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By John Farnam

Ft Collins, CO –( September of last year, in PA, a State Trooper (Firearms Instructor) accidentally shot and killed another State Trooper during a training session. The Trooper who did the shooting has subsequently been indicted by a grand jury. The pistol involved was, of course, unloaded and thus “safe.” The tragic incident, and aftermath, has sparked sharp debate within the LEO training community. In my opinion, the problem is not with a set of “rules,” nor even with specific acts of carelessness by this individual or that. The problem is . . .

with an entire, fatally flawed philosophy that currently governs much of what passes for “training,” in and out of LEO and military institutions. For lack of a more polite term, we refer to this defective philosophy, and those who adhere to it, as: “The Empty-Gun Crowd.”

Adherents are frightened to death of guns! They are even more frightened of legitimate Operators, who have comfortably integrated loaded guns into our daily lives. They cynically regard guns as they do Operators, as a (in some respects) necessary evil.

Their ineluctable lifestyle is characterized by a maniacal preoccupation with the complete and continuous sterilization of all guns, and the universal and automatic disarming of all Operators, and others, who carry, or even occasionally touch, guns!

They are profoundly uncomfortable in the presence of any species of gun, and they are positively aghast with the thought that anyone, even their own employees, might actually carry loaded guns in public on a regular basis. They will not tolerate the practice in their own surroundings, nor at any institution over which they have influence. They post “no guns allowed” signs everywhere they can!

This represents their version of the four, cardinal rules of gun-handling:

1) All guns are always unloaded

2) Unloaded guns are “safe.” When around “safe” guns, you can relax!

3) When handling “safe” guns, never be concerned with the direction in which they’re pointed. After all, they’re not really guns anymore, are they? There is no reason to even look!

4) When handling “safe” guns, have your finger constantly on the trigger, for good control

Those who leech onto the foregoing “rules” will cause accidental shootings on a more-or-less continuous basis! Yet, articulated or not, the foregoing governs gun-handling in many LEO venues, and virtually all military venues.

What is needed, of course, is a profound change in philosophy. Difficult, because it will necessitate that ossified careerists admit they’re wrong. Not only are they wrong, but they’ve always been wrong! Of course, the four gun-handling rules adhered to by genuine Operators are:

1) All guns are always loaded!

2) Do not allow your muzzle to point in unsafe directions

3) Keep your finger(s) off the trigger, and in a strong, “register” position, until your sights are on-target, and you are in the process of intentionally firing

4) Be sure of your target, as well as what is beyond it

Cynical lip-service is often paid to these, but the former “four” are the ones actually followed by empty-gun practitioners. To see an example, go to a typical gun-retailer and watch a host of “gun-shop-commandos” carelessly wave guns around like laser-pointers, as they provide omniscient “advice” on guns to all who will listen.

Or, go to a typical “competition,” and watch starry-eyed nimrods walk about carrying empty pistols in “fast-draw” holsters. Then count how many times they point their “safe” guns at each other and themselves.

Or, attend a typical military ceremony, and watch smartly-uniformed lads literally loaded-down with rifles and pistols, all continuously empty. No ammunition, nor even magazines, anywhere close. To the empty-gun crowd, “hot” ranges are unthinkable. Thus, real training never happens. None even carry a gun on a regular bases, and they or-so piously eschew those of us who do.

Some progress is being made, but it is glacial. The empty-gun crowd is still firmly, and arrogantly, in charge most places. We Operators just have to work-around them, and we do, occasionally prodding them ( as they kick and scream) in the direction of true enlightenment.

They have given us into the hands of new, unhappy lords. Lords without anger nor honor, who dare not carry their swords They “fight” by shuffling papers; they have sullen, alien eyes. They look at our labor with laughter, as a tired man looks at flies. And the load of their loveless pity is worse than ancient wrongs Their doors are shut in the evenings; and they know no songs ~ “The Secret People” GK Chesterton

About John Farnam & Defense Training International, Inc.

As a defensive weapons and tactics instructor John Farnam will urge you, based on your own beliefs, to make up your mind in advance as to what you would do when faced with an imminent and unlawful lethal threat. You should, of course, also decide what preparations you should make in advance, if any. Defense Training International wants to make sure that their students fully understand the physical, legal, psychological, and societal consequences of their actions or inactions.

