In the summer of 1996, when I was going into eighth grade, a buddy who was a few years older showed me his newest toy. It was amazing, it was brand new to the market and it was mind-bogglingly fun for a teenage boy: a laser pointer. I begged my parents for one and they eventually broke down and let me buy the pen-shaped gadget with my own cash. The cheap models available as a cat toy for less than $5 now cost me something like $60 back then. It didn’t matter though, because the ridiculous adolescent thrill of casting a brilliant red disk on the neighbors’ houses made it all worth it . . .

Tom and I had a particularly good time lasering cute girls as they strolled by, wondering where the laser’s dot was coming from. Other boys soon followed suit and before long there was a small-scale “epidemic” as we wreaked shiny red havoc at school, church and elsewhere as pointer after pointer was confiscated. One particular principal’s complaint still sticks out: “These things are dangerous! Haven’t you seen ‘Star Wars’!?”

Months later, my dad sat me down on the couch and he had a serious look on his face. I don’t know about when you were in eighth grade, but one-on-one conversations with Serious Face Dad rarely meant good things at that point in my development. My mind raced wondering what I had done (or more likely, what he’d found) to warrant a talkin’ to. But I hadn’t done anything. He sat me down to tell me that my friend Tommy was dead.

That was a hard thing to process for an eighth grader, and though it now seems a little cold, I immediately joked through my tears to relieve the tension. “I bet it was a car crash, wasn’t it? Sheesh, what an idiot. He was a horrible driver. I hated riding with him. He was always speeding. That what happened, isn’t it? Where did he wreck? Which road?”

Tom was indeed a horrible driver and seemed to take adolescent delight in scaring his younger license-less friends like me, but it wasn’t a car crash that ended his life. He’d ended it with his father’s pistol.

Of course it was a little more complex than that.

Tom and his girlfriend has been alone at his parents’ house. He may have been an idiot behind the wheel (and in a few other areas), but he was at least cool enough to have a girlfriend, and that was all that mattered in my book. Since his laser pointer had been taken away, he decided to use the laser sight on his father’s handgun to tease her. I don’t know the make or caliber, but since it sported a laser I’m guessing it was a railed semi-auto. What we do know of the story, we know from the panicked 911 call that came a few minutes later.

The girlfriend, in her flirty, stupid, teen-aged way, gave up running from the red dot. In (I’m guessing) an exasperated tone and with the laser’s point in the middle of her chest, she said “Fine, you got me. Just shoot me.” That’s when the gun “went off.” But no, it didn‘t just “go off.” Thinking it was unloaded, Tom – probably with an infatuated grin on his lips – pulled the trigger.

He immediately called 911, screaming and wailing. The operator was able to draw out what happened and get the address to send paramedics. No doubt in shock over what he had done and afraid to face the ones he loved or her family, he turned the gun on himself with the operator still on the line. The ambulance and police arrived minutes later to find him dead and his girlfriend dying. She passed away en route to the hospital.


After the funeral, I more or less blocked Tom out of my mind. My laser pointer was relegated to the bottom of a drawer and I eventually threw it out.

I didn’t really think about him until about 10 years later, when a friend and I on a whim decided to take a gun safety class. I’d never fired anything beyond a BB gun, but it just seemed like something a young man should know. I was neutral/uninformed about 2A issues and had totally blocked out that I had lost a friend to “gun violence.”

The instructor stood up and began his lecture as I jotted down notes:

  1. Treat the gun as if it is loaded at all times.
  2. Never point the gun at something you’re not willing to destroy.
  3. Keep your finger outside the trigger guard until you’re ready to shoot (The instructor actually said something more akin “Keep your booger hook off the bang switch,” but I couldn’t bring myself to write that down).
  4. Be sure of your target, and know what is beyond it.

Then he went ahead and added a fifth one: Find a safe, secure place to store the gun when it’s not on you.

It dawned on me in an instant that following any one of these (with the possible exception of #4… Tom was sure of his target), would have saved two lives back in 1996. Tom, his girlfriend and his father made many mistakes that led up to the accident, but had Tom simply known/obeyed rule #1, he never would have shot his girlfriend (and subsequently himself), even if he had broken the other rules. If he had simply known/obeyed rule #2, even if he had broken the others, they’d probably be alive and driving terribly today. The same goes for #3. He could have known it was loaded and even pointed it at her, but keeping his finger off the trigger would have saved lives.

