Firearms are not inherently safe or unsafe. Nor are they moral or immoral. However, they can be used in an unsafe manner or used for immoral acts. Like any tool, guns can cause serious injury or death if misused and firearms safety is not adhered to.
This blog post and other posts DO NOT constitute or form an instructor-student relationship between the author (me) and the reader (you). Online education can only supplement in-person formal instruction, it cannot replace it. It is your responsibility to understand the firearm laws in your area and to follow the Firearms Safety Rules.
I like to use the following illustrations to help change people’s paradigm and mindset when it comes to firearms safety.
Lasers All Around Us
Have you ever considered how many radio frequency waves we are constantly being bombarded with? Imagine if we could see all the various radio signals passing through the walls of our house where ever we went.
Now consider this. Imagine every gun barrel had a laser emitting out the bore and each laser could shine through the same number of walls that the gun’s bullets could penetrate. How many lasers do you think you would see sweeping through your house, place of work, or across your body on a daily basis?
Consider if every time your neighbor handled their firearm with poor muzzle discipline, you saw a green laser shining around in your house. Or your neighbors saw it every time you were not mindful of the orientation of your firearms.
I say all of this to help drive home the point that gun safety does not stop at the the walls of the room you are in. You need to extend your muzzle awarenesses and the orientation of your firearm beyond the walls of your house or whatever structure or vehicle you are in.
ALWAYS Keep The Gun Pointed In A Safe Direction.
Let’s say you were given the task to man the launch control panel for a missile. You were told that when you received a phone call and given a specific launch code, you were to push a little red button.
As you patiently waited for a phone call that you hoped you never received, would you keep your finger on the launch button? Hopefully not, because there are any number of things that could occur, causing you to accidentally/negligently press the button. You might get startled. You might forget how much pressure you are apply and accidentally apply too much. Your finger might just flinch involuntarily.
Think of the trigger on your firearm as this little red button. There is literally no reason why you should place your finger on the trigger until you are ready to pull that trigger.
ALWAYS Keep Your Finger Straight And Off The Trigger Until Ready To Shoot.
Leaving Your Car In Drive?
I don’t know anyone who parks their car and leaves it in drive. Sure, you might be able to park it on a hill or put on the brake (safety) and it won’t roll anywhere. However, if an unauthorized person gained access to your vehicle, it could be a bad day for them, you, and anyone around.
Think of having a round chambered in the same way as having a car in drive. It is in a condition, such that few steps are required to have it do what it was designed to do, go bang. If you are not in the driver seat, the car shouldn’t be in drive. If the gun in not on you, there shouldn’t be a round chambered. I rubbed a few readers the wrong way with that one, but please keep reading.
ALWAYS Keep The Gun Unloaded Until Ready To Use.
Firearms Safety Rules
Firearms safety is the most important topic relating to firearms training. I refuse to give a casual nod to course safety briefs. I harp on safety throughout my courses. I highly recommend memorizing the following safety rules and applying them to your everyday life, not only while on the firing range.
Cooper’s Firearm Safety Rules
- Treat every firearm as if it were loaded.
- Never point a firearm at anything you do not intend to shoot/destroy.
- Keep your finger straight and off the trigger until you are ready to fire.
- Be sure of your target and its left, right, foreground, and background
NRA Firearm Safety Rules
- ALWAYS Keep The Gun Pointed In A Safe Direction.
- ALWAYS Keep Your Finger Off The Trigger Until Ready To Shoot.
- ALWAYS Keep The Gun Unloaded Until Ready To Use.
Why two sets of rules?
You might find it odd that there are two separate lists of firearms safety rules. The reason for this is because Lt Col Jeff Cooper, one of the most influential firearms instructors of all time, was one of the first to formalized the firearms safety rules. The NRA developed their own version as well, though I’m not sure which set was developed first.
Cooper’s 1st Rule
Cooper’s 1st rule assumes the person reading the rule understands what it means to treat a as if it were loaded. This may very well work for someone who understands the philosophy of firearms safety, but this is not the norm. This rule means nothing to untrained adults and children.
Cooper’s 2nd Rule
Cooper’s 2nd rule is valid; however, it only addresses part of the issue. Not only should we never intentionally point our firearms at anything we do not intend to destroy, but we should ensure they are always pointed in a safe direction. Initially, these two statements may sound indistinguishable; however, the second applies to a broader range of contexts.
