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Firearms Exchange, Livonia, Mich. Via

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.

Col. Jeff Cooper

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.

“…and I approve this message!”

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.

Rule 4: I don’t want to catch anybody not drinking.

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.

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  1. All you need to know is how a gun works. If you’re too damn stupid to understand what happens when you use it as intended in the direction of something you’d rather not be hit by a projectile no amount of rules, no matter how precise, clear or specific, will change that.

    Fire is hot. Don’t touch it. Bullets fly out of that hole when you pull on the thingy. Don’t do that unless you’ll appreciate the result.

    • I had to laugh at this because…

      “Bullets fly out of that hole when you pull on the thingy. Don’t do that unless you’ll appreciate the result.”

      Replace bullets with “sperm”, figure out a good way to impress this on teenagers and that whole unwed pregnancy thing goes away. Well, as long as you mention that results might not be immediately noticable…

    • Shire-man, your attitude is a recipe for a ND, if you think you’re too smart for Jeff Cooper’s rules. Knowing how the gun works is only half of the equation. The other half is accounting for the inevitable human brain fart. Arrogance kills.

      • Your mistake is assuming anything can compensate for the human brain fart.
        Memorizing arbitrary rules isn’t going to prevent distractions, lapses of judgement, lazy attention, drunken jackassery or any of the other roots of ND’s.

        I can recite the rules 5 times a day bowing east and still have an ND.
        It’s more about having good habits than memorizing rules. Always point your muzzle in a “safe” direction as a habit no matter what. Always look to see your trigger guard is free from snag hazards no matter what. Check the status of your weapon every time you handle it no matter what.

        Practicing good training habits like getting in a dry fire, good sight picture, admin reload every time you handle your weapon will do more to prevent reckless use accidents than simply memorizing some stupid rules some old and or dead guy wrote down.

        And I could still have an ND after all that. Nobody is immune. Putting faith in some stupid rules is like aiming a loaded gun at your head because the “safety” is on.

        • Jeff Cooper’s rules work for everyone, experienced shooters and noobs alike. You’re arguing with a straw man here – no one is advocating teaching new shooters a few rote rules and nothing else. They’re an important starting point for new shooters, and they’re just as important for experienced shooters who may get away from good habits over time. I really don’t understand your hostility towards them.

    • Thank you sir. You beat me to it. if this guy who wrote this article can’t figure out simple things in life. I don’t want to stand next to him.

  2. I just took the instructor’s course for basic pistol this weekend and was horrified at the NRA’s rules. They can do so much better!

    • The NRA’s rules are fine, when used in their intended context; that of an NRA class with an NRA Instructor on-hand to explain the rules and answer the inevitable questions.

      I’m far more disturbed by the failure to understand and/or emphasize the fail-safe, overlapping function of firearm safety rules in general, even by some instructors.

      I see far too many people thinking that they can pick and choose which rule(s) they need to apply in given circumstances, not understanding that the redundancy/overlap that they are eliminating is what saves you or prevents the discharge if/when a person makes a mistake. Example: folks thinking that because they checked the gun to see if it was unloaded, then they can now do something stupid with it, like point it at their own head and pull the trigger (variations on this problem is where we hear “I thought it was unloaded!” after-the-fact). If they make a mistake in unloading/clearing the gun, they will die. If they applied ALL the rules (kept it pointing in a safe direction), they wouldn’t have put themselves in the position that ultimately resulted in their death. Same thing for people who shoot themselves or others when “dry-firing” a Glock to disassemble it; if you pulled the trigger with it pointing at a part of your (or someone else’s) body, YOUR choice to violate the “safe direction” rule put you in that position, not the Glock pistol’s takedown method.

      The safety rules are redundant for a reason, folks; people make mistakes. If you apply ALL the rules, ALL the time, to the BEST of your ability in the given circumstances, you greatly reduce the chance of being involved in a serious AD/ND situation. Violating ANY rule or rules, for any reason or amount of time, greatly increases that risk, and should not be done without great need and extra caution (pointing it your body during holstering, for instance).

      There will ALWAYS be needed exceptions; minimizing them and their duration should be everyone’s goal.