As far as Tom’s father goes, I don’t know what the storage situation was. The gun may have been sitting in a bedside table drawer, or perhaps Tom broke into a safe/pilfered the key/figured out the combination. Either way, the grief-stricken father probably mourns every single day that he didn’t properly impress upon Tom the proper, safe and responsible way to handle firearms. Even someone completely ignorant of the Four Rules should have realized at several points along the way that the actions Tom was taking were flat-out stupid.


I didn’t lose a friend to “gun violence” that day, though I’m sure he and his girlfriend’s death were categorized in some statistical column that way. I also didn’t lose a friend to laser pointers, though you can bet the crackdown on them at school grew in orders of magnitude after that and my young mind associated their deaths with harmless red lights. I lost a friend – and others lost a son and a daughter – to sheer stupidity.

I think of Tom’s mistakes every day as I slide my everyday carry piece into its holster, or when I breakdown my rifles to clean them. I tell the above anecdote each time I take a new shooter to the range to impress upon them the idea that “innocent” accidents are never far from happening, and following the rules is the best way to protect against injury, death and stupidity.

What I like most about the four rules is that they overlap each other and you really have to break three of them to cause a problem. (Though intentionally breaking two while following one is the height of stupidity.) Barring a malfunction, I’ve never heard of a gun “accident” that couldn’t have been prevented by following at least one of the rules. When I do have children, I will learn from Tom’s family’s mistakes and impress upon them that guns are not toys. Already mine are locked in the safe when not in use (or on my hip).

It would be poetic if Tom’s death was made worth it by my increased adherence to the rules of gun safety and safe storage. But the bottom line is I would have taken that class and jotted down my notes regardless. Millions of my fellow gun owners have taken the rules to heart without personally knowing a dumb, scared kid who died as a result of breaking those rules. I’m sure millions of kids have stumbled across dad’s gun, only to realize that playing with it like a laser pointer was dumb, dumb, dumb and walked away.

If anything, the biggest lesson I learned from his mistakes is that piling one bad decision on top of another bad decision isn’t the way to go. He would have faced consequences had he not taken his own life, but by not owning up to his mistake and being a man, he caused even more heartbreak and sorrow.

Lasers don’t kill people. Guns don’t kill people. Stupidity kills people.


  1. This is why I am unapologetically a “safety susie”.

    If that kid was old enough to drive, he was old enough to know better. My kids have access to my guns because I know they can be trusted. I have educated them on the 4 laws and general handling, not to mention what rules they are to follow when an adult is not around. Call me paranoid, I’ve even told them about what to tell their friends about our firearms (Which would be DON’T!) and that they were not to ever show their friends where we store them. As they’ve gotten older I am in the process of getting a locking cabinet installed just so we don’t have to worry about any overly curious visitors. Not because I don’t trust my kids, but because I don’t trust their friends.

    That’s a helluva way to lose a friend and I am very sorry. It is stories like yours that have caused me to be so clear with my kids about how to be safe around firearms and to educate them on them rather than treat them like forbidden objects of mystery.

    • I don’t know about “safety susie”, but right on!

      I cannot fathom how we (although I am in the safety susie club) can anytime rationalize that it is ok to leave a loaded gun unattended by the owner for someone to pickup and take. Ultimately we are responsible. Being risk averse, when I am not home there is no loaded gun and no gun that can be loaded; no one else in the household is yet properly licensed (yes I live in a controlled state).

    • Kids do stupid things, even when they know better. I’m somewhat surprised any of us actually grow to adulthood. I was told in the army to always lock up my valuables (watch, wallet, etc.) not to protect them from thieves, but from the honest guy who in a stupid moment just grabs them. The same should apply to guns, if they are not on you, they should be under lock. I agree your kids will probably never do anything stupid, but if they do, think how much you’ll regret not taking the time to secure your guns.

      • My dad used to lock up his weapons. He didn’t educate me on them and they were those forbidden objects of mystery I used to wonder about as a kid. After awhile, I figured out how to open everything that was locked in the house. By the time I was 12 there wasn’t a cabinet, locker, or box I couldn’t get into either because I knew where the key was, could manipulate the lock, or figured out the combination. I am amazed that I never had an accident with the number of times I had his old 30-30 out just to “look at it”. Fortunately I never tried anything as stupid as loading it.

        Like I said, when the guns go under lock it will be to keep their friends out. At some points my kids will do something stupid and if family tradition holds it will be with a car. If I can’t trust my kids around guns then I would get rid of them. The risk is not worth it. Keeping in mind, my kids are older, otherwise I would be singing a different tune. At the same time, the thought that locking them up will keep them inaccessible? Unlikely just based on my own history.

