Gun Safety

A practical approach for training and everyday defensive gun use.

You have made the decision to have a defensive handgun in your life.  For most people I think that is a good decision.  It isn’t without it’s complications, however.  You must understand that an error in firearm safety could have consequences that last the rest of your life.

Yes, making a mistake with a gun can kill you, but as a father, I don’t think my death is the worst possible consequence…

I have made the decision to bring defensive firearms into my life and by default, into the lives of those that I love.  If that tool became the source of harm of those that I love, THAT might very well be the worst case scenario.

The value of my life and more importantly the value of the  lives of those that I love demand that I have a realistic and practical approach to firearm safety.

I would bet that you and I are not that different.

In the early days of my firearm ownership I had a tendency to view firearm safety rules from one standpoint:  How can I avoid hurting myself or someone else when I am at the range with my firearm.  Obviously, range safety is an important topic and should not be ignored, (don’t worry we won’t ignore it) but you also need to look at firearm safety from an everyday standpoint.  If you fail to do so, the results could be exactly the OPPOSITE of what you want.  The gun you bought for safety could become the actual implement that harms those that you aim to protect.  In the same vein, we must also consider firearm safety in the heat of a violent encounter and its aftermath.  The point of self-defense is to avoid death or serious bodily harm.  Harming yourself is as bad as being harmed by a viscous thug.  Heck, if your buddies find out, it might be even worse.

Firearm safety is clearly an issue that extends beyond the range and as a result we really need concepts and principles that ring true on the range, at home and on the street.

The Concept of Safety

Although these rules and ideas have been around in the industry for a long time, much of the logic I use to present these ideas stems from time I spent on the range with Rob Pincus, owner of I.C.E. Training Company and the developer of the Combat Focus Shooting program.  My use of the concepts and rules has certainly has gone through some refinements along the way, but the framework is similar to the way it was first presented to me.

Since you are seeking an increase in your personal safety, you must always carefully consider the risks you face against the benefits you perceive you will receive from any given activity.  In the end you should expect the benefits of your actions to significantly outweigh the risks.

BENEFITS > risks

Most people understand that life isn’t without risk.  Driving to the supermarket has it’s fair share of risk yet you may find your self driving to the Piggly Wiggly several times a week.  Why?  Because the benefits of having breakfast, lunch and dinner (which you would be smart to have everyday) outweigh the fact that you could be involved in an accident while on your way to or from the market.

The benefits clearly outweigh the risks.  A lot. So off you go to the store (please, don’t forget the milk.)

Yes, you could be involved in an automobile accident on the way.  The good news is that there are actions you can take to mitigate that risk.  Of course you will make sure your vehicle is in good repair with solid tires and functional breaks.  You certainly will drive with care anticipating the actions of other drivers and be prepared for the unexpected.  There is no doubt that you will wear your seatbelt so that if things do go wrong you will be less likely to face severe injury.  These actions all work to help and mitigate the risk of driving a vehicle, something that most of us do virtually everyday.

I really like the automobile comparison in this situation because it works very well (in other ways the firearm/automobile comparisons fall short, but here it is solid.)  When you look realistically at the risks associated with driving you will probably come away with he same impression that I do:  Driving a motor vehicle probably has a far greater set of risks associated with it that owning, training with and carrying a firearm.

Why do you do something so risky?  You do it for the same reason I do and we both know why: Because the benefits far outweigh the risks.

So why is it that we own firearms, train with firearms and defend ourselves and other innocent people with firearms?  The logical jump tells us the despite the fact that there are risks involved with firearms, the benefits of firearms SIGNIFICANTLY outweigh those risks.

Not having a firearm has risk just like having a firearm.  You can mitigate and control many of the risks associated with having a firearm.  You do not have the luxury of controlling a violent threat.

You might be asking the next important question, or have someone asking you, “How can we reduce the risks associated with owning, carrying and using a firearm to defend ourselves?”  It is a good question and it needs to be answered throughly or you simply ARE NOT reducing the risks as you should.  The good news is that if you take the time to reflect on and implement some simple protocols you will find the benefits of firearms to significantly outweigh the risks.

What are some of protocols that can mitigate the risks of firearm ownership?

  • Know and understand gun safety rules
  • Put gun safety rules into practice every time you use your guns
  • Use appropriate storage and staging solutions for your defensive firearms
  • Implement age appropriate education of family members related to firearms and defensive issues
  • Use other precautions as your resources permit and the situation requires

An appropriate approach to safety can extend well beyond your use of defensive firearms.  This concept can help you to mitigate risks in your daily life just like the driving example that opened this section.  It doesn’t just apply to the practical part of your life.  The first place I ever used this concept was recreationally while I was climbing in the mountains. It made perfect sense in an alpine environment.  Just like with guns, there must be a constant evaluation of the risks and benefits.  There are many places where safety should be looked at as a concept.  Apply it any where it makes sense to you.  Make sure you look at safety as a concept when you use your firearms.