  3. As an NRA instructor and RSO I agree the wording isn’t the best. When I give new shooters to the range the initial safety brief I have to explain what each rule really means. Coopers rules are good but to new shooters they can be confusing and still require an explanation. No matter what rules you use they do serve a purpose but people forget or ignore them. I frequently quiz people at check-in by asking for one safety rule. Most of the time the answer is a blank stare. They get a quick refresher. No matter what I try I get people with fingers on the trigger, pulling loaded guns out of bags behind other people and I’ve had my share of loaded guns pointed at me with fingers on the trigger. I don’t get mad the first time but do some education. No matter the rules nobody will remember them unless they practice saying them and understand the consiquences. Yelling STOP and expecting someone to freeze is asking a lot unless they have been trained to do that. Just reading or hearing the rules, anyone’s rules, doesn’t mean they are memorized and understood. Tweak the rules but that won’t make anyone safer unless we as instructors make it the core of all of our training. Say it, demonstrate it and repeat. A lot.

  4. Two things, well three technically.

    I’m an asshole. I had someone, a novice, ask me if a gun was “safe” to pick up. Long story short I asked them if they thought it would “just go off” when they touched it. They said no.

    I then asked if they’d pick it up, put it to their temple and squeeze the trigger. The answer was predictable. OK, good. Apply the logic you just used when considering your own brain box and apply to everyone and everything around you. Done. Not the nicest way to phrase things but the shock of it gets the point across in a way people don’t quickly forget.

    Finally I would point out that there needs to be some elasticity in the rules for muzzling because some people take that stuff way, way too far. I swear the next RSO who flips out about what direction the muzzle of my CASED rifle is pointed as I enter the range is going to get their toe stomped on. I’m sick to death of that crap. It’s a rifle in a case, not a damn gremlin that’s going to bust out and eat someone’s face like a Floridian on bath salts (yes, I know the actual story not bath salts and blah blah blah).

    The problem with the rules is that stupid people either ignore them or take them way too far. One’s unsafe and the other makes me want to litter the person’s bedroom with loose Legos.

    • I don’t see that as an ass move. In fact, my first RSO ever (at Peaceful Valley Scout Ranch) used similar imagery. It stuck with me.

    • Ha!! Loose legos? My sons never had legos… in the early 1970s they had tinker toys, lincoln logs, and ERECTOR sets… which under bare footed mother became large, sharp slivers of wood, steel knives and spikes! I learned to approach their bedroom with a broom in my hands… to clear the path.

      As for the NRA training, it is a good place to start for most people. Unfortunately, most people don’t ever go any farther. I replaced the NRA “rules” with Cooper’s version from the beginning. And yes, they still needed to be explained some. The key, however, to any set of rules or guidelines is integrity.

      If the people taking the training have the integrity required to be responsible gun owners/users, they will figure things out fairly fast and continue to practice safe handling no matter which set of “rules” they learn. If they don’t have that integrity, no amount of “training” will make any difference.

      I’ve been a certified NRA instructor for ten years. I will not be renewing either my membership or certification. The NRA has far more problems than the wording of the “rules.” They could fix that… but I don’t think the organization has the required integrity.

      • Always nice to see you Mama. And yes, I had most of those toys too, my parents will both attest to the danger they pose to bare feet.

        Question: Is it the NRA teaching RSOs that the direction of a rifle in a case matters before it gets to the booth/stall?

        With the number of people who say it’s unloaded when it ain’t I get having it pointed down range to uncase the bang stick but flipping out on me as I enter the range… well, I just don’t go back because that kind of over-protective helicopter RSO just makes me want to punch them… or wait until they’re detracted and yell really loudly “HOLY S%#$ WATCH WHERE YOU POINT THAT THING!”, right before I light off an M44 Mosin Nagant, just to see them wet their pants.

        • strych, my friend, it’s probably never a really good idea to annoy the RSO, let alone play dirty tricks… As my club’s CRSO, I can assure you we don’t have any grousing from an RO about a cased long gun or holstered handgun. They’d be laughed off the line if they did. A lot of the folks who bring long guns to the range don’t even have cases!

          But we only have assigned ROs for organized events. Most of the people who shoot at our range do so on their own. There are NO ROs out there, and everyone is responsible for themselves. So far, the club has NEVER experienced a serious injury because of unsupervised shooting on our range. Never. And I’ve never had to exclude anyone from the range for seriously unsafe behavior during an event… though I’ve come close a few times. They usually get the message and shape up when confronted.

