Col. Jeff Cooper furthered general gun safety by distilling and popularizing the four rules of safe gun handling. The purpose was to minimize accidents, otherwise known as negligent discharges (every accidental discharge is a negligent discharge).
There are other variations on the theme, but Cooper’s four rules of gun safety are easy to remember and communicate. You have to break at least two of them for something really bad to happen. Learn and follow the four rules and you eliminate the possibility of creating a dangerous, perhaps even deadly negligent discharge.
Learn them, live them, love them and preach them.
1. Every gun is always loaded.
Safety demands that you treat all firearms as loaded — at least until you personally and accurately verify that a gun is unloaded. Always safety check a firearm before and after handling. Even then, you should continue to treat it as a loaded gun.
Safety check every gun immediately after you pick up, even if you just put it down moments before. Safety check every gun immediately before you put it down or hand it to someone else, even if you “know” it’s unloaded.
Remember: you can remove a magazine from a firearm and still have a round in the chamber. You must check the chamber.
If someone hands you a gun, make sure it’s clear. If someone says “it’s unloaded” treat the statement as utterly meaningless.
The only unloaded gun is one you’ve personally checked and it’s been secured or hasn’t left your sight since you checked it. Until and unless you’ve safety checked a firearm — and in most cases (save cleaning) even then — treat the firearm as if it’s loaded.
2. Never point a gun at anything you aren’t willing to destroy
If you let your muzzle cover anything like an innocent person or an inoffensive inedible animal, bad things can happen. If you keep your gun pointed in a safe direction, away from innocent life, it can’t (which is why some think this should be the first rule). Even if you have a negligent discharge — which will only occur if you violate other safety rules — at least it won’t harm man or beast.
What’s a safe direction? Anyplace a bullet can’t harm an innocent life should you fire the gun.
Be aware: depending on where you may be, there may be times when there isn’t a safe direction.
Bullets can penetrate walls and other barriers and travel extremely long distances. Someone living in an apartment building in an urban area may not be able to avoid the possibility of a negligent discharge causing harm.
In that case as in all others — such as cleaning, storage and transportation — always keep a gun pointed in the safest possible direction. For example, aiming a gun at the steel-reinforced corners of a building may be an apartment dweller’s best bet.
3. Keep your finger off the trigger until your sights are on your target.
No matter how many media reports to the contrary, guns don’t “go off.”
Yes, there are older guns that aren’t “drop-safe” or a gun that’s mechanically defective (an extremely rare occurrence), but in virtually every instance in modern times, someone or something has to pull the trigger for a gun to fire. If you keep your finger (and other things) off of the trigger, you won’t create a negligent discharge.
There’s a natural tendency to place your finger on a gun’s trigger; that’s the way firearms are designed to be held. You have to train yourself to keep your finger out of the trigger guard until you’re ready to shoot.
When you pick up a gun, pause. Place your trigger finger in a safe spot (above the trigger on the gun’s frame is good). Feel your finger placement. Look at it. Lock it into your memory. Do this every time you hold a gun.
[NOTE: Even people with excellent “trigger discipline” may place their finger on a trigger in a high-stress situation. For this reason, some people choose handguns with a heavy trigger pull (e.g., revolvers) or a gun with a heavy first trigger pull followed by lighter trigger pulls (DA/SA).]
4. Be sure of your target and beyond it.
Again, bullets can penetrate barriers and travel great distances before they lose lethal force. You can aim at one thing and hit another, with disastrous results. You are responsible for every bullet that leaves your barrel.
Always make sure there’s no one down range, or someone about to go downrange. How far downrange should you consider? As far as the eye can see — and then some. A .22 caliber bullet can travel over a mile before losing momentum. Be sure you have an adequate backstop. Don’t forget the possibility of barrier penetration (i.e., there may be people or livestock behind a distant barn).
Also keep in mind that you may inadvertently fire well to the left, right or above your target. Imagine a horizontal line running from where you’re standing to your right and left, trailing off into infinity. Make sure there’s no person or animal anywhere ahead of this “firing line” or about to go ahead of the line.
In terms of self-defense, assess your environment, preferably before you draw your gun and certainly after. Defensive gun training courses and competitions are helpful in this regard. In any case, accuracy is a function of distance. The closer you are to a target, the less likely you’ll miss and shoot an innocent bystander.
There are other firearm safety rules (i.e., don’t drink and shoot) gun owners should be familiar with. But master Cooper’s big four gun safety rules and you’ll enjoy a lifetime of safe gun handling. It’s the right thing to do.