For instance, most people are not cognizant of the orientation of their firearm when they are administratively handling their firearm at home, at the range, or at a gun store. They may not be “pointing” their weapon intentionally at anything, but their gun doesn’t know the difference. It is important to consider the orientation of your firearm/s at all times.
I like to go a step further and rather than use the term “point”, I like to use the term “orient”. As in, “ALWAYS orient the gun in a safe direction.” This might sound even more nit-picky, but consider the following. Most people understand what it means to point something at something. Most people with any common sense would likely never intentionally point a gun at someone unwarranted (not including criminals).
However, plenty of people unknowingly orient their firearm at people all the time because they are not thinking in terms of the firearms orientation. This commonly occurs when someone is holding the firearm and turns or bends over to pick something up. This is why I like the term “orient”, because it removes your intent from the equation.
Cooper’s 3rd Rule
Cooper’s 3rd rule was carried over into the NRA’s 2nd rule. This is without a doubt one of the most important rules. Guns do not just “go off,” the exception being those without drop safeties. However, guns are very good at going off when the trigger is pressed.
It is also important to consider foreign objects that could inadvertently manipulate the trigger. Loose clothing, draw strings, spent brass casings, etc. can and have caused an accidental discharge. It is critical you use a holster designed specifically for your firearm and that you do not use “universal” holsters.
Cooper’s 4th Rule
Cooper’s 4th rule is to some degree a derivative of the NRA’s 1st rule. However, I do like his addition of being cognizant of the foreground, background, and peripheral of your target.
This is especially important when considering home defense strategies and responding during a defensive scenario. Bullets do not simply stop at the first object they hit. Over-penetration is a term used to describe what happens when a ballistic projectile passes through the initial object and continues traveling. A 9mm round can penetrate multiple interior walls so be mindful of this.
Possibly the largest shortcoming in Cooper’s list is its failure to address when a firearm should be loaded. The NRA did a great job at addressing this with their 3rd safety rule. I am confident that this rule could spare many innocent lives that are lost each year due to accidental discharge.
Every other rule assumes that the person who may come in contact with the firearm is of sound mind and appropriate maturity to treat them safely. However, the NRA’s 3rd rule is a proactive means for mitigating a safety risk if unauthorized or untrained personnel do come in contact with your firearms.
Now, you might object on the grounds that you keep your firearms locked up or live alone and there is little to no chance that unauthorized access would occur. You might be correct; however, consider the unforseen circumstances where unauthorized access could occur.
Consider the scenario where a husband passes away and his wife and/or children are left to go through his belongings. He may have been aware what loaded condition his firearms were in and how to retrieve them safely from storage; however, his family may not.
There are many scenarios where it would be appropriate to stage or store a firearm with no round in the chamber. Bottom line: Do not keep firearms stored or staged with a round in the chamber. If you do not have time to chamber a round during a home defense scenario then you need to upgrade your training and/or upgrade your security.
Gun discharges while in appendix holster
Additional Safety Rule
NEVER modify your firearm unless by a trained professional with certified parts.
NEVER install unsafe components in your firearm.
Stop installing ridiculous after market light triggers and unsafe components unless you want to experience this. I do not modify my firearms’ mechanism, but the video below is another reason I load my firearms with them oriented at a safe backstop.
Storage and Condition
Every tool can be stored unsafely depending on the context, be it a car, a gun, a space heater, a knife, etc. Unsafe storage is a factor of condition and access. Condition is the level of steps remaining before the tool can be operating in its intended manner.
A power drill’s condition is dependent on whether it is plugged in, if a drill bit is inserted into the drill chuck, and if the safety is on or off. A car’s condition is dependent on if the keys are in the ignition, if the car is in gear, and if the break is on. A knife’s condition is largely dependent on it’s sharpness and if it is stored in a sheath. Finally, a firearm’s condition is dependent on where its ammunition is in relation to the firearm, and the position of manual safeties. The condition of a firearm is a crucial factor of firearms safety.