          I tend to see the “rules” as a good starting point. If you don’t hurt yourself or anyone else, or cause property damage, you did a good job. 🙂 Safety is never guaranteed, whether you are shooting or mowing the lawn. Utopia is not an option, and there are no perfect “rules” – or people.

        • This is why I just don’t go back to ranges that I find do this kind of thing and I why I asked you the question:

          I never encountered a public range that even had an RO who was actively doing much of anything other than maybe checking to make sure you didn’t have steel core ammo until I came to Colorado and then I encountered three that were stupid, unprofessional, money-grubbing and way, way, way too concerned with the false sense of security they thought came from crotchety old guys who talk trash about patrons and younger guys who have no idea what they’re doing.

          This one place, where I very nearly did what I said with the Nagant, has a ginormous sign that says to use any NFA gear you MUST show your Form 4. I showed up with a couple cans, listened to Mr. Grumpy Pants explain to me which end of a gun bullets come out of for 10 minutes, and then tried to show him my paperwork as per the GIANT sign he’s literally standing next to. He doesn’t look, walks me to a booth, gives me another inane “safety” lecture to hear himself talk and then walks off and then starts talking shit about me and how it’s my “first can” and “I want to show off” but “he’s not impressed” (Hey, dumbass, if it’s my “first can” how do I have more than one and why are you ignoring the rules printed on the wall in letters A FOOT TALL?). Apparently this old guy wasn’t aware that I could hear him because there’s this new tech called “electronic earpro”. So that put me in a sour mood right from the jump.

          Then, I’m siting in a rifle (not the Nagant) with a brand new scope, first shot is on paper but on the low-left side of the target, like a foot off of the bull. They tell me that I missed the paper even though the round clearly put a hole in the paper. So, as per their rules (which I think they’re just making up at this point) the rifle “must be bore sited by a range professional” which costs $15. They give the rifle to some “NRA Instructor” certified 20-something (full disclosure: I was in my 20’s at the time too) who puts a laser bore sight in the rifle, points it at a wall maybe 6 feet away from the muzzle and tried to make the elevation adjustment find the dot. *facepalm* But then it gets worse, much worse. When he runs out of travel on the elevation adjustment and hasn’t gotten to the dot on the wall he tells me the scope is broken or cheap crap (Yeah, brah, Leupold is known for their cheapo crappy scopes. They’re worse than BSA or something.) and grabs a wrench. He’s about to start trying to force the elevation adjustment on this brand new scope with the wrench… and that’s when I totally flip shit on everyone who works there and is within ear-shot. What’s weird is that no one has a problem with what this kid is doing. They all look at me like I’m the one who has no idea how a rifle scope works. The manager actually says to me “Well, if you bought a better scope…” before he even looks at the thing.

          That’s why I ask. Every range I’ve been to where they’re pretty “active” about safety it seems like all the people who work there are flat out retarded.

        • Ugg, an ugly experience indeed. I wouldn’t DREAM of touching another person’s gun or equipment without specific permission and an agreed upon limits… What I don’t know about guns would fill a large library.

          Would love to have you visit NE Wyoming. You’d love my club’s range. 🙂 Bring any gun, any equipment and any ammo you want. Nobody’s going to ask.

        • Daaaaang, Strych. That’s madness. There’s a local gun shop near me that has that same kind of bad attitude, but somehow they stay in business.

          My local range is owned and operated by veterans, who are pretty close to my age. They’re awesome dudes, with an awesome range. The only problem is that the range is pretty small, and basically limited to pistol distances. I’m on the lookout for an outdoor range with rifle distance lanes, but the only one near me is membership only.

        • We have steel targets out at 300 yards on the rifle range. We don’t even have an outdoor pistol range now, collecting our pennies to build the needed berms for it. Indoor range works fine if others are using the rifles outdoors.

          Membership is only $25. a year for singles, $35. for a family. We don’t pay for all those retard RSOs, remember. 🙂 And I’m a volunteer too…

        • Mama:

          Love to. I’m not far away, and my buddy and I are actually planning on running the Darin Fink this year so he could use some time with 5.56 at 300.


          Trust me, you don’t want the rest of that story. It got well beyond retarded real fucking quick and that’s with me standing there basically saying nothing because my jaw was on the floor that these people could possibly be so stupid and still remember to breath. If there was ever a reason to take your Mosin, bash some 70+ year old guy in the face with the stock and then bayonet his boss… yeah, this was it. I left before being banned but I did prevent Dr. Dipshit from taking a wrench to my new scope. I’ve never been back and I never will.

