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The Four Firearms Safety Rules, Explained Edit

Rule 1: Treat Firearms As If They Are Loaded. Edit

This rule is a matter of keeping a certain mindset. The purpose is to create safe handling habits, and to discourage reasoning along the lines of, "I know my gun is unloaded so certain unsafe practices are OK." The proposition "the gun is always loaded" is used as a shorthand, even though it may be assumed—or even positively known—that this is not true of a particular firearm.

Many firearm accidents result from the handler mistakenly believing a firearm is emptied, safetied, or otherwise disabled when in fact it is ready to be discharged. Such misunderstandings can arise from a number of sources.

  • Faulty handling of the firearm. A handler may execute the steps of procedures such as loading, firing and emptying in the wrong order or omit steps of the procedures.
  • Misunderstandings about a firearm's status. For instance, a handler may think the safety is on when it is not. A round of ammunition may be in the chamber or in the magazine while the handler thinks it is empty. A handler may receive a firearm and assume it is in a certain state without checking whether that assumption is true. For example, as handlers interact and pass the firearm between them, each avoids over-relying on the "show clear" of the other. Person 1 may misjudge the status; person 2 cannot assume that "it's OK because person 1 already checked it."
  • Mechanical failures. Wear, faulty assembly, damage or faulty design of the firearm can cause it not to function as intended. For instance, a safety may have been worn down to a point where it is no longer functioning. Broken or worn parts in the trigger, sear or hammer/striker may have given the firearm a "hair trigger" (a very sensitive trigger). A dented or bent body of the firearm may cause jams or premature discharge of ammunition. Sensitivity to impact may cause a firearm to discharge if dropped or struck against another object.

If a handler always treats firearms as capable of being discharged at any time, the handler is more likely to take precautions to prevent an unintentional discharge and to avoid damage or injury if one does occur.

Rule 2: Point The Muzzle Away From Non-Targets. Edit

This rule is intended to minimize the damage caused by an unintended discharge. The first rule teaches that a firearm must be assumed to be ready to fire. This rule goes beyond that and says, "Since the firearm might fire, assume that it will and make sure no harm occurs when it does."

A consequence of this rule is that any kind of playing or "toying" with firearms is prohibited. Playfully pointing firearms at people or other non-targets violates this rule and is possibly an extreme endangerment to life and/or property. To discourage this kind of behavior, the rule is sometimes alternately stated, "Never point a firearm at anything unless you intend to destroy it.".

Two natural "safe" directions to point the muzzle are up (at the sky) and down (at the ground). Both have their advantages and disadvantages. Firing at the ground may result in a ricochet or cause hazardous fragments to be flung at people or objects. Aiming upward eliminates this risk but replaces it with the risk that the bullet may cause damage when it comes down to the ground again. A bullet fired straight up only returns at the terminal velocity of the bullet. However, a bullet fired at an angle not perfectly vertical will retain its spin on the way down and can attain much more lethal speeds. Several accidents have reportedly been caused by discharging firearms into the air; although the evidence in a few such cases has been disputed, a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found 43 likely cases of injury from falling bullets during 2004 New Year celebrations in Puerto Rico. It is also possible that the muzzle will inadvertently be pointed at a non-target such as someone's head or an aircraft.

In cases where the firearm is being handled indoors, up and down may not be safe directions. For example, a bullet fired upward may travel through a ceiling and into an adjacent floor. In indoor areas where firearms will be handled often, a suitably safe direction should be designated. Firing ranges often designate a direction in which it is safe to point a firearm; almost universally this is downrange into a backstop which is designed to contain bullets and eliminate potential ricochets. In armories or other areas where weapons must be handled, a container filled with sand known as a "clearing barrel" or "clearing can" is often used for this purpose.

Rule 3: Keep Your Finger Off The Trigger. Edit

TriggerControl

Correct Trigger Discipline

This rule is intended to prevent an undesired or negligent discharge. Normally a firearm is discharged by pressing its trigger. A handler's finger may involuntarily move for any of several reasons: the handler is startled, a lack of full attention on body movements, physiological reasons beyond conscious control such as a spasm, stumbling or falling, or the finger being pushed by something (as when trying to holster a handgun with one's finger on the trigger). Handlers are therefore taught to minimize the harmful effects of such a motion by keeping their finger off the trigger until the muzzle is pointing at the target and the handler wishes to discharge the firearm. 

The trigger guard and area above the trigger of a firearm presents a natural point for a handler to keep their finger out straight alongside the weapon, so as not to violate this rule. Another recommendation is to keep the trigger finger above the trigger guard, so that there is less chance of the finger involuntarily slipping into the guard when startled. A properly indexed trigger finger also helps remind the person holding the firearm of the direction of the muzzle.

In popular culture, such as movies and TV shows, this rule is often violated, even by characters who should be trained in gun safety such as military personnel or law enforcement officers.  

Rule 4: Be Sure Of Your Target And What Is Beyond It. Edit

This rule is intended to eliminate or minimize damage to non-targets when a firearm is intentionally discharged. Unintended damage may occur if a non-target is misidentified as a target, if the target is missed, or if the bullet hits something or someone other than the intended target.