Is a gun or a knife more risky? It depends
If I place a loaded firearm and an unsheathed knife on the table while I sit and talk to an adult, there is nothing inherently unsafe about the situation. However, let us consider this scenario: replace my buddy and I with two unsupervised young children. Well, this is an extremely unsafe scenario.
The firearm in the above scenario represents the largest safety hazard due to it’s condition and it’s stored potential energy while the knife is the second most hazardous. Although, if the firearm is unloaded and the knife is unsheathed with two children in the room, the knife represents the larger safety hazard.
***Clarification: I AM NOT recommending you try these scenarios. Nor is it responsible to leave unattended children with unsecured firearms, knifes, drills, or any other tool***
I am not suggesting that any of these tools are more effective at stopping a threat than modern firearms, although cars are up there. This claim would be a ridiculous and one that I wish certain politician would stop promulgating.
Yes, guns are more effective than knives at stopping a threat. This was the intent behind their design. This is the precise reason why guns are the perfect tool for self defense. It is much easier to teach someone how to defend themselves with a gun than a knife or a less-than-lethal weapon. Guns are equalizers.
Ok, let’s get back on topic of firearms safety…
I say this to emphasize the importance of firearm condition and safe storage location. There is a rule in our house: no rounds in the chamber unless they are being carried on your person. On your person does not include off-body carry in a backpack or a purse. On your person means just that, on you in a holster designed specifically for that firearm.
Firearms Safety House Rules
When my wife or I take our handguns out of their holster, we remove the magazine and eject any live rounds. We then clear the chamber three (3+) times, reinsert the magazine, and then place the firearm in a safe.
If we have friends over who carry and wish to store their firearm for the evening, they go through this same storage process. I recommend having a few easy access safes throughout your house so that you minimize the friction points associated with locking up your firearm, while also keeping it near for quick access.
Wall Mounted Safes work well for coat closets.
Table top safes work well for nightstands.
Cable Lanyard Safes work well for vehicles.
A Habit of Safety and Accountability
We store the home defense weapons with a magazine inserted and no round in the chamber. I check every firearm in this condition before bed each night. This is a routine and habit I have adopted for ensuring daily accountability of the location and condition of every firearm.
I don’t believe my stored firearms need rounds chambered anymore than my car needs to be in drive when nobody is driving. I am confident that abiding by this philosophy would spare many lives lost due to accidental discharges. It is also a good idea to use a chamber flag with firearms that are unloaded not being used (See Images Below). These devices make it very clear that the chamber is clear of ammunition.
You may feel that it is crucial for your home defense weapon to have a round chambered. If this is the case, upgrade your training or upgrade your physical security and intrusion detection. Storage of unsecured firearms with rounds chambered is likely more of a safety risk than a home invader. Think of firearms safety as a form of protecting those inside and come up with solutions that enable you to maintain firearms safety while also responding to other threats.
The video below is the demonstration of an idea I had for quickly extracting a chamber flag to chamber a round.
As mentioned previously, I highly recommend staging ARs without rounds in the chamber. Furthermore, I love using chamber flags due to the ease with which you can confirm the chamber is clear. However, the only downside of using chamber flags for a home/vehicle defense AR, is the speed with which you can chamber a round. Thus, I came up with this idea the other day and after testing it a few dozen times, I can confidently say that this is a reliable and safe method for extracting a chamber flag during chambering.
I have tested this using a Daniel Defense and Pridefend Chamber Flag. I then loop a basic hair tie around the chamber flag and the forward assist.
When I am unloading and loading a firearm, I am cognizant of where I point the firearm and what is behind that object. I do not unload my weapon while pointing it at a wall shared with a room occupied by someone else. Nor do I point it at the floor or ceiling if I know that someone is above or below me. When loading, I have particular locations where I chamber a round. In the event of an accidental discharge, the bullet will travel into the dirt.
Consider where you orient your firearm during loading, unload, holstering, and unholstering. If you live in an apartment, are there residents below/above you? If you live in a multi-story house, do you chamber a round while pointing at the floor above the family room? How about an exterior wall adjacent to your neighbors exterior wall? All these are important firearms safety considerations that we must adopt.
The Importance of an Empty Chamber
I would NEVER do this, but if I took my handgun, inserted a magazine with no round in the chamber, then placed that handgun on the floor and told my kids to play with it, there is no chance that:
- The weapon would discharge since there is not round in the chamber
- They would be able to chamber a round due to the strength and skill required. I know men and women who struggle with cycling the slide.