It is our duty to make you aware of certain unpleasant physical realities intrinsic to the Planet Earth. Mr Farnam is happy to be your counselor and advisor. Visit:

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  1. It would be interesting to do an analysis of the ND’s and the negligent shooting of fellow officers versus the stats for CCL carriers.

    I would bet a hundred bucks the cops are many times higher in all categories.

    • The training requiring it to be unloaded cause these officers to treat them as if they are unloaded. The training should them to keep them loaded and holstered unless ready to fire. When doing force on force training they should get special simunition only guns to prevent mistakenly firing of a fatal shot during training.

  2. I enjoyed the article and was on board until this line:

    “Or, go to a typical “competition,” and watch starry-eyed nimrods walk about carrying empty pistols in “fast-draw” holsters. Then count how many times they point their “safe” guns at each other and themselves.”

    My count is ZERO in the last five years. I’d like to ask you to be specific. What specific competitions under what organization are you talking about?

      • When Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck (in different Looney Tunes cartoons) called Elmer Fudd a Nimrod, they were being sarcastic. ‘Course, I didn’t know that when I was five, so I thought that a “Nimrod” was a person who was inept.

        After sixty or seventy years of people watching cartoons more than reading their bibles, the colloquial meaning of the word has actually changed from “great hunter” to “idiot.”

        Behold the power of cartoons!

        • I thought Nimrod was the King “credited” with building the tower of Babel, hence the dimwit reference. I also thought Nimrod was a brand of matches back in the day, and as a kid, thought that it was reference to that as well, in a matter that it was light but still dim.

    • I like John F. and have attended a few of his courses. But he reflects the old school on competition. He can’t get over it no matter how obviously wrong he is, and he needs to be ignored on this issue.

      I hate cold ranges and only comply for competitions – where someone who just bought his/her first handgun this week and wants to shoot might show up. I don’t want them walking around with a loaded firearm either.

      • Think about what you just said, “new shooters, with their first gun”. And you can trust them how, what if they don’t understand how to comply, or simply don’t clear the chamber out of negligence/ignorance? His point is just that, you cannot trust ANY gun is unloaded until you’ve checked it yourself. Cold ranges are ND’s waiting to happen, and just because something hasn’t happened yet doesn’t mean it won’t. It breeds complacency, I personally check every gun I handle, and I check it again anytime it’s left my hands. I don’t fear loaded guns, because have immense respect for them and treat them all as if they are.

    • Agreed. The crucible of competition is where I learned how to properly handle firearms, because it’s hammered into you every match, every stage, with zero tolerance. If more people shot 3Gun, USPSA, etc, there would be less oopsies among the gun owning population.

      Not that I was specifically unsafe prior to competing, but going plinking with friends, guns would be loaded off the line, handled behind you, etc, etc. Stuff that would get you sent home at any competition.

      Now when I go, we treat it just like match. “Unload and Show Clear” should be a T shirt you get with a new gun purchase.

    • Never seen that happen at a competition. I’ve seen guys sent home for much less. Sounds like gamer hate from someone who is wearing pants with entirely too many pockets.

    • “Or, go to a typical “competition,” and watch starry-eyed nimrods walk about carrying empty pistols in “fast-draw” holsters. Then count how many times they point their “safe” guns at each other and themselves.”

      That is a lie, BluesMike, plain and simple. I don’t give one crap how badass and tacticool and stone-cold “Operator” John Farnham is, he’s a damn liar. USPSA and IDPA epitomize a “typical” competition around here and that simply NEVER HAPPENS.

  3. Still waiting for the “gun safety” disarmament groups to start passing out actual gun safety advice like the rules mentioned above (I won’t hold my breath). But hey, maybe this trooper made it onto the VPC’s new concealed carry killers list or something… that’ll surely promote gun safety!

    • Hey, operators operating operationally in the area of operations,,,,,,Damn! Almost typed all that without busting out laughing. 😉

    • Agreed. Unless you are operating a forklift or a crane, or can be reached at your day job by dialing “0”, you are not an operator.

      • Hey now, there are other operators. I operate the machine that stamps out the doodad you press to make the shoulder thingie go up.

    • Couldn’t agree more. When I got to the un-ironic use of the word “operator” in this article is when I stopped taking any of it seriously.