          If I ever find out where any of them live, I’m littering Legos all over their house and spelling shit in their front yards with salt.

  5. If you sit through the whole NRA basic pistol course and the idea of “the gun is always loaded,” doesn’t sink in, then you’re doomed to shoot yourself anyway.

  6. This is a good writeup.

    I don’t recall my father mentioning Mr. Cooper by name, but those were definitely the Rules I was taught from a young age, and the same ones I use when introducing newbies to shooting. The statement “All guns are always loaded” is especially good as far as I’m concerned, because it informs a mindset that should arise with any handling, movement, or ultimately, use of firearms. Even if it’s not necessarily taken as a statement of fact, it’s a darned good way of thinking all around.

    • John Moses Browning
      Samuel Colt
      Col. Jeff Cooper
      Three names you MUST familiarize yourself with to be a true Person of the Gun. Go do some reading, especially on the first and third (the second was just a salesman after all).

  7. I prefer Cooper’s presentation to the NRA’s, but there are items from each that are vital.

    For instance, Cooper’s “all guns are loaded” is not the same as the NRA’s “keep the gun unloaded.” They are different and both are valid.

    Also, Cooper’s fourth rule of target awareness is a rule for safe shooting, not for safe handling, and really doesn’t belong with the other three even though it is certainly correct.

    • I don’t like the NRA’s “keep the gun unloaded” rule. To me, that seems to imply that an unloaded gun is safe. Considering the number of people who have been shot with “unloaded” guns, that’s a terrible implication.

      • Not “safe”, but maybe “safer”, relatively speaking.

        I understand and agree with your basic concern, but this rule is a direct outgrowth of current observations in the real world. Too many people think that they can “safely” leave a loaded pistol on the top shelf of the closet between the towels, or hidden in the car console or nightstand, and then when the wrong person (spouse/S.O./child/child’s older friend/babysitter/relative/drunk buddy) unexpectedly interacts with it, something bad happens.

        • Honestly, I think making a habit of keeping your guns unloaded is, in a weird way, less safe. Let me explain. Start off with a couple of truisms:

          1. People are creatures of habit — they do things the way they get used to doing them.
          2. People make mistakes — mistakes are violations of habit.

          Accidents happen when a habitual behavior encounters a mistake (a violation of a habit), or a chain of such events.

          Now, say you’re of the “keep your guns unloaded” school:

          You always unload all your guns promptly after use. Therefore you “know” the guns in your safe are unloaded.
          Mistake 1 (violation of habit): You are in a hurry and forget to unload a gun for some reason. Let’s say it’s a Glock.
          Mistake 2: You aren’t in the habit of assuming all guns are loaded (You know yours aren’t. You “never” leave them loaded).
          Accident: A month later, you take your Glock out of the safe for cleaning, and pull the trigger without first checking the chamber (Bang!) Hopefully you were at least pointing it in a “safe” direction.

          Now, say you always keep your guns loaded.
          After cleaning, you load your guns before storing them. All your guns are loaded. You know this.
          Mistake 1 (violation of habit): You forget to load a gun after cleaning.
          Mistake 2 isn’t as likely to happen — it’s a loaded gun. You know that. You’re obviously going to clear it before you clean it. That’s one of your habits.
          No accident. A violation of the first and second habits results in a click.
          Now, you can not violate habit one, and violate habit two (clear your gun without checking it, giving a bang, but for me, with my gun handling habits, clearing the gun isn’t the kind of thing I overlook. After all, I have a loaded gun in my hands. I know it’s loaded. Because I always leave it loaded.

        • Cloudbuster, I can’t seriously disagree with you, as I think you have a valid point (and made it fairly well). I might even know some folks who use similar systems…

          However, I can say that methods and procedures suitable for dedicated and knowledgeable users of ANY device are not necessarily the ones I’d recommend for more casual and/or intermittent users, and I think this may be one of those cases.

      • I prefer to think of the rule as knowing your rationale for your gun being loaded at any particular time. As a child, guns and ammo were always lying about unlocked with ammo nearby. They weren’t loaded unless and until one was in-the-field (i.e., somewhere when one expected to shoot.) One family had the reverse rule. Guns were always loaded when lying around. The children learned the rule “Guns are always loaded” by showing them that literally the guns leaning in the corners were always loaded.
        My loaded gun at my bedside is loaded when I’m in bed; in case of a break-in. When I’m not in bed it’s in my pocket. In both cases, it’s in a holster. My SA is in Condition 2. My Glock is in Condition 3. I can explain why it’s reasonable for me to observe my conventions.