Handlers are taught that they must positively identify and verify their target. Additionally, they learn that even when firing at a valid target, unintended targets may still be hit, for three reasons:

  • The bullet may miss the intended target and hit a non-target around or beyond the target.
  • A non-target may pass in front of the target and be hit with a bullet aimed at the target.
  • The bullet may pass through the intended target and hit a non-target beyond it, so called "overpenetration".

Therefore, this rule requires a handler to "always be sure of your target; not just the target itself, but above, below, to the left, to the right, in front of, and behind the target".

This may create situations that present dilemmas for a handler. Such situations are for instance a police officer in a riot, a civilian facing a possible intruder at night, or a soldier in a situation where civilians are near the enemy. Indecision or misjudgment of the handler's abilities in such a situation may cause undesired outcomes, such as injury to the handler due to hesitation, or the handler violating rules of engagement and causing unintended damage.

Hunters are commonly prohibited from shooting across roads and trails, or after dusk and before dawn, due to the risk of inadvertently hitting an unintended target. All discharge of firearms is prohibited in some cities, in part due to the possibility of hitting unseen targets.

Training is used to minimize the risk of such outcomes. Target practice increases the precision with which the handler can discharge the firearm and thus increase the chances that the intended target is hit. Education about terminal ballistics gives the handler knowledge about the characteristics of a bullet after a target is hit. This knowledge coupled with insight into the handler's own capabilities makes it easier for the handler to make appropriate decisions about whether to discharge or not, even if given little time and/or put under severe stress.

Rules for Children Edit

Children who are generally considered too young to be allowed to handle firearms at all should be taught a different set of rules:

  • Stop.
  • Don't touch.
  • Leave the area.
  • Tell an adult.

The purpose of these rules is to prevent children from inadvertently handling firearms. These rules are part of the Eddie Eagle program developed by the National Rifle Association for preschoolers through 6th graders

Safety For Firearms Not In Use. Edit

Gun storage safety (for situations where firearms are not in use or are not being handled) is intended to prevent access to and subsequent discharge of a firearm. There are many ways of doing so:

  • Gun Safes.

A Gun safe or gun cabinet is commonly used to physically prevent access to a firearm. These have the primary purpose of preventing theft.

  • Disassembly.

Access to a functioning firearm can be prevented by keeping the firearm disassembled and the parts stored at separate locations. Ammunition may also be stored away from the firearm. Sometimes this rule is codified in law. 

  • Trigger locks.

Trigger locks prevent motion of the trigger. However, a trigger lock does not guarantee that the firearm cannot be discharged. Generally, two pieces of the lock come together from either side behind the trigger and are locked in place, which can be unlocked with a key or combination. This physically prevents the trigger from being pulled to discharge the weapon by both impeding trigger movement, and blocking the entire trigger area from access. Some trigger locks are integrated into the design of the weapon. A popular design of an integrated lock disconnects the trigger from the firing mechanism and disables trigger movement through inserting a key into the firearm and turning it.

  • Chamber locks.

Chamber locks aim to block ammunition from being chambered, since most firearms typically cannot be discharged unless the ammunition is in the correct position.

  • Cable locks.

Cable locks are a popular type of chamber lock that usually threads through the breech and ejection port of repeating-action firearms; they generally prevent full cycling of the action, especially preventing a return to "battery", with the breech fully closed. In many designs of pistol and rifle, they also prevent the proper insertion of a magazine.

  • Open Bolt Indicator.

Shooting ranges may require that firearms not in use have the bolt, slide or (in case of revolvers) cylinder locked open to expose the firing chamber as empty. In addition, an open bolt indicator may be inserted in the barrel (needed if the firearm design lacks a mechanical hold-open device).

Safety at the Range Edit

Ranges and organized shoots may impose additional safety rules on participants. For example, at its marksmanship clinics, Project Appleseed requires that a range safety officer (RSO) uses a weed trimmer line to check each rifle's bore for obstructions prior to its first use for the day. Six steps are then always followed when a round of shooting is complete and the line is ready to go "cold" to allow posting or checking targets, or when a rifle is ready to be removed from the line:

1) magazine out; 2) bolt back; 3) safety on; 4) chamber flag in; 5) ground the rifle; 6) step back; no one touching the rifle.

Open bolt indicators, or chamber flags, such as the yellow safety flag distributed by the Civilian Marksmanship Program or the green chamber flag distributed by Project Appleseed may be required to be inserted in the chamber to show the chamber is empty.

Ranges may limit the type of ammunition used, such as prohibiting the use of incendiary, tracer, or armor piercing rounds, or more powerful rounds than a range is equipped to handle. They may require the use of ear and eye protection. Alcohol is always forbidden, those who are under the influence of drugs or alcohol will not be admitted to any reputable range. Some ranges impose a waiting period for shooters who wish to rent a firearm, or require them to bring a friend, in order to reduce the incidence of suicides. Ranges are advised to designate a range safety officer to enforce these rules.

Ranges must be designed with safety in mind, including the use of proper backstops for the intended type of shooting.

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