      First he writes an article where he says cops should be shooting more people, and now he’s going on about “operators”. I think I shall skip over any future blather from Mr. Farnam. I am clearly not his target audience.

  4. Can’t count the number of times I have seen “real” instructors violating every rule of firearms handling, in military and out in the World, I honestly quit counting and just avoid being around them. And yes, I am a safety nazi and have put people off firing lines when I am HMFIC. Made a couple enemies, made a few friends, never been shot by anyone. It balances out.

  5. I agree. Never seen a sweep in 5 years of IDPA competition. Have seen DQs, but for other infractions.

  6. I think there should be a 5th rule.

    5. Always visually verify a gun is clear before you believe a gun is clear. Never assume.

    That means rack the slide and look in the chamber. When you pick up a gun you believe to be empty, you check the chamber before you move it, or hand it to another person. If someone hands you an “unoaded” gun, you should check the chamber for yourself, preferable after they have done so. It’s like counting your change after the clerk counted it out…an extra check never hurt.

    “unload and show clear” when you leave the firing line, just like it was the end of a competition stage.

    • “Always visually verify a gun is clear before you believe a gun is clear.” Uh, yea, that is what I was taught, back in the long ago. Apparently “real” instructors don’t teach that anymore.

    • +1.

      Doesn’t matter who it is, check it yourself. Doesn’t matter how experienced someone is, or how offended they get, or even if you just watched them clear it. Check. It. Yourself. If i have to do something that involves pointing a gun somewhere that isn’t inherently safe (i.e dry firing towards a wall) I even go so far as ask “do you concur” to anybody I am with. Some people find it odd and OCD, but it is very effective.

    • I amend rule 1 to cover this. All guns are loaded until I have personally verified that they are unloaded.

      as a side note: if someone else has handled it and my eyes weren’t on it the entire time- it is again assumed to be loaded.

    • I was taught to be even a little more paranoid than that. Even if the gun is cleared in front of you and then immediately handed over, confirm for yourself that it’s clear.

      Essentially, make it a habit to never assume the condition of the gun. If it should be unloaded, confirm it. If it should be loaded, confirm it.

    • People should watch Hickok45 for this one issue of unloading. He is almost compulsive about checking the chamber and pulling the trigger while pointing downrange to confirm empty. I think he is so compulsive because his attention is always drawn away by talking into a camera and he goes hot and cold a bunch of times in a 20 minute review video. He follows the rules assiduously!!!

  7. “If you aren’t comfortable carrying your gun in Condition 1 you shouldn’t be carrying a gun”.

    Clint Smith

    • I am not comfortable carrying a gun in Condition One and F-you for telling me I should not be carrying. You are no better than the antis. I will carry in whatever condition works for me.

      • If you carry, and are shot, can you draw, ready, and fire that gun? With one Hand?

        Do you train to draw and rack the slide, with either hand?

        I refuse to risk having (most likely not having) those abilities during the time of dire need.

        I won’t go so far as to say you shouldn’t carry, if you don’t carry Condition 1. But I seriously question your ability to draw and fire when the time comes. It’s no big deal to load and rack at the range. Doing it while being shot at, running, and looking for cover? Doubtful at best

  8. “Operators”? Sorry, but few of us are actual “Operators” – those being current and former members of the actual Special Forces/Special Operations community. Referring to oneself or other people as “Operators” (complete with the capital “O”) when you or they do not have that background is ridiculous and shows juuuuust a bit of the stereotype of the wannabe hero with the overactive fantasy life the antis love to paint all of us with.

    Seriously. If you’re not an actual veteran of SOCOM or the military organizations within it (as I am not) please, please, for all that’s holy, drop the term “Operator” from your vocabulary. Doesn’t matter how much training you have, or what you feel your personal level of badassitude is. It’s silly, and it makes all of us look like mall ninjas.

      • I’m more than willing to let the SOCOM community refer to themselves and be referred to as “Operators”, but there’s a line. For example:

        Audie Murphy was a badass. An absolute freaking hero with no doubt and no hesitation. He was also a member of the 3rd Infantry, and not a member of any of the fledgeling special forces units of the time, and therefore not an “Operator”. Now, I guarantee that not one of us reading this site is more badass than Audie Murphy was. So even if you think you’re more badass than Audie Murphy (and you’re just not), you’re still not an “Operator”. The term needs to go away.

