When it comes to firearms training, safety rules are like the tuna nigiris at a sushi bar: something so fundamental in which perfection should be the goal, and evidence of shortcomings there indicate you’re in for a bad time elsewhere. The Michigan CPL class I took last year was the first official NRA course on firearms I’ve attended.
I’ve had plenty of formal firearms training otherwise by many NRA-certified instructors, just none of it done through the auspices of the NRA. I’ve also spent a considerable amount of my time in education, having done graduate coursework in educational psychology, taught at the college level, and spent a significant chunk of my career in corporate training. I must confess: I am not impressed with the NRA’s safety rules, as presented in their materials.
It’s not because the NRA’s rules are wrong in any rational or factual sense, it’s because they feel like something written by a committee and subsequently edited by their staff attorneys for liability purposes, and not something to be really helpful for students when the rubber hits the road.
The Fundamental Rules of Gun Safety, as presented in the NRA Guide to the Basics of Personal Protection in the Home (Fairfax, Va.: National Rifle Ass’n of America, 2000,) are:
(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 the firearm unloaded until ready to use.
Remember, safety rules are basic rules that should be memorized until they become an automatic and instinctual part of how a gunhandler acts in the heat of the moment, otherwise they’re missing the mark. The rules need to be written so they can be absorbed by everyone regardless of firearms skill, cultural background, language skills, age, and general level of education and intelligence.
The rules above are too subjective, and do not provide helpful answers for behavioral questions gunhandlers may face in the heat of the moment. For example:
Is the gun loaded? The rules don’t help us address this question at all. I’m supposed to unload the gun when I’m done using it, but how am I supposed to proceed if I don’t recall, or if I’m handling someone else’s gun?
Where should I point the gun? The rules say: a safe direction. But what is a safe direction? Is it the floor? The ceiling? The wall? My fireplace? Can any direction in which the gun is being pointed be a ‘safe’ one? The answer presented in the rules encourages a glib answer on the part of the gunhandler, one that does not necessarily promote safety.
When should I put my finger on the trigger? The rules say: when you’re ready to use it. Okay, but am I “ready to use” the instant the pistol clears leather? Should I keep my finger on when I’m holstering?
You may point out that there are answers to these questions explained in the text of the book, or that are meant to be presented in the classroom. I maintain my objection, though, because these questions are fairly basic, and are exactly the ones about which we don’t want gunhandlers engaging in a dialectical debate. These questions are so fundamental that if the safety rules don’t clearly address them without reference to the footnotes or something mentioned in a one-shot lecture, the safety rules aren’t doing their job.
The Basics of Personal Protection in the Home book has quite a few notes along with the rules. Here is the section devoted to explaining just the third safety rule:
ALWAYS keep the firearm unloaded until ready to use. A firearm that is not being used should always be unloaded. For example, at the range, your firearm should be left unloaded while you walk downrange and check your target. Similarly, a firearm that is being stored in a gun safe or lock box should generally be unloaded (unless it is a personal protection firearm that may need to be accessed quickly for defensive purposes–see Chapter 2: Defensive Shooting Strategy.)
As a general rule, whenever you pick up a gun, point it in a safe direction with your finger off the trigger, engage the safety (if the gun is equipped with one), remove the magazine (if the gun is equipped with a removable magazine), and then open the action and look into the chamber(s) to determine if the gun is loaded or not. Unless the firearm is being kept in a state of readiness for personal protection, it should be unloaded. If you do not know how to open the action or inspect the firearm, leave the gun alone and get help from someone who does, and consult the owner’s manual that came with the gun.
William Shakespeare once wrote, “Brevity is the soul of wit.” This means: don’t waste my time. I’d say that goes double for safety rules. Safety rules have to be simple. You want people to remember them, whether they’re at home, at a shooting range, on a battlefield. Or even — and especially — in an urban setting, late at night, after a criminal attack has just been stopped with gunfire, when the good guy with a gun is disoriented and scared, and standing over a perp who’s bleeding out by the minute. If you have to refer to the notes to fully grasp fundamental concepts, the safety rules need improvement. I expect explanatory notes when I crack open the Rules of Civil Procedure or Professional Conduct, not gun safety rules.