        The guy who walks out of his house leaving his loaded gun at bedside ought to ask himself why he follows this practice. If his only answer is that he is too lazy to put it in a safe, then he should re-think his practice. Maybe it’s not a good enough rationale.

  8. Cooper’s 4 are a good starting point towards the mindset of safer gun handling.

    Us it as a ‘gist’. What is the essence of it?

    How does it apply to the right here, right now, as you handle it?

    If you go to over-analyzing it, you can miss the forest for all the damn trees in the way.

    (Strych’s example above as a case in point…)

  9. I guess I’m on the opposite side of Shire. When I think of the number of cops that have ND’s, or shoot themselves of others, I gotta think something is wrong.

    Think about the incident where two cops are shooting in adjacent range lanes. Cop1 hands his pistol to the cop2 to try out. Only his whistle lanyard gets caught in the trigger guard spinning the pistol while pulling the trigger and cop2 is shot in the torso. Now I assume the pistol in question had one of the those silly Glock style trigger safeties. But what if the pistol was a DA/SA, had a round chambered, and was decocked? That might have saved cop2, but maybe not.

    One of my four pistols has a trigger safety but also has a backstrap safety lever. So probably that would have saved cop2. But I don’t feel that this firearm is capable of the level of safeness that I prefer. My other three pistols all have honest-to-god manual safeties.

    Interestingly, my range does not allow pistols to be handed from lane to lane. They recommend that the people move and not the guns. Or the gun must be cased before moving.

    • Handing loaded pistols to other people is a recipe for disaster. Just. Don’t. Do it.

      Set the pistol down on the table and let the other guy pick it up.

      • I stand beside the other person, not facing them, I use an overhand grip and hold it by the slide and upper portion of the grip. Keeping the muzzle pointed down range, I let the other person take the gun by the grip.

  10. Easy – Treat all guns as if they are loaded.

    To keep saying “all guns are loaded” just sounds stupid.

  11. Cooper’s first rule has a serious flaw. Even if I ignore the dumb wording that says an unloaded gun is always loaded, and just treat every gun as if it’s loaded, I could never dry fire a gun or disassemble a Glock (if unfortunate enough to possess one). Because I’d never pull the trigger on a loaded gun, unless I’m pointed at a firing range berm (or serious threat).

    When should I put my finger on the trigger? The rules say: when you’re ready to use it.
    No, the rules say when you’re ready to shoot. The NRA rules are very specific about the difference between use and shoot. I have a loaded and holstered CZ P-01 sitting next to me. I’m using it as a carry gun. I have an unloaded CZ 75 Shadow in a bag nearby. I will be using it at the range later, at which point I will load it.

    • When pulling the trigger to field strip a Glock, I point it in a safe direction, like the concrete wall in my basement. No rule violations there. An ND in that situation would result in a chipped foundation and some ear pain, nothing more.

      Google “clearing bucket” to learn how to create a “safe direction” if you don’t have any concrete walls handy.

      • Unless it’s crap-quality concrete, it’s also going to result in a nice demonstration of what happens when a high-speed projectile encounters an essentially immovable object, what I heard a politician recently call “bouncing off”.

        • Most defensive ammo projectiles will fragment under these conditions, with the smaller pieces (and concrete fragments) still being dangerous, but far less than deadly. Unless you’re silly enough to be carrying 230 grain .45 FMJ ammo, in which case, you probably deserve what you’re gonna get.

          I use my gun safe for my “safe direction” when unloading/clearing. Not only might I catch a piece of ricochet if I screw up, I might also damage or destroy thousands of dollars of firearms/optics with an errant shot. The thought of both helps me to keep my focus on the task at hand.

  12. All Guns are loaded…Even if you just unloaded it treat it as if is loaded. Is the gun loaded? Imagine yourself being the person standing there with someone else handling the gun and you don’t know if it’s loaded. If you are uncomfortable with what they are doing then don’t repeat what they are doing. Remember the gun is always loaded is for everyone’s safety and piece of mind. The gun is always loaded!!!

