying. It’s up to us to make sure they are only that when we want them to be, and not when in the wrong hands.
So, what are the gun safety rules? Is there one set of rules that is agreed upon by most shooters as being authoritative? I like the N.R.A.’s rules. I think most any other rule that you may run across would probably be a derivative or variation of one of these. Here they are; I’ll comment on them a bit further down.
#1. ALWAYS Keep The Gun Pointed In A Safe Direction
This really goes without saying, but it’s amazing how many times you’ll be with someone at a range or in the woods or wherever and that person waves the gun around like it was a baton. I hate that. I really get nervous if the other person hasn’t had much firearms experience and keeps his/her finger on the trigger while waving their long gun or handgun around. That leads us to the second rule:
#2. ALWAYS Keep Your Finger Off The Trigger Until Ready To Shoot
I have reviewed many, many guns over the years for different websites. Whenever I get a polymer-framed semi-auto pistol for review, I look to see if there are little “divots” on the sides of the frame for your trigger finger to rest in when it’s not earning its keep. I always point out the inclusion or absence of such a thing in my review.
I believe that if you have a tactile, obvious resting place for your trigger finger that it should go there when it’s not pulling the trigger. I got in the habit of keeping my finger outside of the trigger guard early on in my shooting experience – it just made sense. I’m a big stippler – I have stippled many of my poly frames over the years for additional grip traction. I always make it a point to hit those finger dimples hard with my little soldering iron in order to draw attention to them. Whether it’s a rifle, a shotgun, a pistol or a revolver, please keep your trigger finger out the guard until you are ready to shoot!
#3. ALWAYS Keep The Gun Unloaded Until Ready To Use
This is the rule I mentioned above when I talked about how we lost a young man to a careless gun accident years ago. If only they had unloaded those rifles… Let’s face it. Unless you are carrying a gun for protection, duty, or hunting dangerous game, there really is no reason to rack that slide until you’re ready to shoot.
(Concealed-carry pistols should have a round in the chamber, but that’s a different article. Safety is first and foremost the issue at all times. You need to be trained to carry a gun with a loaded chamber). When you’re competing, the dude in charge will tell you when to “make ready”, to load your weapon. And, after you’ve shot that string or target or whatever, there’s a reason that the range officer or the guy holding the timer wants you to “show clear”. An empty chamber is a safe chamber.
These are the three main rules that, if followed, will ensure that all will have a fun, enjoyable shooting session. We have other rules (sub-rules, I guess you’d call them?) – let’s look at them quickly.
Know your target and what is beyond.
Common sense. Don’t shoot at tires (ricochet central!) or glass. Make sure that there is nothing beyond your target(s) that would be damaged or destroyed if hit by a bullet.
Know how to use the gun safely.
Owner’s manuals are made fun of, especially by guys who know it all and do not need a manual to tell them how to use the new fill-in-the-blank they just bought. But, if that fill-in-the-blank you just bought is a gun, maybe you might want to glance through the manual. A new drill or impact probably won’t kill you if you misuse it after not reading the manual, but a gun sure could.
This especially applies to those new first-revolver owners who only own semi-autos, or vice versa. Guns ARE different, and it is important that new owners should be familiar with them before attempting to shoot their new acquisition.
Be sure the gun is safe to operate.
With a new gun, this hopefully will not be an issue. But, you’d better know what you’re doing if you buy a used gun or bring a friend who does. There are accidents that happen because the rifle’s/shotgun’s/handgun’s headspace was off, or there was another problem that wasn’t obvious. Get it checked out by a gunsmith if you’re concerned about it.
And, this goes double for any built-in safety on the gun. Safeties need to be mechanically sound in order to work, and they need to be used. Used. As in, engage the safety when the gun is not actively spitting bullets. But (and here we put this car in reverse), don’t rely solely on mechanical safeties. They CAN fail, even if given a green light by your gunsmith.
Assume the gun can fire with or without the safety engaged and treat it accordingly. I know, this doesn’t make sense – use the safety but don’t trust it – but it’s a little head game that shooters play. The bottom line is to handle the gun in a safe manner all the time.
Use only the correct ammunition for your gun.
This goes along with the rule immediately above. There are many instances of guns blowing up when fed the wrong caliber ammo. Here’s an example… the really old, cheapo .38 Spl. revolver my uncle owned had definitely seen better days. I was young at the time and didn’t know about the interchangeability between .38 Special and .357 Magnum ammo… well, at least one-way interchangeability.
That old gun’s cylinder would, most likely, have accepted .357 ammo - it was worn pretty badly. As far as I know, that stunt was never tried but if they had shot magnum ammo in that frail, old .38, I can’t imagine what would’ve happened. This is one almost-example, but you get it… do NOT try to “magnum-ize” a non-magnum gun, whether rifle or handgun. Shotguns can have problems, but they tend to be a little more straightforward – if it has a 2 ½” chamber, it won’t accept 3” shells. If the chamber is 3”, then it doesn’t matter. All this leads to the next rule:
Wear eye and ear protection as appropriate.