        • I don’t know when the whole “operator” thing started, I do know the first time I heard it in actual conversation I laughed in the guy’s face, as he stood there in his tacticool new-off-the-shelf “gear”. Turned out he was an operator, communications specialist USAF sometime in the ’80s, works for verizon now. He does not shoot with us anymore, guys kept picking on him. Not me, I was too busy staying behind him and watching where the muzzle of whatever he had in hand was pointing.

        • Audie Murphy was indeed a badass, but he still came back from war with PTSD. He was finally getting past it when he died before his time in a plane crash. He became a good actor and an important movie star for 20 years. He was also a songwriter (“Shutters and Doors” was his biggest hit and done by many artists including Dean Martin and Charlie Pride) and a pretty fair poet (“The Crosses Grow on Anzio” and “Freedom Flies in Your Heart Like an Eagle” are two of only three that have survived).

          Murphy was a hell of a guy. We won’t ever see his like again.

          I know that this comment has no relationship to the original post, but I’m a huge fan of Audie Murphy.

  9. I would agree that the US military tends to be a little too obsessed with superficial safety (rather than fundamental safety) – it leads to a real culture shock when troops are deployed overseas.

    In 1995 we were on a US base training for deployment to Bosnia. The plan was to move 8-man Sections through a “jungle lane”, firing at pop-up targets and grenading trenches. Our colonel essentially had to sign his life away to the US Army RSO, who thought that live bullets OR live grenades was OK, but having both was over the top. Because it’s not like we were training to go to war zone or anything. Anyway, best training I ever had – kind of scary the first time, but awesome by the end. We had lots of safety guys on the range to spot problems, so no problems (well, except for my buddy who kept shooting the “blue” target – he claimed that the first time was a mistake, but after that they were angry so he had to keep suppressing them for his own safety), and a huge confidence booster.

    • “he claimed that the first time was a mistake, but after that they were angry so he had to keep suppressing them for his own safety”

      That…is freakin’ brilliant.

      • Not the best soldier ever (not nearly the worst either), but probably the funniest I ever met. Kept us chuckling instead of complaining.

  10. My family hits the range every weekend. The only time we operate in the “safe” area mode is during cleaning. Each weapon is cleared by two people; one of whom is either myself or my wife. Visual inspection by two people goes like this:
    Magazine, clear
    Breech, clear
    Chamber, clear, this weapon is clear
    Hand it to the second person, muzzle down
    Magazine, clear
    Breech, clear
    Chamber, clear, this weapon is clear
    Slide or cylinder closed, weapon fired into 5 gallon bucket of sand (no bang of course)
    Both parties repeat, THIS WEAPON IS CLEAR
    The weapon is placed on the cleaning table. All ammo is kept in a separate room and not handled until all weapons are cleaned and all hands are washed. Weapons are reloaded and stored.
    Yeah, it may seem anal, but those are my house rules.

    • You sound like a sensible man, to me. We do individual clearing and lock open or flag with another person witnessing.

    • Interesting. Don’t you nullify the efforts of the first person as soon as you pass it to the second person?