  2. Very sad story. I do find it interesting that the pistol was kept on condition 0 in the house, it would make sense to me that if you have a gun in the house not locked away it should be condition 3. That way anyone handling it has to make the conscious and deliberate action of chambering a round.

    • I generally advocate storing in condition 4 with a full magazine in the same location. It takes less than a second to tap and rack, but it almost completely eliminates the chances of a negligent discharge due to “not knowing the gun was loaded”…

      • Oddly, that is exactly how I store my HD handgun. Mostly because I am concerned I will be too groggy plus a sudden charge of adrenaline hitting me. I want to consciously have to load the weapon and flip off the safety while my body is busy balancing all those chemicals from just having to wake up in an emergency situation.

        Plus it makes it that much more difficult for someone to do something stupid with it. Though I don’t have a laser mounted on mine.

        • Instead of consigning my first carry gun (a Norinco 213 9mm ) to the safe, it’s been promoted to one of several HD pistols stashed around here…. primarily for the reason that it’s always been a Condition #3 pistol.

          However, my “new” carry piece (a P-64) is always Cond.#1, and stays in-holster when it goes in the safe every night. The only time it clears leather is to be unloaded for cleaning, or to be fired.

          The reason for keeping HD pistols in Cond. 3? Not kids; cats, multiples of. Which is also why every room has nightlights, so I don’t have to bother with a flashlight every time our 30lb Maine Coon(s) gets the night-crazies.

  3. What most people don’t realize is that most laser pointers are class IIIb lasers which are very dangerous to your eyesight. This is especially true of blue or green wavelengths due to our eye’s greater sensitivity to them. Nowadays, I treat idiots waving lasers around about the same as idiots waving guns around.

    Both lasers and guns are very dangerous and very useful tools. Both need to be treated with respect.

    • In my CCW class one of the “instructors” kept playing around like a goof with either a blue or green laser (I don’t remember which). He kept shining it at a whiteboard, at the other “instructor” (she just laughed), around the room.

    • Actually I think most are IIIa. While you are correct about the dangers of IIIb lasers, IIIa (<5mW), while still dangerous, aren't quite as dangerous and I believe won't cause permanent damage unless they're focused directly on your eye for at least a minute. (I'm not an expert however.)

      That said I still treat them as if they're more dangerous than that, and have scolded kids who get them too close to my/others' faces.

  4. I don’t know for sure but these kinds of cautionary moralistic stories are so neat and tidy that I suspect their authenticity. What most likely happens is an accidental discharge into the wall, which should be a scary enough lesson to last a lifetime.

    I bet a lot of these “accidental” shootings aren’t accidents at all, instead some stupid evil kid hates their girlfriend or little brother and acts on it.

  5. Hanlon’s razor clearly defined with this tale. Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

  6. I’m sure everyone has had an “oh hell” moment when they realized that the just violated one or two of the rules, but were saved by another.

    A personal quirk, from an almost mistake (with blanks, in training) is that when unloading I always work the action at least 3 times. If the ejection of the 2nd or 3rd round does’t remind me to drop the damned mag, then nothng will.

    • Good advice.

      Everyone should employ a STANDARDIZED clearing method offering the least opportunity for an accidental discharge for each type of firearm they own.

      They should clear the weapon THE SAME WAY EVERY TIME to verify that they have emptied the firearm of all rounds, and leave the breach open and empty until the gun is returned to secure storage or deliberately reloaded for immediate use.

    • With a mag fed semi auto from locked and loaded, or if jammed and loaded, I always release and drop the mag, rack to clear any remaining round and then lock the slide back and visually inspect the breech and mag well to confirm no rounds and no other issues; Every. Single. Time.

      Without fail.

      Muscle memory and S/A at all times.

  7. It seems to me that long before I got into guns at all, I knew better than to aim a gun at anything or to put my finger anywhere near the trigger. This piece made me think about that quite a lot. How the hell did I know those rules? I don’t remember anybody telling me about them. I didn’t have a father growing up and there were no hunters in the family. It’s just strange how we each get here through entirely different journeys. I apparently learned my lessons the easy way — so easy I don’t even remember learning them. It sucks that the writer of this piece, not to mention his friends, had to learn it the hardest way of all.

    • That is a good point. I had no training at all growing up and I knew better than to point a real firearm at someone and pull the trigger.

