The Four Rules of Firearm Safety

posted on July 13, 2020

The excitement of being a new gun owner is amazing. So many new challenges on the horizon, but as a new shooter there is a lot to take onboard. Probably the most important skill you develop is gun safety. Even if you do not intend on handling guns, understanding safety will prove invaluable if and when you find yourself in their presence.

I’m sure many of you grew up around guns—surprisingly I did not. I did go shooting with family and friends on a regular basis, but there were no guns in my household. Even early on in my life I was exposed to safety and eventually to understanding the importance of gun safety in my daily handling of them.

If you do not know the universal gun-safety laws, let’s start there. First, all guns are always loaded. Second, always keep the muzzle pointed in a safe direction. Third, keep your finger off the trigger until your sights are on target and you are ready to fire. Fourth, know your target and what lies beyond it. You may have heard slightly different explanations, like the NRA’s three safety rules that encompass the same points. You may also have heard several additional rules, but these are the four laws you must follow to ensure safety. These four laws are the key to a safe and fun experience.

formal instruction
If you’re a new gun owner, or just need a refresher, formal instruction is always a good idea.

An overlooked issue is safety has no rank or privilege. Been around guns your whole life? It doesn’t matter. Your position within the gun community does not matter. Nobody, and I mean nobody, is excluded from the vital need to always follow these safety laws. The consequences for violating them can be severe.

These laws have a profound impact on our lives because when they work, we don’t realize they are working. We only realize when people don’t obey them. When the person handling guns does not know these rules, their ability to safeguard the public and themselves is in question.

We as a community cannot allow this to happen. Everyone is watching and waiting for another excuse to try to restrict our God-given rights. We must at all levels educate the public and hold everyone accountable to these laws. We must also strive to learn from the mistakes when they are not followed in an effort to ensure they are reinforced for future activity. 

As you learn more about firearms and the safety laws, you start to understand them to a higher degree. For instance, the four laws are designed to be redundant. They are designed so, should one law be broken, the others should work to prevent or mitigate the damage should an unsafe incident occur. Whether the incident was an accident or a result of negligence is up to others to decide.

An example would be the first law: All guns are always loaded. Regardless if you unloaded the gun, the people around you do not know its condition. Prudence demands they assume the gun is loaded and act accordingly. If I see someone handling a firearm in public, I naturally assume it is loaded. 

Something else people overlook is how the four safety laws are not just designed to protect us when practicing, but how they are applied in the real world. Let’s go back to the first law that all guns are always loaded. If you are in public and see someone handling a pistol, why would you assume it is unloaded? Even without context, it is prudent to assume it is loaded for obvious reasons.

shooter with handgun
When you have your sights on a target you are sure is safe to shoot and are likewise sure that what is beyond it is also safe, you can move your trigger finger to the trigger and depress it to fire.

I see poor gun handling a lot, particularly poor adherence to safety. As often as I can, I try to introduce the importance of safety with an understanding that the person violating the safety laws most likely honestly did not know he or she was doing something wrong. It is a different story if the violator in question is an experienced firearm owner and should know better. Now, how does this apply to criminal activity? Simple, if a gun is pointed at you, assume it is loaded and act accordingly. 

Secondly, keeping the muzzle pointed in a safe direction means you first need to know how to identify one. A cone from your muzzle forward where minimal property damage and no personal injury would result from the firearm being discharged is recognized as a safe direction. While it should go without saying, this includes not pointing the gun at your own body.

Too many times I see reckless handling where the shooter does not realize they are pointing the muzzle at themselves as they try to lock the action open or—even worse—they move their hand in front of the muzzle. We see this a lot when reholstering in beginners’ classes. There is never a need for an armed citizen to reholster with great speed, so go back into your leather slowly, deliberately and make sure there’s nothing that could snag the trigger on the way into your holster.

Something less obvious is when I see students working the action and they move their hand in front of the ejection port. Sooner or later, their fingers drift in front of the muzzle, but it somehow does not draw the same attention as overtly covering someone with the muzzle. It should, and you shouldn’t perform any action that increases the danger that any part of you (or another person) will ever be in front of your muzzle.

As we handle guns more often, it becomes somewhat automatic to scan our location. Not so much for bad guys—that is of course a good idea—but for a safe direction. If we have to move with a gun, we want to know the safe direction to keep the muzzle pointed. You also have to realize it will probably change, or other people’s movement could compromise your safe direction. Were someone to unknowingly walk in front of you or move into the safe direction without recognizing the danger, that direction is no longer safe, and it is up to you to change where you’re pointing the muzzle. 

The third law is probably violated the most often. If you hand someone a pistol and watch how they handle it in those first few seconds, there is a high probability they will move their finger onto the trigger. Sometimes, they don’t even recognize they are breaking the third safety law. When I ask in an effort to learn why they moved their finger to the trigger, most of the time they didn’t realize and fix it for future gun handling. Others say they felt safe even though their finger was on the trigger.

