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Gun safety

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For discussions on politics concerning firearms and gun safety, see Gun politics. For the part of a gun that is called a "safety" or 'safety catch', see Safety (firearms).
Gun safety is a collection of rules and recommendations that can be applied when handling firearms. The purpose of gun safety is to eliminate or minimize the risks of unintentional death, injury or damage caused by improper handling of firearms.

Gun safety rules and mindset

Example of safe firearm handling. The weapon is pointed at the ground and the handler's finger is off the trigger.
Gun safety training seeks to instill a certain mindset and appropriate habits by following specific rules. The mindset is that firearms are inherently dangerous and must always be handled with care. Handlers are taught to treat firearms with respect for their destructive capabilities, and strongly discouraged from playing or toying with firearms, a common cause of accidents.
The rules of gun safety follow from this mindset. There are many variations, and one of them is the Four Rules introduced by Colonel Jeff Cooper, which are:
1. All guns are always loaded.
2. Never let the muzzle cover anything you are not willing to destroy.
3. Keep your finger off the trigger until your sights are on the target.
4. Be sure of your target and what is beyond it.
Jeff Cooper[1]
The NRA provides a similar set of rules:
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 gun unloaded until ready to use.
The National Rifle Association, The fundamental NRA rules for safe gun handling[2]
The Canadian Firearms Program uses the concept of The Four Firearm ACTS:
1. Assume every firearm is loaded.
2. Control the muzzle direction at all times.
3. Trigger finger off trigger and out of trigger guard.
4. See that the firearm is unloaded. PROVE it safe.
Canadian Firearms Centre, The Four ACTS of Firearm Safety[3]

Treat firearms as if they are loaded

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.
  • 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 parts 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.

Point the muzzle away from non-targets

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. 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 upwards (at the sky) and downwards (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 upwards eliminates this risk but replaces it with the risk that the bullet may cause damage when it comes down to the ground again. Indeed, several accidents have been caused by discharging firearms into the air. It is also possible that the muzzle will inadvertently be pointed at a non-target such as someone's head or an aircraft.[4]
In cases where the firearm is being handled indoors, up and down may not be safe directions. For example, a bullet fired upwards 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.

Keep fingers off the trigger

This rule is intended to prevent an undesired discharge. Normally a firearm is discharged by pressing its trigger. A handler's finger may involuntary 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 (see picture above). 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.

Be sure of your target and of what is beyond it

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 be sure of both the target itself and anything along the avenue of travel to and beyond 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.
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.
Ammunition can be chosen to reduce the risk of overpenetration; see Terminal ballistics, Stopping power, and Hollow point bullet.

Gun safety for firearms not in use

Trigger lock fitted to the trigger of a revolver
Gun safety for situations where firearms are not in use is intended to prevent access to and subsequent discharge of a firearm. Preventing access to firearms can serve a double purpose in that it can also protect the firearm from theft.

Gun Safes

A Gun safe or gun cabinet is commonly used to physically prevent access to a firearm.


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. For example, Swedish law requires owners of firearms to store the firearms either by storing the entire firearm in a safe or lockable gun rack, or by locking up the "vital piece" in a safe place.


There are several types of locks that serve to make it difficult to discharge a firearm. Such locks are commonly designed so that they cannot be forcibly removed without permanently disabling the firearm. Locks are considered less effective than keeping firearms stored in a lockable safe since locks are more easily defeated than approved safes. In addition, while gun locks may prevent a stolen firearm from being discharged, they cannot prevent the theft itself.
  • Trigger locks prevent motion of the trigger. However a trigger lock does not guarantee that the firearm cannot be discharged (see above).
  • 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 disallow the use of the firearm by threading a cable through the chamber.
California effected regulations in 2000 that forced gun locks to be approved by a firearm safety device laboratory via California Penal Code Section 12088.[5] All gun locks under this code must receive extensive tests including saw, pick, pull, and many others testings in order to be approved for the state of California. If a lock passes the requirements then it is said to be California Department of Justice (CADOJ) approved.[6]

Open Bolt Indicator

Shooting ranges may require that guns 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, such as the yellow safety flag distributed by CMP may be inserted in the barrel (needed if the firearm design lacks a mechanical hold-open device). This is particularly important when shooters go down range to set up, score or remove targets.

