Introduction to Gun Safety

by Chris BeHanna

People buy guns for a number of reasons, e.g. target shooting, hunting, and self-defense. Self defense was what motivated me to buy my .45, and target shooting has become a secondary (and fun) interest which, in the process, makes me safer with the .45 as well as better able to defend myself if I have to. After all, I need to be able to place the shot correctly to stop an attack, and that’s something that takes practice. If you buy a handgun, then you need to practice too, at least twice a month, as the sharpness fades away very quickly otherwise.

Almost everything you’ve seen about guns or gun-handling on TV or in the movies is wrong. Hollywood is notorious for depicting unsafe gun-handling because they think it “looks cool,” and for exaggerating the effects that gunshots have upon people (as well as exaggerating the skills of the people shooting them).

There are four rules of gun safety that you must regard as having the force of law. They can never be broken. They are:

  1. The gun is always loaded
  2. Never point the muzzle at anything you do not intend to destroy
  3. Never put your finger on the trigger until you’re ready to shoot
  4. Always be sure of your target and of what lies beyond it

Let’s examine each of these rules in more detail:

1. The gun is always loaded
Notice that I didn’t say, “Handle the gun as if it was always loaded.” In my opinion, and in the opinion of many luminaries in gun instruction, that attitude cultivates a lack of discipline in where you point the muzzle (see rule 2, below). Always check personally to see if the gun is loaded, even if you just watched the person who handed it to you check (this is known as clearing the gun). It is your responsibility to not have an accident with the gun, so if you get into the habit of automatically checking every time you are handed a gun, you will never forget. You may feel silly at first, but no one who takes gun safety seriously will think you’re silly if you’re always checking. The corollary to this is that if you don’t know how to verify that a given gun is unloaded, put it down. If you’re not holding it, you can’t hurt someone with it by accident.

One of the most frequently made mistakes is to forget the round in the chamber. When you drop the magazine out of a semi-auto, you must realize that there is very likely a round in the chamber. Since only some makes have a magazine safety, all makes should be treated as if they don’t (pull back the slide and look into the breech for a round). Likewise, a revolver cannot simply be spun to an empty chamber and assumed safe; the cylinder rotates to the next chamber before the hammer falls. This is the stuff from which accidental deaths and discharges are made.

2. Never point the muzzle at anything you do not intend to destroy
This is the “muzzle discipline” of which I spoke above. Someday, you will have an accidental discharge (this is not an “if,” it’s definitely a “when”). The direction that the muzzle is pointing will be the difference between a loud noise that startles you and a tragedy that ruins your life (and possibly someone else’s). In case you didn’t know, the muzzle is the end of the barrel that the bullet comes out of. The end that the bullet goes into is called the breech.

Even if you’ve checked that the gun is unloaded, don’t wave the gun around carelessly. Someday, you may forget to check, and if you squeeze the trigger by accident, you may hurt or kill yourself or someone else. Keep the muzzle pointed in a safe direction at all times.

In the case of a single action gun, when decocking (slowly dropping the hammer), this is doubly true. A police officer in North Carolina killed a suspect “by accident” while decocking. The idiot cop had the gun pointed at the suspect’s head while operating the decocking lever, and the gun went off.

I put that one in all caps. It is vitally important! It is also the single rule that you see violated most commonly on TV and in the movies. In the case of handguns, your index finger is held relaxed along the frame of the gun or curved with the tip of the finger on the frame of the gun ABOVE the trigger guard. In the case of long guns, your index finger is held relaxed along the stock or receiver ABOVE the trigger guard.

Why? If you’re carrying a gun in your hand and you trip, you could squeeze a round off by accident. If you’re in a self defense situation and are nervous, you could unconsciously squeeze the trigger when you didn’t intend to do so. If you’re holstering your weapon and your finger gets caught, you could shoot yourself in the foot (or in some more vital part of your anatomy). All three situations are known as “a very bad thing.”