  13. In Canada the rules are the following:


    A: Assume every firearm is loaded
    C: Control the muzzle of the firearm at all times
    T: Trigger finger off the trigger until ready to fire
    S: See and Prove the firearm safe

    PROVE the firearm safe (done before handing someone a firearm)

    P: Point the firearm in a safe direction
    R: Remove all ammunition
    O: Observe the chamber
    V: Verify the feeding path
    E: Examine the bore

    The NRA should most certainly streamline/make the safety rules concise and to the point. With the emphasis on safe handling and operation of a firearm. They should also push for more safety courses and use that to get more people on the side of the gun. I’m surprised the gun control advocacy groups haven’t done that already.

  14. I have two additional:

    Rule 0: Make sure you have the legal right to use it or a good lawyer.

    Rule 5: Know your target and its surroundings in case you miss or overpenetrate

  15. On one hand, the NRA Rules are a product of of a time when people had a better understanding of how mechanical devices worked. As such, they’re an adequate starting point for gun safety.

    On the other hand, you might be at risk of drowning in the shower if you think the NRA Rules are “subjective”. If you don’t know what a safe direction is, you probably need to take up a different hobby approved by your court appointed guardian.

    • Sam: Agreed. Overall, I thought this was a pretty silly article. When you have to call basic rules “subjective” to find something wrong, you’ve gone to la-la land. There is nothing “subjective” about those rules, “subjective” doesn’t come into it at all.

      I think some people are bothered by the position the NRA occupies in the gun world, and somewhat envious, thus compelled to pick on whatever the NRA does. Some people just have to “know better.” Unwarranted criticism of the NRA, the face of our gun culture, is not helpful. Unless you have something much more substantial than this to say, take a seat in the back of the classroom and zip it.

      There’s no magic in the formulation of these basic safety rules. All of those cited are good for starters. It’s common sense, and most of the benefit of safety instruction is from simply having the focus on safety. Anything like magic with words starts after the basic rules are laid out, when the instructor, addressing the individual newby in person, handles the newby’s questions/reactions to the basics.

  16. Rule #1: use common sense.


    The problem with Cooper’s rules (and sort of the NRA’s rules) is that if you take them LITERALLY they hamstring you. “The gun is always loaded.” Well then I guess I can never take it apart, clean it, put it in a case…

  17. “Is the gun loaded? Yes it is; all guns are always loaded.”

    This was, and remains, silly. It may be less wordy than the other ‘rule’ but it’s no better. If a rule is wrong it’s not useful. So when you have people taking down a striker-fired pistol by pulling the trigger the ‘rule’ doesn’t function as a rules anymore.

    (and no, “the exception that proves the rule” doesn’t apply here or mean that an exception validates a rules- the real meaning of that phrase using modern terminology is that an exception *tests* a rule)

    • Well, like I said above, the point isn’t to establish a provable fact beyond a reasonable doubt, but to present a sticky phrase that will pop into your mind every time you see a gun. Sure, any particular gun may, in fact, be unloaded. But I suspect you’ll be a safer gunhandler if the phrase “all guns are always loaded” pops into your mind everytime you see a gun. It’s helpful, I think.

  18. Disagree with your assessment:

    (1) ALWAYS keep the gun pointed in a safe direction.

    Willing to destroy when handling ignores the safest path and creates confusion – I don’t want to destroy anything in my home. Safe direction considers the safest path of travel for the magic bullet that has too much penetration.

    (2) ALWAYS keep your finger off the trigger until ready to shoot.

    Your write up changes this to use. If you aren’t ready to pull the trigger at that instant, you aren’t ready to shoot. When you clear leather? I guess if shooting yourself in the foot is your goal.

    (3) ALWAYS keep the firearm unloaded until ready to use.

    This is where use comes in. If you aren’t ready to use it for whatever activity you have planned, it needs to be unloaded. The gun shouldn’t be in a state of loading unless being used. This stands in strong contrast to a default behavior of loading a firearm. Additionally, when coupled with the other handling rules, the risk of harm to another person is reduced.

  19. “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”

    That’s not what it says. You mixed up the trigger rule with the keep the gun unloaded rule.

  20. “tuna nigiris at a sushi bar”?!?!?! Only those that stick their pinkie out while drinking know what the hell this is.

    • avatar I love my old Yugoslavian Folding knife, it comes with a gun attached to the handle, and a grenade launcher attached to the gun.