  11. Excellent essay. Some ways-of-thinking – arrogance – are habituated; and often in certain occupations. A cop once joked that that the policing profession is unique in that the “customer is always wrong”. Amusing; yet at the same time, troublesome. This habit of thought ferments arrogance. I fear arrogance greatly influenced the PA cop-shoots-cop incident.
    What we all need to emphasize in teaching and promoting the 4-rules is the importance of developing and maintaining good habits. It’s like removing the keys from the ignition and locking doors notwithstanding that we are just stopping for gas or moving a bike in the driveway. We want to maintain a good habit so we practice it on that occasion when it will save our car (somebody’s life).
    A second thing we need to understand – and teach and promote – are the exceptions (for want of a better term). I’ll use muzzle discipline to illustrate.
    At some point in the process of cleaning a gun it’s hard to maintain perfect muzzle discipline. You might have to look down the muzzle of the barrel to examine that end of the rifling. It’s hard to maintain the fiction of cultivating a good habit of maintaining muzzle discipline when holding only the barrel to your eye (while all the other parts lying on the bench).
    As a contrary example, when exercising with a blue-gun we DO observe muzzle discipline to cultivate the habit. Even so, in self-defense training we relax muzzle discipline because – for some exercises – it’s impossible to execute the exercise realistically while maintaining muzzle discipline. In such cases we strive to use blue-guns to emphasize that this is explicitly different for an explainable reason. In a very few cases an exercise might have to be conducted with either a real gun or a realistic facsimile gun having mechanically-functioning parts (hammer, magazine). In these cases, we habitually observe the ritual of 2+ people inspecting the magazine and chamber to confirm that the gun is unloaded (or merely a realistic facsimile).
    Wherever guns are handled for demonstration purposes in a context where the gun is understood to be unloaded (e.g., the training class in PA) the ritual of 2+ people inspecting mag and chamber must always be observed even though muzzle discipline is ALSO observed. The redundancy principle underlying the 4-rules justifies the 2+ inspection ritual.
    Personally, I would re-phrase the rule “Guns are always loaded” to “Guns are always presumed-to-be loaded”. That a gun is loaded/or-not is a matter of fact. To phrase this rule as the OP did may tempt some people to think in precisely the way the the OP is criticizing. ‘I know the gun is not loaded as a matter of fact’ leads to such accidents. Instead, we need to reinforce that the loaded/not-loaded condition is NOT the point; we handle a gun as-if-it-is-loaded because we might be mistaken about the fact of its unloaded state. The exception applies only where the gun is in a state that it can’t fire. A substantially disassembled gun can’t fire; witness the application of the rule on a shotgun range for break-action guns. Break-action muzzle-discipline is relaxed when carrying with the gun open where everyone can see the chamber(s) are empty.

  12. The operator thing is a bit annoying, but anyone with 3 Purple Hearts I consider a certified badass. I think the point of his article is that OCD over weapons clearing is not enough. In order to really be safe handling a firearm, you have to follow all 4 rules all of the time. If that is accomplished then the loaded condition of the firearm is irrelevant. What Farmham is trying to point out is that people get lazy with regards to the 4 rules when you they “know” they are handling an unloaded weapon.

  13. I was always considered the idiot for suggesting that a gun should always be treated as if it was loaded. Just one of many reasons I left the FDLE Police Academy; you meant those rules as a joke, but that is exactly what the FDLE teaches. I can’t say how many times, in the space of just a few days dozens of FDLE instrutors all said the EXACT same phrase “It doesn’t matter, it’s unloaded. Are you stupid?” When I said I wasn’t happy about that Glock 22 being pointed at me…

    I’d rather give guns to drunken homeless people and drug dealers. Would be less dangerous.

  14. I always have a defensive weapon. One can be murdered at a gun range just like anywhere else. Ask Chris Kyle.

    • I practice with a different gun than the one I’m actually carrying (they are almost identical, one being a compact the other a full size) Just In Case. The carry gun remains loaded on my hip, unless I am practicing draws. The exception is the “scenario” shoot I go to where they require things be unloaded.

  15. How is it that I was unaware of that GK Chesterton poem? Tell me if this isn’t the progressive/left and modern government in a nutshell:

    They have given us into the hand of new unhappy lords,
    Lords without anger or honour, who dare not carry their swords.
    They fight by shuffling papers; they have bright dead alien eyes;
    They look at our labour and laughter as a tired man looks at flies.
    And the load of their loveless pity is worse than the ancient wrongs,
    Their doors are shut in the evening; and they know no songs.

    (I know I’m duplicating it, but that’s just how awesome it is.)

  16. With respect and thanks to Col. Cooper, I altered the rules to teach my kids. They had to say these on request to go to the range.



    Rule 2, 1, 3, 4.

    Easier to learn – easier to remember.

  17. Got a coupla questions here…

    If I religiously follow the four basic rules of safe gun handling, how do I determine if the gun would be one I would want to shoot…before I shoot it ?

    If I religiously follow the four basic rules of safe gun handling, how do I clean it loaded (All guns are loaded all the time).

    • To your first question, I’m assuming you are referencing your decision making process before a purchase. I’m not sure what you need to do that would violate any of the 4 rules that would help to make that decision. You can certainly even dry fire and follow the 4 rules. You can hot fire for that matter.
      To your second question, field strip before you clean. Then you are not handling a firearm during cleaning. You are handling firearm parts.

    • I’d like to know what you’re cleaning if you can’t clearly see the gun is unloaded? If you indeed are cleaning it in a way in which you can’t clearly see the chamber and that it’s unloaded, then assume it is and check.