Lets take a look at what safe gun handling is and why it is important.

Safe Gun Handling

It is often mentioned but rarely talked about in detail and as a result safe gun handling is largely left up to individual interpretation.  Usually that works out just fine.  Probably due to luck more than anything else.  You see, without a clear framework for safe gun handling gun safety is left to chance.

The good news is defining safe gun handling is a relatively simple exercise.  In fact, simple enough to be done in three concise bullet points (see what I did there.)

Safe gun handling is:

  • Knowing gun safety rules
  • Putting gun safety rules into practice overtime you handle guns and
  • Securing your guns so that they are inaccessible to unauthorized users.

It takes a commitment on your part to learn about safe gun handling and then make it part of your life.  If you aren’t ready for that commitment, in my opinion, you aren’t ready for gun ownership.  I know that the right to bear arms is a fundamental human right but as with all rights there are responsibilities.

If you own or use guns, safe gun handling is your first responsibility and the first part of that responsibility is knowing gun safety rules.

I am very particular about the rules I use and share with others as rules are an important part of safe gun handling.

Gun Safety Rules

Often times people look for rules to keep them safe.  Unfortunately rules without thought AND action are simply some nicely organized words.  Words have no power without the conscious application of your understanding of safety.

The firearms safety rules that I live by, teach my children and share with my students are rules that are:

  • simple to understand
  • apply in as many situations as possible and
  • help to keep the balance of risk and benefit clearly to the positive side.

I think with careful thought you will see that these particular rules will also serve you well.

3 Rules of Firearm Safety

  • Keep your finger someplace other than the trigger until you are ready to shoot.
  • Keep your firearm pointed in a relatively safe direction whenever possible.
  • Remember: You are in control of a deadly weapon.  If you use it with malice or negligence you could hurt or kill yourself or someone else.

Lets take a look at each of the three rules in depth.

Keep your finger someplace other than the trigger until you are ready to shoot.

Modern defensive firearms tools designed with safety in mind.  Even defensive firearms with no external, manual safety have multiple safety devices incorporated to insure reliable operation under very specific conditions.  In general terms, this means that your firearm is unlikely to fire unless you fire it.  More specifically, it is very unlikely for your gun to go off unless you use your finger to press the trigger.

The purpose of this rule becomes immediately clear when examined from this viewpoint.  Keep your finger someplace other than the trigger until you are ready to shoot and it is very unlikely your gun will fire.

So where should your finger be?  the best place is for your trigger finger to be extended along the frame of the gun so that if someone were to look through the trigger guard from the opposite side of the gun they wouldn’t be able to see your finger at all.  Some guns have a bump, a pin, some engraving or some other feature that just happens to be in the right place to give your trigger finger a happy place to be.  If so, great, put your finger there.  If not a great reference point can be the seam between the bottom and the top of the gun (the frame and the slide if we are talking about handguns.)

If your finger is in this position it only takes fractions of a second to move your finger to the trigger and yet, it is virtually impossible to accidentally press the trigger.  As a result this is the best position for our finger to be in every time we pick up a defensive firearm.

Keep your firearm pointed in a relatively safe direction whenever possible.

When your finger is someplace other than the trigger the gun is unlikely to fire.  When your firearm is pointed in a relatively save direction your firearm is unlikely to do serious damage if it does inadvertently fire.

How could your gun fire?  Let’s be honest it shouldn’t and if it does it’s probably because your finger was on the trigger.  Our trigger finger rule and safe direction rule do a great job of supporting each other.

What is a safe direction?  This certainly varies by your specific situation but we can understand it by looking at in some general terms.  If your gun were to discharge when you didn’t want it to what would be the best direction for that bullet to go?  Where would it have the least likelihood of doing serious damage?  That direction is probably a good choice.  There are some directions that we know we want to avoid:

  • You should avoid pointing your gun up in the air – The adage of what goes up must come down comes to mind here and the problem is where will it come down?  Neither you or I know the answer to that and as a result we should work to find another direction when possible.
  • You should avoid pointing your gun at other innocent people – I am very careful not to tell my students, “Don’t point guns at people!”  Sometimes we do.  Sometimes we even press the trigger when we point a gun at another human.  Sometimes we press the trigger over and over again until that person stops trying to kill us.  You need to be ready to do that when you are forced to, but, we don’t want to point the gun at people that don’t need to be shot.
  • You should avoid pointing your gun at yourself – The consequences of pointing a firearm at yourself are pretty clear.  Don’t do it.  Even when you think the gun is unloaded.