      I wonder if there is a disconnect in some people’s brains? I am wondering if they almost reflexively pull the trigger when they get “on target”. Think of a person standing there and you give them a good shove forward — they reflexively step forward to stop from falling flat on their face. That step happens without any real conscious thought. I wonder if some people pull the trigger the same way?

      Think about how many times we have seen someone else or even ourselves bring up a firearm, point it at a target, and pull the trigger. It is simply routine. Sounds like some people need training to interrupt that routine and make the last step — pulling the trigger — a conscious decision rather than an unconscious step in a routine.

  8. This is a touching and unfortunate story, but I can’t completely agree. While it’s true that stupidity can kill, and that stupidity can kill with pretty much anything, here stupidity needed a gun. Undoubtedly it was ultimately ignorance of the danger of firearms and the status of the firearm in question that resulted in the tragedy you described, but it should ABSOLUTELY be included in firearm death statistics. No, not some catchall “gun violence” statistic, but these are deaths that would not have occurred without that gun. There was no intent to kill or maim. Your friend wouldn’t have found another way to mortally injure his girlfriend and subsequently take his own life that day or likely ever. In an admittedly sterile and callous-sounding economic way, their lives represent very real costs to gun ownership. Murder and armed robbery and any crime involving the use of a firearm aren’t caused by guns, though guns may facilitate them. Accidental gun deaths are absolutely caused by guns. They wouldn’t ‘find a way’ without guns. No, I’m not saying this directly means we should ban guns or pass more laws, but these deaths are absolutely a real cost and consequence of firearm ownership in a very real economic sense and dismissing them as gun related out of hand is inappropriate.

    • I agree. It doesn’t overshadow the reasons why someone should be able to own a gun, but guns are a proximate cause for plenty of problems.

      • This is a point the (left-leaning) law professor Sandy Levinson made in his seminal law review article “The Embarrassing Second Amendment” over 20 years ago. He made a point about “taking our rights seriously,” which means we support in them in spite of potentially significant social costs. As I recall, his examples were something like: We support the right to free speech, even if it means oppressed groups get exposed to hate speech. We support the rights of the accused, even if it means that guilty criminals can go unpunished. We support private firearms ownership, even if means there are fatal firearms accidents or criminal misuse of guns in private hands.

    • I don’t completely agree with your statement that the boyfriend wouldn’t have used poor judgment in the future that could have injured or killed his girlfriend. He sounded like the type who would race his car thru a canyon road, or pass a car going around a corner at 100mph just to show off. I had people like that at my small highschool. And every year there was at least 1-2 deaths by the same type of people doing exactly that.

    • “Accidental gun deaths are absolutely caused by guns.”

      No, no, and no. First, there is no such thing as an accident – only negligence; and second, no inanimate object can be the cause of anything. My correction: “Accidental” gun deaths are absolutely caused by negligence.

    • The tradgedy and the cost are very real, but it is impossible for an inanimate object to “cause” any action. A match can be used to start a campfire or a forest fire, light a cigarette or commit arson, but no set of circumstances makes the match anything but a tool, an inanimate object without volition of its own.

      The human being who picked up this inanimate object made certain choices and actions. Those choices and actions are what caused their deaths, regardless of intent. If he had not picked up the gun, and made some seriously stupid choices, nothing would have happened… which should indicate to anyone that the presence of the gun was not the instigator of the action. “The devil made me do it” is not an adequate explanation.

  9. “Lasers don’t kill people. Guns don’t kill people. Stupidity kills people.”

    And in the case of criminals, evil people kill people.

  10. As per usual: Education, active parenting, and safe storage will prevent a lot of these NDs from occurring.

  11. Well written and articulate articles like this one really need to be more widely disseminated beyond the blog pages of TTAG. As in submitted to local papers and online news sites that publish opinion and editorials and guest columns. With the 320 contest coming to a close (hope it, or something like it, is done every year) there is a ton of good, pro-gun and 2nd amendment cultural material to share!

    Otherwise, this is the sort of drivel that the “on the fence” people end up reading, consuming and being influenced by (most of it poorly written, as well):

    I would love to see counter articles like this TTAG post to stuff like the link.

    • I don’t think a childhood tale of someone shooting someone else getting mainstream airplay would be of much help to us.

  12. +1 mirgc…I had idiot friends and acquaintances in high school too. No gun deaths I’m aware of but plenty of car wrecks & dead or maimed kids. I always had a ( little ) sense & distanced myself from said idiots. You truly CAN’T fix stupid. Stay safe.