I don’t blame them—they have been brainwashed watching hundreds of hours of poor firearm-safety practices in movies and/or on television. Trust me folks, Hollywood is the last place you want to turn to for gun safety. Not only do we keep our finger off the trigger until we’re ready to shoot, we keep it out of the trigger guard entirely. While it may seem like a technicality, it is an important distinction. In fact, you want your trigger finger placed off the same plane as the trigger’s face.

Should you be startled and your finger is in the trigger guard, or near the vicinity of the trigger, there is a good chance you will clench your hand and your finger will move to the trigger. The force your finger will apply is likely to be more than enough to fire the round. Keeping it up, in what we call the home position, will ensure you avoid this mistake. 

If you are moving to investigate some type of disturbance, you will want to keep your trigger finger on home position. It does you no good to move with your finger on the trigger. It will take you longer to learn the source of the disturbance than to move your finger to the trigger. Some mistakenly believe they are faster if they already have their finger on the trigger should they need to fire. Again, it will take you significantly longer to locate and identify the source of the commotion than it will to move your finger to the trigger. The potential for a tragic mistake is too high to violate the third law.

firearms instruction
Keeping your firearm pointed in a safe direction is crucial at all times, especially at a shooting range and during training.

The fourth law is often forgotten, because it can be difficult to follow off of a square range. You must be sure of your target and what is beyond. In a training or practice environment make sure you safely place your target. Think about the final resting place for the bullet after it has gone through the target. If you are out on public land, this is super important because you are not the only one enjoying the outdoors.

There may be hikers, hunters or others enjoying nature, and the last thing they expect is a bullet whizzing by them. Think about how far your bullet can travel. The difference between a handgun and rifle round can be extreme.

In a home-defense scenario, law four is also vitally important. That bump in the night could have been a home invader or it could be a family member—know your target. Even when you determine that the target is in fact hostile, what’s behind him?

If your round passes through the bad guy, is a family member at risk? If one of your rounds misses the criminal threatening your life, will it end up in the ground or impact your loved one? It is imperative to always follow the fourth law.

What about those fools who do not recognize the danger of firing up into the air in celebration? While there is nothing in front of their projectile as it climbs to its highest altitude, it will have to come down at some point. Where it comes down is unknown.

Moreover, in a court of law, you will be required to justify why you used deadly force. You cannot use as your defense that there was a loud noise, a shadowy figure or scary situation. You have an obligation to ensure that when you apply deadly force, it was because there was a justification for its use. Positive target identification is part of your deadly force response.

As mentioned earlier, the four laws exist in a layered approach designed to create the largest safety net possible. Since we have more information regarding the laws, how do they work together and how can they help prevent an accident? If you approach each firearm with the understanding it is loaded unless otherwise inspected it goes a long way toward avoiding an unsafe atmosphere. I was once handed a gun and asked to dry fire it to feel the smooth trigger pull.

There was this rush for me to pull the trigger, yet something was not right. The gun I was handed was foreign to me, so I stopped to examine it closer. I pointed it in a safe direction then figured out how to open the action. As I did, a blank round popped out of the action. My instincts were spot on and my training took over, and as a result, there was no nasty surprise. Should you see a firearm being handled recklessly, you must immediately recognize the danger. You can then either remove yourself or take action to remedy the situation.

chamber flag in a gun
Though not one of the four gun-safety laws, placing a chamber flag in a gun that is not being fired is a good habit to have. Plus, it’s often a requirement at ranges and shooting competitions.

There will come a time when you expect the firearm to be loaded, you loaded it in an effort to conduct training or, God forbid, to respond to a life-threatening criminal attack. You are still responsible for the muzzle being maintained in a safe direction. Should you be moving either in response to a deadly force encounter or transporting a loaded firearm to a new location, keeping the muzzle pointed in a safe direction might become compromised. If the muzzle is compromised, and you inadvertently cover an object or person, your finger resting on home position should eliminate the chances of the gun being unintentionally fired.

Should the justification of deadly force be met and I must discharge my gun to protect myself or my loved ones, I must be sure of my target. I have to take the time to positively identify the target as well as what’s behind and around it. I am not going to discharge my gun at shadows, loud noises or activity I cannot positively identify. 

There is nothing we can do to retrieve the bullet once it leaves the barrel. We must ensure we follow all of these laws at all times. In addition, we must educate those around us, whether they are new to firearms and shooting or if they should know better. I tell each student they are responsible for their own safety and, should they see something unsafe, to take action. The more educated the public is in handling guns, the less likely we are to see or hear about a preventable tragedy. Everyone is better off when we adhere to the four laws of gun safety.


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