The list of where we should avoid pointing the gun can go on and on depending on our situation and our circumstances.  It might be easier to think about where you SHOULD point the gun.

Whenever possible, point the gun in a direction where if the gun were to fire everyone around you could live with the consequences.  I mean “live” quite literally.  When handling your handgun or any other firearm you must constantly engage yourself in a common sense critical analysis about the best location to point your gun.  It isn’t as easy as some would like you to think.

Before I go on, commit to yourself that you are going to keep reading with an open mind.  The next statement isn’t designed to make people angry or to be controversial but it may do those things.  The other important thing that it may do is help you to follow gun safety rules and in turn save your life or the life of someone you love.   Now that we have agreed to that, keep reading.

In my opinion, an example of an oversimplification of where your gun should or should not be pointed is Jeff Cooper’s second rule:



– Col. Jeff Cooper

If we were to follow Colonel Cooper’s rule as it is written it might be quite difficult to have anyplace where we could point our gun.  The real exceptions would be places where we actually want a bullet to strike such as the target followed by and appropriate backstop at the range or an actual threat that needed to be shot. The problem that quickly follows on is how can I possibly get my gun pointed at those things without pointing at things that I don’t want to shoot on the way there?

The answer is that you can’t.  Let me give you an example to ponder:

Imagine you are in the driver’s seat of your vehicle.  You have been stuck in traffic for quite some time.  Long enough that you have noticed the driver behind you is becoming increasingly agitated.  The left lane starts to loosen up a bit.  You see an opening and make a move to merge.  So does the anger management class frequent flyer behind you. His move is so aggressive in fact that his vehicle impacts the rear quarter panel of yours.  A frustrating drive just got worse.  In moments he is at your driver’s door with a pipe in hand.  The first blow to the glass bounces off. As he winds up again you make the determination that the next blow may not and the third swing is likely to be at your head.

You begin to draw your gun.

Let’s press pause on this event as you grip your handgun and analyze EXACTLY what happens in the next few moments.  In your head advance frame by frame.

Your grip on your handgun is firm and you pull straight up and out of the holster vigorously.

Throughout this action the muzzle of your gun is pointed at the seat, the floor and possibly the center counsel of your vehicle.  Are you prepared to destroy those items?

After the gun clears the holster you bring the muzzle parallel to your thighs and prepare to cross your body.

Your pistol is now pointed directly at your electronic intensive dash. Are you prepared to destroy your dash?

As you cross your body and orient the gun you sweep across the instrument cluster and the drivers side of the engine compartment.

Are you prepared to put a round into the heart of your car?

You complete crossing the body and bring the gun into alignment with your threat. Finally it is pointed where you want, but that glass is still in the way.

Are you prepared to shatter that glass when you send rounds into your attacker?

Different people are likely to have different feelings about where the gun is pointed in this scenario.  From a truly practical standpoint I am only prepared to destroy the dashboard of my car if innocent life is on the line.  So in this specific scenario I would be prepared to destroy my dash and my car in order to win the confrontation.

So what is the point of the example?

It is that pesky word “NEVER.”  Never means well, NEVER and yet in this example pointing your gun at your dash is a great idea.  If I was securing my gun inside my vehicle to head into the post office, I have several other options for locking up my pistol that don’t require me to point my gun at the expensive electronics of my auto.  In that case I should definitely select some other option.

Never is non-negotiable and yet the circumstances HEAVILY influence the choices we make when handling our defensive guns and they SHOULD!  Use gun safety rules that give you permission to use common sense.

Remember: You are in control of a deadly weapon.  If you use it with malice or negligence you could hurt or kill yourself or someone else.

This is called the big picture rule for good reason.  When considered, this rule can provide guidance to virtually all of your actions with a gun.

We need to approach the use of guns and anything else that could have serious consequences from misuse with our minds engaged.  When you are handling guns, your brain needs to be actively considering the fact that your actions have severe consequences that can be permanent. This means you need to be thinking about safe gun handling at all times. You need to be consistently weighing the pros and cons of each of your actions.  There are few situations that are clear cut and you must take a critical look at what you do and when you do it.