Gun safety from secondary dangers

While a firearm's primary danger lies in the discharge of ammunition, there are other ways a firearm may be detrimental to the health of the handler and bystanders.


When a firearm is discharged it emits a very loud noise, typically close to the handler's ears. This can cause temporary or permanent hearing damage such as tinnitus. Hearing protection is recommended to prevent this.

Hot gases and debris

A firearm emits hot gases, powder, and other debris when discharged. Some weapons, such as semi-automatic and fully automatic firearms, typically eject spent cartridge casings at high speed. Casings are also dangerously hot when ejected. Any of these may hurt the handler or bystanders through burning or impact damage. Because eyes are particularly vulnerable to this type of damage, eye protection is recommended to prevent this.

Toxins and pollutants

In recent years the toxic effects of ammunition and firearm cleaning agents have been highlighted.
  • Lead ammunition left in nature may become mobilized by acid rain.
  • Older ammunition may have mercury-based primers.
  • Lead accumulates in shooting range backstops, often as a fine powder which is easily inhaled.
Indoor ranges require good ventilation to remove pollutants. Indoor and outdoor ranges typically require extensive decontamination when they are decommissioned.
Lead, copper and other metals will also be released when a firearm is cleaned. Highly aggressive solvents and other agents used to remove lead and powder fouling may also present a hazard to health. Installing good ventilation, washing hands after handling firearms, and cleaning the space where the firearm was handled lessens the risk of unnecessary exposure.


Though firearms and their ammunition are made to exacting specifications and tolerances and designed to function reliably, malfunctions of firearms and ammunition do happen.
Ammunition-related malfunctions are colloquially known as "misfires", and include failures to discharge (duds), delayed discharge (hang-fires), and incomplete or insufficient discharge (squibs).
Mechanical malfunctions are generally referred to as "jams", and include failures to feed, extract, or eject a cartridge; failure to fully cycle after firing; and failure to lock back when empty (largely a procedural hazard, as "slide lock" is a visual cue that the gun is empty).
When a misfire or jam occurs, gun safety dictates that the handler should exercise extreme caution, as a cartridge whose primer has been struck in a misfire or which has been deformed in a jam can discharge unexpectedly. The handler should wait two minutes with the firearm pointed in a safe direction, then carefully remove the magazine, extract any misfed or misfired cartridge, and with the breech open carefully check to ensure there is not a bullet or other obstruction lodged in the barrel. If there is, and a subsequent round is fired, the gun can fail explosively resulting in serious injury.


Since handling a firearm is a complex task, with possible fatal outcomes if done wrong, gun safety dictates that a firearm should never be handled while under the influence of alcohol or drugs, or legal prescription or over-the-counter drugs. Since such substances may affect a person's judgment even after consuming relatively small amounts, zero tolerance is advocated by gun safety teachers.[7] This is codified in many states' penal codes as a crime of "carrying under the influence", with penalties similar to DWI/DUI.[8]
Exhaustion can also constitute a form of impairment, as reaction time, cognitive processing and sensory perception are all impaired by sleep deprivation and/or physical exhaustion. Gun safety therefore discourages using firearms when exhausted.

Gun safety for children

Children who are generally considered too young to be allowed to handle firearms at all can 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.[9]
Older youth (age may vary per program) may take part in a program for safe rifle handling, such as the ones promoted by these organizations:

History and teachers of gun safety

While gun safety in different forms has existed since the creation of firearms, Jeff Cooper (1920-2006), an influential figure in modern firearms training, formalised and popularized the above-listed "Four Rules" of safe gun handling. Prior lists of gun safety rules included as few as three basic safety rules or as many as ten rules including gun safety and sporting etiquette rules.
In 1902, the English politician and game shooting enthusiast Mark Hanbury Beaufoy wrote some much-quoted verses on gun safety, including many salient points. His verses "A Father's Advice" begin with the following:[10] [11]
"If a sportsman true you'd be
Listen carefully to me:
Never, never, let your gun
Pointed be at anyone..."
Other influential teachers of gun safety include Massad Ayoob, Clint Smith, Chuck Taylor, Jim Crews and Ignatius Piazza.

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