  13. I have noticed lately that after I drop the mag and rack the slide 3 times on my Glock, I then pull the trigger. No problem, but what what concerned me is I started to do it unconsciously. I reset my brain now so I never pull a trigger without thinking about it. Even if I always follow rule 2.

  14. Dear All, I stumbled on this conversation purely by accident. I know that this note may cause some angry reaction, and please accept my apologies if anybody feels insulted. I just want to offer a different point of view.

    In the country I live in – part of old Europe – the concept of an ordinary citizen walking around with a gun at his hip is, well, unthinkable. Not good nor bad, just unthinkable. When I go for a walk I know that I may be hurt by somebody mentally unstable: the risk is very remote but ok, is real. On the other hand I find comfort knowing that the only people who are around carrying a gun are members of the police or armed forces, in the overwhelming majority of cases. The likelyhood of a dangerous lunatic getting hold of a gun and ammo is so low that can reasonably be dismissed, so kids can walk around in a park in a lovely summer night just enjoying an ice cream with their friends rather than watching each other’s back.

    Our gun control rules are tight: it is very, very hard to buy a gun and (almost) impossible to be allowed to carry it on you. This creates a virtuous circle: the feeling of danger is low, so the perceived need to buy a gun for self-defence is low. This keeps the number of guns in circulation low, lowering the feeling of danger and so on. Ideally, if no guns were around – except for the ones used by police and the army – the place would be almost perfectly safe.

    So I do believe that guns ARE a big part of the problem. If I had to live in a place where anybody can buy a gun I would be pretty damn scared. Anybody can have a psychological crisis at a critical point in life, and then use the gun in a colossally stupid way. Betrayed by the partner, bullied by colleagues, or simply having lost it due to some temporary mental disorder or a couple of bottles too much or some drugs. The four rules are only valid for a mind that is properly working and a mind that means no harm. If you own a gun there is a risk you may one day misuse it. Not to talk about horrid, tragic accidents involving kids.

    I understand that the US Constitution – a beautiful one indeed – grants the right to bear arms. I suppose this was the right thing to do back then, those were really rough times. It is up to the US people to verify whether or not this right still makes sense, but in all cases one can always opt to trust the institutions, the police, the army and their excellent training, and spend the money for a gun in a different way. A right is not a duty. I have the right to vote, but it is perfectly legal to abstain.

    Finally, in my opinion if the nature of an inanimate thing is to cause harm, that object is by necessity instrumental to any harm done using it. Yes, the same is true for a knife. However, one shall admit that the amount of determination, force, guts (or madness) it takes to stab somebody is way, way above the amount needed to pull a trigger from some distance. To execute ten perfectly innocent and unarmed people one by one is something any madman or focused coward can do, but to stab them one by one (while the others can have time to organize some kind of defense, or maybe just the time to run away)is a completely different kettle of fish. This is the dark side of this technology: it makes it easier to maim and to kill.

    This said, if we start from a situation where so many guns are already in circulation and privately owned, the scenario is really grim. I wonder… if the US Government would retire all guns in circulation, paying back their value to the legitimate owners, would the cost of the operation be lower or higher than the damage caused by all gunfire accidents? How much money would all Dads and Moms of all the unfortunate Toms be willing to pay to have them back now ?

    I just thought I would offer a possibly naive opinion from a land beyond the ocean… please do not take it personally.

    Kind regards to everybody

    • That’s why my ancestors fled Europe. They wanted to be free. From Napoleon and Austria Hungary. We are not Europe. I thank God we are not Europe.We do not have a homogenous population either. and millions of people are still trying to get HERE-legally or illegally. Yes I did take it personally. You literally sound like Hitler or Stalin. I hope your country isn’t overrun by jihad…you might need that evil gun.

  15. Why do so many people insecurely store their guns in condition 1 at home? I keep my EDC at condition 1 when it is on me, but whenever it’s not under my direct control I keep it in condition 3 in a lock box. All of my other firearms are kept in the safe at condition 4. Leaving an unsecured gun lying around in condition 1 (especially if you have kids) is just asking for trouble. Every single AD story I read about seems to involve someone pulling the trigger not realizing there is one in the chamber.

  16. Silvano offers a very different mindset to that of an American. I believe you are genuinely expressing your thoughts. One correction must be made (though many others could be). Our Constitution goes not grant me rights. It recognizes my preexistent natural rights and limits my government from restricting them. You Silvano, have the same rights as I as I do. Those rights also belong to you in your own country. Your government is denying you what is yours. Maybe you have grown comfortable with that arrangement. But if you have ever lived as a free man, you would be very uncomfortable.


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