Before I got my gun, I practiced safe gun handling with a squirt gun until it became habit. It’s gotten to the point where even picking up a spray bottle of glass cleaner finds me with my finger alongside the sprayer instead of on the trigger. It must become a habit with you like this if you intend to own and handle guns safely. The main point about obeying all the rules all the time (even with toys and glass cleaner) is that it is habit-forming. When one’s brain takes a vacation, the habits take over. We want good, safe habits.

Like I said, this rule is broken often on TV and in the movies, but if you watch the newscasts of U.S. soldiers abroad, you will notice that without exception, they all have their fingers outside of the trigger guards of their M-16s unless they are ready to shoot.

4. Always be sure of your target and of what lies beyond it
You sometimes hear or read about the tragedy of someone shooting a family member whom they thought was an intruder. This is a tragic, stupid mistake. You must know what it is that you intend to shoot at before you shoot. Furthermore, you must be sure that what you’re shooting at will stop the bullet, and that in the event you miss, the bullet will not carry on and hit someone innocent by mistake. Modern handgun and .22 rifle rounds will carry for up to a mile and a half unless something solid stops them. Even low-powered rounds will penetrate up to an inch or more of soft wood, and will definitely pass right through drywall. High powered handgun rounds such as 9mm +P, .357 Magnum and .40 S&W can penetrate cinder blocks and thin plate steel. One way around this is to use a fragmenting round such as MagSafe. I’d stay away from Glasers, as they are unproven in the field and have been shown to be ineffective against an intruder who is wearing heavy clothing. MagSafe is expensive, but in an apartment in which you may be shooting toward a neighbor’s wall, the peace of mind that you aren’t going to kill your neighbor by accident is well worth it. The alternative is to only be able to shoot in a direction such that the bullet will not enter a neighbor’s home, and that severely limits you in a defensive situation. (Admittedly, apartments are a special case. If you are not in such an environment, then a better round is one of the high-performance hollow points on the market. These have been proven in the field, which offers some strong comfort that they will do the job if you are ever in a life-or-death situation.)

Rule 3 and rule 4 should be used together, since you’re not ready to shoot until you have identified your target and your field of fire, so you shouldn’t have your finger on the trigger until you have identified your field of fire and your target.

Taken together, these four rules form a quadruply redundant safety net. You must break all four rules at once to hurt someone “by accident.” You certainly should strive to never break even one rule.

When cleaning guns, unload them first. This may sound obvious, but the only way that you can possibly shoot yourself while cleaning a gun is if the damned thing is loaded. The first step in cleaning is always to verify that the gun is unloaded, and then disassemble it as necessary for cleaning. If you buy a semi-auto, keeping it clean will help to keep it reliable, as if it jams in the clutch, you may well end up dead. (Now, go read the second paragraph under rule 1 again. Then read it one more time.)

If you decide to purchase a gun for self-defense, I strongly recommend that you take an NRA safety course and read the book In the Gravest Extreme by Massad Ayoob. Ayoob is Captain of the Concord, New Hampshire Police Department and is the foremost instructor in the country (and perhaps in the world) on the topic of the defensive use of handguns. The book covers in great detail the seriousness of the decision to own and/or carry a gun, as implicit in that decision is the fact that you’ve decided that you’re willing to kill someone to preserve your own life if necessary. If you’re not willing to do that, don’t carry, period. The book goes into situations in which it is moral and legal to shoot, and situations where it is neither moral nor legal to shoot. Ayoob is a specialist in the legal topics regarding defensive shootings, and none of his students has ever been convicted of a wrongful shooting. You would do well to read the book.

If you buy a gun and decide only to keep it at home for protection, you should invest in a strongbox or a lock of some kind to secure the gun (preferably in a hidden place) when you’re not at home. You don’t want to come home to face a thief who is pointing your gun at you! The gun is expensive, and you don’t want it stolen for financial reasons. Furthermore, as a gun owner, you will have the responsibility to do your part to make sure that none of your guns fall into criminal hands and thus contribute to violent crime.

Finally, you should call your state representative’s office and ask for a copy of the gun laws. It is my firm opinion that in order to avoid breaking the law, it is a great help to know what the law actually is. The law is a fairly quick read, if a little dry.