In my example above, if that old .38 had let go, hopefully the uncle in question would have had proper eyewear that would’ve prevented a serious accident from becoming tragic. (Knowing that uncle, I doubt if he would’ve even been hearing protection, much less eye protection…). Let’s face it… in my early days of shooting some 50 years ago, we didn’t have all the fancy eye and ear protection we have now. Heck, you can get active Bluetooth hearing muffs or even in-ear protection today… such a thing was unheard of back in the day.
You were lucky to have a set of ear muffs that might reduce the noise 15 or 20 decibels. I was sent, for review, a Walker Game Ear active muff that had a microphone with it that allowed communication with a Family Band walky-talky. Now, that’s handy! When I first started shooting, that was not even on someone’s radar screen yet.
Here’s one personal anecdote about wearing your “ears”... When I bought a 4” S&W Model 28 “Highway Patrolman” .357 Magnum, I took it to a local field to sight it in. The only .357 ammo I could find quickly (and of course, I just HAD to shoot it the day I bought it, right?) was a box of S&W-branded 110 grain HPs. I drove out to where I was going to shoot and discovered I’d left my hearing protection at home. No big deal, right? 4-inch three-five-seven, 110 grain ammo? I’m tough, right? Even though I put my pants on one leg at a time, I’m tough!
Yeah, right. Tough does not equal Smart. It took 2 days for one ear to open back up and four days for the other one. I wear some fairly expensive hearing aids nowadays, the need for which I partially attribute to that one stupid, lamebrain-stunt day. Hearing lost can not be easily regained – remember that. I was a band director for years and always told my kids that if they were listening to music through headphones or earbuds to set their volume at a level that someone needing to talk to them could do so without having to shout. Of course, nobody ever did that but I tried…
Bottom line… once lost, vision and hearing are gone. So wear the protection, bubbeleh!
Never use alcohol, over-the-counter drugs or prescription drugs before or while shooting.
This should be a no-brainer. Shooting is the ONE time you don’t turn to Bubba and say “Hold my beer!”. Do I really need to go on about this? Let’s also extend this rule to the reloading bench, again for obvious reasons. We are not only talking beer/whisky/wine/whatever, but also OTC drugs.
“How can something I buy at CVS impair my shooting ability?” you ask. Well, if you are one that takes some meds that can make you dizzy, like some cold pills do, then don’t take ‘em before a range trip. You don’t need to be standing at the firing line, bobbing & weaving while your gun is doing the Twist. Again, this is common sense but as I look around me today I see that is in short supply… don’t get me started…
Store guns so they are not accessible to unauthorized persons.
This rule was referred to in paragraph four above. You really don’t want little hands getting hold of your home defense pistol/revolver/shotgun/rifle, do you? Lock ‘em up. I had a friend, sadly no longer with us, who was a card-carrying member of the.357 Snubby Guy Brotherhood. He owned several of the shortie fire-belchers. He had grown kids (one of each gender, a matched set) and no granddies running about the house so he stashed a .357 where it was in easy reach, but hidden.
He had more than a few about the place. Do I recommend that? I’m torn, in these crazy/violent times. Part of me says go ahead and have a gun in easy reach if you have no kids about. But the other part of me (the part that’s influenced by the fact that we had four sons who grew up, got married, and have made a total of 10 grandkids so far who tend to come over all the time) wants all guns locked up. Lock ‘em up. I have a pistol safe right next to my bed, in easy reach, that I can open quickly. I have three or four guns in there, and the rest (except for the pellet guns) are in a locked gun cabinet in a back room.
Our problem with intruders seems to not involve two-legged ones, but those with four legs (or two wings). We have chickens, and have thus far been visited by two possums (easy to get rid of – my AR-15 works well), at least one coyote, one weasel and one hawk. Our needs are different than those of a victim of a house break-in, but regardless of why you need a gun for protection, please think carefully about how you are going to keep that gun safe. Others’ lives may depend on it.
As I end this little exercise in gun safety, I am reminded of that age-old chestnut that someone always trots out when talk gets around to safeties on guns. “The best safety is the one that’s between your ears”. I don’t know how many times I’ve had that one thrown at me. I get tired of hearing it because we should all know enough to treat a gun properly, in a safe manner.
Gun safety involves more than simply denying gun-haters fuel for their anti-gun fires… it could very well represent the difference between a happy, productive day at the range versus a horrendous accident that involves a trip in an ambulance to a hospital, or worse. Let’s take these rules seriously, OK? It’s up to each one of us to promote our sport as one that’s safe. These rules are a good starting place as a way to do that, so let’s get it right.
The next time you go with someone to a range, if they are exhibiting “bad manners” in gun handling or another related area, maybe talk to them in a low-key sort of way that doesn’t put their dander up but gets the point across. The best way for you to teach good gun manners is to model those behaviors – they’ll get picked up, in most cases. That’s the teacher in me coming out, but it works. Now – let’s go out and safely pop some primers!
[We'd like to extend a huge thank you to Mike Hardesty for his hard work on this important article. Make sure to share with a friend and check out our other articles like How to Clean a Gun and Parts of Ammo!]