      It’s not hard to check a gun people, and it certainly isn’t worth killing or dying over.

  18. I get the point he is trying to make, but the statement that military all adhere to this philosophy is complete BS. In an organizLEOs n as vast as the U.S. military, there is bound to be an ND occasionaly, especially with firearms in the hands of 18 year old kids who weren’t necessarily brought up around guns. This does not mean that military personnel are ever allowed to think that a gun is safe to point at your buddy or have your finger on the trigger, etc. “A gun is always loaded” was the mantra while I was in the Army so I don’t know what this guy is talking about. Just because there are a few over reported cases of negligent police officers does not mean that this is a rampant problem among LEOs. I think it’s funny that so many firearms enthusiasts on this site think that they would shoot better than the police in a high stress scenario just because they’re good at holing paper and ringing steel.

    • “bound to be an ND occasionaly” You got no idea. If you are nervous or apprehensive about being around large groups of people with firearms you had best stay away from all military/NG/Reserve Qualification ranges. At least with Basic and AIT ranges you have dedicated instructors/staff. Same with “working” LEO ranges, unless they hire/contract a range with staff. Never know just how strictly the people there adhere to The Rules.

    • “does not mean that this is a rampant problem among LEOs” Just checking news reports proves it is. And as for shooting in “a high stress scenario” I know how I would react, because I have. Putting holes in paper has f*ck all to do with anything.

  19. Quick comment – I teach my Loggie troops to ALWAYS check the chamber – even when they’re doing preventative maintenance or inventory on weapons in cold storage. Yeah, it seems silly to check a rifle or pistol that’s been in a locked coffin…until it doesn’t. You never know if the last guy who handled that weapon knew what he was doing…

  20. A couple years ago I was at a MOUT site doing training with my unit. As is the norm for most military training we were using our regular assortment of M4s and 249s with blanks and blank adapters.
    I’m not sure to this day how exactly it happened, but one of the cadre playing opfor had mixed up live ammunition with blanks. He fired a live round at our dudes. Luckily it just blew his blank adapter to pieces and no one was hurt, but that could have gone very badly…
    I know UCMJ action was taken but I don’t know what the result was

  21. I am glad this trooper is being charged. This happened a few towns over from where I live. I wonder when the PA trooper who shot his pregnant wife in the head while he was “cleaning” his pistol will be charged with her death. The also happened a few towns over from where I live.

    If a civilian did this we would be in Jail. I guess since the instructor shot a cop he needed to be charged.

  22. At TTA in Morgan Hill CA, we were verified that firearms were empty, then we loaded and were range hot all day until we went home. Just a bunch of people learning how to shoot well, no accidents, no stupidity because we KNEW that every firearm was LOADED.

  23. I don’t believe a gun is unloaded until I have a dirty little ring around the tip of my pinky from sticking it in the chamber to make doubly sure.

  24. Gee, I always thought an Operator was some lady at a switchboard or a receptionist. I could figure out the high speed Operator. I was sort of lost on the low drag aspect though. Maybe the lady Operator dressed as a female?

  25. Not all guns are always loaded. That’s empirically false.

    If you still don’t know whether your gun is loaded or not after checking the mag, chamber, barrel, etc., you lack confidence in your own ability to properly utilize your senses to distinguish the difference between loaded and unloaded, thus I don’t think you should handle guns until you reasonably trust your investigative skills more.

    Even after taking the whole gun apart and demonstrating with absolute certainty that it is physically impossible for it to propel a projectile through my head because the projectile and its propellant are obviously absent from the gun entirely, people still freak out when I point it at my head and pull the trigger. This shows that they are quite ignorant of the mechanisms at work behind the laws of physics and the laws of logic. To them, ANYTHING is possible, even the things that are actually impossible.

    Now, I’m not saying that I would ever point an empty gun at somebody else just because I know it’s empty. Of course that’s absurd because the other person can’t reasonably be expected to just know whether or not it’s empty. Claims must be demonstrated with evidence and good reasoning to justify adherence. Personally, if someone is handling a gun and demonstrates that it is unloaded as well as demonstrating that he/she is not a magician or illusionist, I would let them point it at me and pull the trigger.

    Fear and paranoia do not negate the laws of nature.

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