Contrast with the following rules, written a generation ago by the late firearms instructor and Gunsite Academy founder Jeff Cooper:
(1) All guns are always loaded.
(2) Never cover anything with the muzzle that you do not intend to destroy.
(3) Keep your finger off the trigger until sights are on target.
(4) Be sure of your target.
Cooper’s rules are simple and provide a precise answer to questions that will come up in the heat of the moment.
Is the gun loaded? Yes it is; all guns are always loaded.
Where should I point the gun? Only at something you intend to destroy.
When should I put my finger on the trigger? When your sights are on the target.
The four rules are pretty elegant. They actually build on each other — a gunhandler has to violate more than one of the rules to endanger someone or something.
True, Cooper’s first rule — “All guns are always loaded”– gets a lot of flak because it’s technically a lie. But it’s an easily forgivable lie because, on a visceral level, you’re more likely to remember the simple “the gun is loaded” answer, and not the reflective, nuanced “always treat guns as if loaded, even if they’re not, because you might be wrong, and even though you know that you just unloaded the thing and checked the chamber because…blah…blah…blah” that we meant at the higher level.
The point of these rules aren’t to help you find wisdom and ultimate truth (seek a philosopher or religious teacher if that’s what you seek,) but rather to keep gun owners from shooting something or someone unintentionally. Perhaps an obvious untruth can lead us to the correct choice, especially if we know it’s not really true, and we’re in on it from the start.
Besides, there are reams of scientific studies on memory showing that what we believe we’ve done — even, sometimes, in the very recent past — isn’t what we actually did. “The simple act of calling a memory to mind makes it vulnerable to alteration.”
As Don Norman reminds us in chapter five of The Design of Everyday Things, memory lapses will happen (most often due to unexpected interruptions) and they’re something that anyone designing a system — whether for flying a plane, driving a car, or handling a gun — has to expect that they’re going to happen. And rote, repeated tasks that we do all the time are the ones about which we have the most vivid memories…and therefore are the ones we’re most likely to think we’ve already done, even when we haven’t. Then we have a click when we wanted a bang…or vice versa.
Because passive presentations of information are easily forgettable, teachers need to present something that will engage the student’s memory, both during and after the lesson. An answer to a question that is easily remembered, that applies to actions every time you perform the task, and will always lead you in a safe direction is what we want. Cooper’s rules do that.
The other set? I have a feeling that it just engages the student in a metaphysical debate about definitions…unless their instructor provided clarification or they read the notes in the book…which, because they probably weren’t memorized or internalized are more subject to revision by whims of human memory.
Cooper’s rules aren’t perfect. From a pedagogical perspective, the weakest link is Rule #2 “Never cover anything with the muzzle that you do not intend to destroy.” It’s too wordy, and has a negative lead-in, which can take people out of the right frame of mind. Every time I think about this rule, my mind wants to wander to the not-safe-for-the-twenty-first-century Monty Python’s rules for the Philosophy Department of the University of Wollomaloo.
It might be better if it were “point the muzzle only at something you’re willing to destroy” or something along those lines. But I think they’re a good starting point.
Firearms Instructor Randy Cain – a Gunsite veteran whose Tactical Handgun 101 class I attended through the Pittsburgh-based FIRE Institute in 2011 – taught Cooper’s rules, but threw in a few additions (below, in italics,) that, in my opinion, added to their effectiveness.
(1) All guns are always loaded — no exceptions.
(2) Never cover anything with the muzzle that you do not intend to destroy.
(3) Keep your finger off the trigger until your sights are on target — and you have made the decision to shoot.
(4) Be sure of your target — and what is around it.
Whatever their flaws, Cooper’s four rules provide students a better grounding in safety than the NRA’s three. I do this not to chastise the nation’s oldest civil rights organization, or the teams of instructors and staff who toil at the business of teaching and advocacy every day on our behalf, but because as a member and gun rights advocate, I want to help it succeed in its mission.
Earlier this year, the NRA’s Chief of Staff conceded that they “made a mistake” when it came to blending internet lessons and firing range time for its basic pistol courses. That’s a good thing: it means the organization doesn’t dig in when it sees it’s on the wrong path. For safety, clarity, and ease of learning, I think it’s time for the NRA to revisit its safety rules, and take a long look at the rules promulgated by one of its own Executive Councilmen when it does.