Safety - Two Sets of Rules
As a new shooter enters the world of firearms training, the very first topic that will be covered is that of firearms safety. Learning to properly use a firearm, whether for a shooting sport or for personal defense, is a deadly serious process. There is always an opportunity for a simple mistake with deadly consequences.
Trainers and training organizations have established a common core of rules to help reduce the possibility of a new shooter leaving the range – or a defensive engagement - with an extra hole or two. These rules fall into two broad categories – Rules for the Shooting Sports and Rules for the Defensive (and Offensive) Use of a Weapon.
Rules for the Shooting Sports
I will define “shooting sports” as including the various types of target shooting as well as hunting. The “Gold Standard” when it comes to safety rules for the shooting sports is the NRA – National Rifle Association. They have been conducting firearms training since 1871 and they have developed three simple and concise rules for firearms safety:
1. ALWAYS keep the gun pointed in a safe direction.
2. ALWAYS keep your finger off the trigger until ready to shoot
3. ALWAYS keep your gun unloaded until ready to use.
ALWAYS keep the gun pointed in a safe direction. A “safe direction” means a direction that – even should you accidently discharge your gun – the possibility of fatally injuring someone or doing large scale damage is minimal. On an outdoor shooting range this direction is typically “down range” (towards the target area) or at the berms that typically surround the range. At an indoor shooting range this direction is typically limited to “down range”.
In your home, all guns for shooting sports would typically be unloaded and stored in a locked gun vault of some kind. Still, even when handling a gun for cleaning, inspection or repair – care needs to be taken to continue to follow Rule 1 and always keep the gun pointed is a safe direction. The work area you use should be oriented in such a way that when you are working with your gun the barrel points in such a direction to insure no people are ever in the line of fire.
This rule – this habit – is the single more important trait to develop when you first begin to handle a firearm.
ALWAYS keep your finger off the trigger until ready to shoot. Your trigger finger should be thought of as a separate appendage. Its ONLY purpose is to press the trigger. It is NOT part of the grip of the gun. It is NOT part of the mechanics of the hand used to draw your gun from a holster of lift a rifle or shotgun to your shoulder. Its ONLY PURPOSE is to press the trigger. And a shooter only presses the trigger after proper sight alignment and a proper sight picture has been established.
ALWAYS keep your gun unloaded until ready to shoot. Shooting ranges are usually “cold” meaning that you do not load your gun until you are on the firing line or in the shooting box. Should your gun have a detachable magazine, it’s OK to load that away from the firing line. But, never insert the magazine into the gun until you are on the firing line or in the shooting box.
Most NRA instructors will add a fourth safety rule:
ALWAYS be sure of your target and what’s in front of – and behind of – it. Just because you are on a designated shooting range, or in a known are for your hunt, you simply cannot depend on your line of fire being clear of people or unintended targets. You MUST be certain that you have clearly identified your target and that the area between you and the target is clear. And, you must be certain that in the event you miss your target, the area behind your target is clear as well.
These three NRA rules and the typically added fourth are at work every day keeping shooters on the range and in the field safe. But, they are only as effective as you – the shooter – make them. It is YOUR responsibility to follow them each and every time you have a gun in your hand.
Rules for the Defensive (and Offensive) Use of a Weapon
There is an alternate set of rules that are typically used when training a shooter to use weapons for defensive – or offensive – purposes. They were penned by Lt. Col. Jeff Cooper.
1. ALL GUNS ARE ALWAYS LOADED
2. NEVER LET THE MUZZLE COVER ANYTHING YOU ARE NOT WILLING TO DESTROY
3. KEEP YOUR FINGER OFF THE TRIGGER UNTIL YOUR SIGHTS ARE ON THE TARGET
4. BE SURE OF YOUR TARGET
Once you cross into the training area where your gun is used for defensive – or offensive – purposes, you will notice that the “tone” changes. The word “gun” is typically replaced by “weapon”. This is done to make it perfectly clear that you have a deadly weapon in your hand and that in this environment its purpose is to inflict harm on another person – either to “stop the threat” in most defensive situations. Or, to take a life in an offensive situation. Few shooters outside of law enforcement and the military ever experience the need to take offensive action.
ALL GUNS ARE ALWAYS LOADED. If you treat every weapon as if it’s loaded, it’s less likely you’ll do something stupid with it. This also encourages you to develop the habit that should you be handed a weapon you will immediately check to make sure the weapon is unloaded and safe to handle.
NEVER LET THE MUZZLE COVER ANYTHING YOU ARE NOT WILLING TO DESTROY. A weapon is a means of destruction. When you point the barrel of your weapon at a person, it means that you are willing to kill that person. Take a moment to think about that statement. While being able to tell your friends that “yep, I carry”, what that truly means is that should the situation arise where you will need to actually draw your weapon and use it to protect yourself, your family or your friends – you may actually have to kill someone. There is never any reason what so ever to point a loaded weapon at anyone unless you are under direct threat and unless you are actually ready to follow through and stop the threat with deadly force.
KEEP YOUR FINGER OFF THE TRIGGER UNTIL YOUR SIGHTS ARE ON THE TARGET. There are two elements to aiming a weapon – Sight Alignment and Sight Picture. Sight Alignment means that the front sight is properly aligned with the rear sight. Sight Alignment means that these aligned sights (or red dot or scope reticle) are resting on the target you intend to destroy. Until this is accomplished – keep your finger OFF THE TRIGGER. In fact, rather than just keeping your finger straight and outside of the trigger guard, make an effort to raise it up well above the trigger guard so there is no doubt at all that your finger is off the trigger. If you have a semi-automatic pistol, I encourage my students to stick the tip of their trigger finger in the ejection port or in that same region of the opposite side of the slide for left handed shooters.
BE SURE OF YOUR TARGET. At the time of this writing, the Vice President of the United States gave some advice to people who were trying to defend themselves during a home invasion. He simply said that if you were afraid someone was trying to break into your home through your door, to just fire a couple of rounds from a shotgun through to door to stop them. I simply cannot imagine worse advice. In most areas of the country, it is blatantly criminal advice. You, as the shooter, are responsible for each and every round you fire from your weapon, regardless of what your intent was. If you are in fear of your life being lost, and you find it necessary to discharge your weapon at the threat – you MUST BE SURE OF YOUR TARGET!
Two different worlds – the world of “shooting sports” and the world of “defensive and offensive shooting”. Yet both sets of safety rules get us to the same place – safe shooters that only aim at and press the trigger to shoot only their intended targets. As a shooter these rules should be part of your life, part of your soul. You, and only you, are responsible for the safe and proper use of your firearm or weapon. You, and only you, are responsible for each and every round that leaves the muzzle of your firearm or weapon.
The safe use of a firearm or weapon is serious business . . . . treat it that way.
Lives depend on it.