      My dude, sushi is a pretty widely available and mainstream foodstuff these days. As for the whole “pinkies out” thing, it strikes me as unlikely that you ever stray from swilling square bottles of bourbon, or beer that is widely available in a 30 pack, and you really should experience more of the world around you. Nothing wrong with occasionally catching a buzz on Nattie once in a while, but venturing outside of your comfort zone makes you much more interesting to talk to.

      Put down the Glock, and pick up an H&K. Buy a variety pack of Sam Adams, instead of the 30 of Bud. Hit up a Chipotle instead of shoveling that Big Mac into your neck. Test drive a Mazda. Live a little…

  21. Their entire curriculum is obscenely outdated. I took an nra home defense handgun class recently and was astounded by the stupidity. The class was loaded with outdated and incorrect information. It was bad enough that the instructor appologized to me after the class and said his hands are tied if he wants to keep his nra preferred status and offer nra certified certificates. Last time I take an nra certified class.

    • Last NRA-certified class I took, the instructor declared his policy: “Don’t ask, don’t tell”. His view was that his job was to teach us right, not blindly follow diktat from on high. So we got the NRA material… and his corrections.

  22. “Where should I point the gun? Only at something you intend to destroy.”

    So this whole time I’ve intended to destroy my holsters? Sheeeit.

  23. “… it’s because they feel like something written by a committee and subsequently edited by their staff attorneys for liability purposes”


    The last handgun class I took, the NRA-certified instructor said almost those very words before introducing the rules.

    • He sounds like someone who’s been around the block a few times.

      Was he an attorney or a police officer?

  24. I have one exception to Cooper’s rules when I’m using a semi-auto pistol. I will allow myself to violate those rules when the gun slide has been removed from the frame, during cleaning. I don’t think anyone will disagree with this one exception. The gun can not fire when it has been thus disassembled, and it is necessary to point the gun in many directions during the cleaning process. It is also necessary to pull the trigger a few times to verify its proper operation before re-assembling the gun.

  25. You made a very interesting point about memory
    There have been many cases of people checking the chamber and “seeing” the chamber as empty
    They would swear in court it was empty
    When the chamber was NOT empty!
    They get a rude awakening when they pull the trigger to disassemble their Glock!

    • Bill G is correct. On every level. The NRA rules are written to ingrain the most important concepts in the simplest way to students who are clueless in every respect. The rules make the right first impression, and that’s all that matters, minute details are irrelevant. The article and the comments completely miss the point. KEY WORDS: ALWAYS – MUZZLE – FINGER – AMMO. .Think: muzzle, finger, ammo. Why is Rule #1 ‘Where is my muzzle’? Because rule #2 and rule #3 are the hardest for novices to implement. Assume they know nothing, because they don’t. When all else fails, NRA Rule #1 RULES. Its short, easy to remember, and the easiest to follow. I know this for a fact. I am an NRA Basic Pistol Instructor and have been for about 10 years. I have taught over 350 novices to shoot safely and correctly. The NRA rules are simple, easily repeatable and memorable. they have kept new shooters safe on the range for decades. No contest. NRA rules. Bill G – thanks for opening the door to what works in reality.. Moderator should move Bill’s post and mine to the top of this thread….All, take good care and be safe out there.Remember: 1) Where is my muzzle? 2) Where is my finger? 3) Where is my ammo? Its that simple!
      [email protected]

  26. These rules are all good, but people need to know what the gun will do before rationalizing the rules.

    A gun is always loaded. It is not always loaded, if you need it NOW!, you could have a problem.

    Point it in a safe place until you have a target. That is great, but if you are inside your home, you have to be sure of what you might have to break. There is family, do you know thier location? Are you going to blow up a propane tank or ruin the electrical box or water pipe? Can you live with a hole in the roof? If you point at floor, is it going to ricochet?

    Load it only when you are going to use it. If it is a defensive weapon, you should always have one loaded, even when cleaning the other. If not, how far do you break it down? I have some handguns with mag safety, I leave one in the chamber with the mag hanging out – but it is in a hidden compartment.

    Be sure of your target – is great, but how sure? If you see someone you do not reconize, maybe with an unfamiliar build or race, in your house at night, do you give yourself away by yelling, “hands up!”? Do you try to blind him by remotely turning on a light?