You may find some situations when you are handling your gun where you don’t know what to do.  In those circumstances you should know that one option that you have is to do nothing.  If nothing bad has happened and you take no further action, it is unlikely that something bad will happen.  When you get to that situation, Don’t do anything.  Get some help from someone who does know what to do.  You understand that the consequences of making an error with a gun are severe and as a result you don’t want to proceed in a potentially dangerous situation with a trial and error discovery process.

You’ll notice that the above rules are not part of a numbered list.  This is a deliberate choice.  No one rule is more important than another.  Instead, they work together to provide a framework for ensuring that the benefits significantly outweigh the risks associated with firearms ownership.

These rules aren’t the only tools for mitigating gun safety issues, however, they are a key aspect.  I feel that it is important to introduce other gun safety tools to support safe gun handling.

Additional Rules

In addition to the three rules of firearm safety I teach two additional rules that help the primary rules extend to a wider variety of circumstances.

Avoid Administrative Gun Handling

The avoidance of administrative gun handling helps in two main areas. The first area is in a reduction of firearms accidents.  The less you handle your defensive guns the less likely you are to make a mistake in that handling.  Whenever possible keep that unnecessary handling to a minimum.  Our defensive tools aren’t there for entertainment or show.  Treat them as the valuable tools they are.

There are times where we need to handle our firearms for loading and unloading, training, or even cleaning and maintenance.  When we own firearms for defensive use, I recommend that you always remember that the primary use of your defensive tools is defensive.  So when we must handle your firearms for these tasks handle them in a defensive manner.  Make the deliberate decision to grip, load or otherwise handle your gun as you would do so in a spontaneous violent encounter.  This can help to reduce accidents and has the added benefit of serving as free training opportunities.

No Single Check Can Verify a Gun as Unloaded

There are certainly times when when we need our defensive firearms to be unloaded.  Whether we are storing, cleaning or repairing our firearm we want to make sure that when we think a gun is unloaded it actually is.  Because the consequences of an error in unloading a gun could be grave it warrants a double check.  At a minimum you should verify twice that your firearm is indeed unloaded.  Whenever possible, you should have two separate people verify that the firearm is unloaded before proceeding with administrative action.  When I am teaching on the range I make it crystal clear that no one person has the authority to declare a firearm unloaded. Not even me.

How to Unload a Gun and Verify its Condition

At times you may need to handle your defensive handgun in an administrative manner.  Cleaning or repairing your handgun are two examples of such a time.  When administrative handling is required you need to follow gun safety rules and make sure that your gun is unloaded.

There are two things that need to be checked to ensure that a firearm is unloaded:

  1. Remove the ammunition supply
  2. Open, clear and inspect the action

Removing the ammunition supply is the first step of safely unloading a gun.

This is accomplished in different ways with different types of firearms.  When it comes to magazine fed firearms pressing a button that is located around the trigger guard or magazine well will allow the magazine to drop free from the firearm.  When it comes to revolvers, opening and emptying the cylinder removes the ammunition.

Other firearms might require repeated cycling of the action to unload the gun.  If you are unsure of how you should remove ammunition from your firearm, consult your owners manual.

Open Clear and Inspect the Action

After the ammunition source is removed, you should lock open the action of your gun and perform an inspection.  Visually and physically check the firearm to ensure that the action and the ammunition source are clear of ammunition.

Remember, no single check can verify that a firearm is unloaded.  Cycle the action, then lock it open and inspect both the ammunition source and the action a second time to ensure that the gun is unloaded. By inspecting both the ammunition source and the action twice, both visually and physically we can then safely proceed with disassembly, cleaning, repair and or maintenance knowing that the gun is unloaded.  If possible, ask another individual to inspect the firearm to make sure that it is clear and unloaded.

This extra verification will take only a few seconds to complete and could be the step that prevents you from making a costly mistake that could change your life forever.

Important Words on Firearm Safety

Massad Ayoob is literally an icon of the firearms industry and is know for sharing quality information regarding defensive firearm use and the legalities of the use of force.  Some of the wisest words I have heard Mas utter are related to firearm safety.

I often end courses with brand new shooters and experts alike with a summary of Mr. Ayoob’s words:

“By making the decision to bring defensive firearms into your life you have made the conscious choice to take an active role in your own safety.  As a result you will spend the rest of your life carrying, storing, staging, loading, unloading and using these important tools around the very people you wish to protect.  A dedication to firearm safety is paramount and if neglected could result in the injury or death of someone that you love.”

-Massad Ayoob

I don’t believe there are more important words I could conclude with.  Read the quote again and let the consequences of a mistake sink in.  Get proper training and always keep the concept of safety at the forefront of your mind.

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