Again, that is a fictitious scenario and is not in agreement with basic firearms safety rules. I have never and will never try that. Nor am I suggesting anyone else try it. I hope that was crystal clear.
I am only attempting to illustrate a point: It is much safer to store a firearm with no round in the chamber compared to keeping a round in the chamber.
Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a more concise way for me to describe these various conditions of a weapon? Well, turns out there is. Thank you again, Jeff Cooper. Chill out, Marines, I generalized them a bit and included the nuanced condition.
- CONDITION 4: Chamber empty, no magazine inserted,
- Hammer down for Double Action/Single Action (DA/SA)
- Weapon on safe, if applicable
- CONDITION 3: Chamber empty, magazine inserted
- Hammer down for DA/SA
- Weapon on safe, if applicable
- CONDITION 2: A round in the chamber, magazine inserted
- Hammer down for DA/SA
- Weapon on safe, if applicable
- CONDITION 1: A round in the chamber, a magazine inserted
- Hammer cocked for DA/SA
- Weapon ON safe, if applicable
- *CONDITION 0: A round in the chamber, a magazine inserted
- Hammer cocked for DA/SA
- Weapon OFF safe, iff applicable
(I think Condition 0 could just be called “Condition Glock”)
Additional Firearms Safety Rules
- Understand the mechanical characteristics of the firearm you are handling and its cycle of operations
- Use proper ammunition
- Visually inspect the rounds inside the ammunition box because manufacturing and packaging systems are not perfect.
- Ensure the barrel is clear of obstructions before loading and firing
- Remember RULE 2
- Do not rely on the external safety to prevent it from firing. Mechanical devices fail.
- Do not store firearms in a manner that could result in the trigger being pulled by another object or a person retrieving the firearm
- Range bag, glove box, gun safe, backpack, purse, etc.
- Do not modify your firearm unless it is performed by a trained gunsmith and do not install unsafe components.
- Follow Cooper’s Firearms Safety Rules, the NRA Firearms Safety Rules, and the additional rules above.
- Become familiar with and follow the range safety rules.
- Listen and obey the Range Master’s commands and instructions.
- Keep firearm pointed downrange when on the firing line.
- Wear eye protection (eyepro) and ear protection (earpro)
- Never bend down to pick something up when on the firing line, unless given permission by the Range Safety Officer (RSO) or Instructor.
- Know the safe stand-off distances for shooting steel. Ricochets from steel can maintain 30% of their original velocity.
- Some 5.56 rounds travel at about 3,000 fps. Therefore, they can still have about 900 fps velocity after reflecting off of a steel plate.
- Most objects only need about 160 fps to penetrate skin.
I can’t even count how many times I have had to correct someone at a range for a safety violation. Some while in the military, some while in law enforcement, and many more as a civilian.
I hate this phrase, but if you see something, say something. Say something right then and there because if you don’t and someone ends up getting injured or getting killed, you and the person who accidentally shot them will never forget it.
If you attend a range where you commonly see negligent firearms handling or unsafe practices, then FIND ANOTHER RANGE.
3 thoughts on “Firearms Safety [FIREARMS]”
Sorry, but Cooper never had 5 rules, only 4. The Modern Technique of the Pistol expressly goes against your “Rule 5” and is quite debatable about the legitimacy of it during a fight or potential fight, especially with the emphasis Cooper put on Rule 3.
I appreciate the fact you are tackling firearm safety for it is the corner stone of gun ownership and responsibility, but, please, let’s not revise our history.
-A Gunsite Alum
Thank you for your comment, David! I believe you are correct. The 5 rules I listed were how they were taught to me in the Marines and we always gave Cooper credit for them, among other doctrines. I will revise the post and add the manual safety portion as an addendum with a note. This post was not limited to Pistols alone and the manual safety is still important, especially when considering AR/AK platforms as well other firearms. I assure you that it was not my intention to “revise our history”, and my addition did not decrease the safety value of Cooper’s Safety Rules. I will modify the post accordingly. Thanks again!
OK, sorry, sorry, have to revise what I said – your Rule 5 should be Rule 5, and there is no fifth rule.