    All of the answers to these questions can be made with your understanding of the situation or your rationalization of the rules. Sadly, if you end up in court and your training mentioned these rules, it will be your interpretations that the D.A. will try to tear apart

  27. For me it’s:

    1) A gun is loaded until proven otherwise. (Proven personally. I like to use my eyes and fingers when checking chambers.)
    2) Keep it pointed in the safest possible direction.
    3) Finger off the trigger until you’re about to shoot. (You have your sight picture and are sure of your target.)
    4) Shoot only when sure of your target. Shoot only when sure of what’s beyond your target. Be damn sure. (Don’t go to jail and don’t kill someone or destroy something you shouldn’t have.)

  28. Excellent article. I think the whole PotG community ought to be in a continuous search for better ways to teach the venerable 4 rules.

    Personally, I think of these rules as:
    – Loading discipline
    – Muzzle discipline
    – Trigger discipline
    – Target & Ground discipline
    Just 6 words to remember.

    What exactly is “Loading discipline”. First, you must be able to answer the question: Why am I keeping this gun loaded? If you aren’t entirely satisfied with your answer then you need to reconsider your practice. When you pick-up an assembled gun you must presume it is loaded no matter how convinced you are that it is not. Check it thoroughly; have a 2’nd and 3’rd person check it thoroughly if available.

    What exactly is “Muzzle discipline”? First, you must be conscious of the direction in which the muzzle is pointed. You can’t possibly be disciplined about something of which you are unconscious. There is usually no perfectly safe direction; only some least unsafe directions. What that direction is us extremely context-sensitive. A shotgun with bird-shot aimed into the open sky is safe; with buckshot, it’s not. A rifle aimed into the open sky is not-safe; aimed to earth without rocks is safe. Lots of guidance to give here.

    Trigger discipline – For handguns, the holster is the most important aspect; for long-guns, the case. There is no good reason for your finger to be in the trigger-guard until you are sure of your target & ground.

    Target & Ground – Observe Trigger discipline until you are convinced that you have accurately identified both your Target & the Ground around/behind the Target. In a self-defense scenario you might have to decide whether to shoot notwithstanding an unsatisfactory Ground. Your conscious depends upon your recognition of your Ground and your marksmanship.

    No doubt, many will find useful critiques of the foregoing.

  29. The author seems to think that these rules exist in a vacuum.
    The rules are taught in conjunction with training.
    The training discusses and answers these questions.

    Keep It Simple Stupid.

    The best way to get people to ignore something is to make it too complicated.
    The rules are basic and simple so that they can be taught and remembered easily.

    I am a BSA merit badge counselor and teach firearms training to scouts as young as 10.
    I also teach adults as old as 80.
    You need something simple and easy to remember.
    Something that will not strike fear into the student by making it too complicated.

    Plus, consider the real-world cases in the news where someone was ‘accidentally’ shot.
    These are great teachable moments for students to demonstrate how simply following
    any ONE of these rules could have prevented the tragedy, and how all 3 used together
    make it a virtual impossibility.

    I hope so.


  30. Johannes Paulsen gives himself more credit than he deserves!
    He is unquestonably a closet progressive whos opinion(s) should be taken with a grain of salt……..if he is so stupid as to beleive any instructir is the last word there is no help for him any way

  31. There is accuracy in your views. Remember the circulum of the NRA for most of the years has been around the area of Sport Shooting. Keeping a gun unloaded is always proper when it is not a defensive weapon. What constitutes a safe direction in a 7-11 if you have to un-holster a gun that you may have to use in self defense? Finally a finger should never be on a trigger unless you are going to shoot. Sounds like the guy had either a new or limited NRA instructor. I have been certified NRA instructor of about 10 years with multiple disciplines and many more years in experience. I also have formal CQB/CQC training in very close quarters. Also, and I may have overlooked it but was this a CCW class? I always start with the NRA doctrine and then provide real-world variances. Safe direction in a 7-11 is a lot different than at a range and so is the potential for collateral damage. Today, most pistols do not have mechanical safeties. Your finger is a safety and unless you were trained as a Tier 1 gunslinger (SEAL or CAG) then you are most of the time unlikely to be equipped to be drawing from a holster with a finger on the trigger. Candidly it appears this was reviewed by an academic.

  32. “Never cover anything with the muzzle that you do not intend to destroy.”

    So to take a page out of your book; Where do I point it when I don’t intend to destroy something?


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