Four Rules of Gun Safety in the Real World

Any competent firearms owner can recite the four rules of gun safety from memory. For any beginner shooter, proper training starts with education, reinforcement, and close observation of the four rules of gun safety. As time and a shooter’s skills progress, adherence to these rules becomes second nature whether on the range, in the field, or at home. However, how do these rules translate in a self-defense or public situation?

The real world isn’t always as simple as a flat range with a defined background and controlled safety measures. Thus, our training, mental approach, and habits should be tailored toward the unpredictable nature of self-defense encounters. In the dynamics of a lethal force situation, no range safety officer is watching you or others to reinforce a safe environment. Ultimately, you are the range safety officer in that situation. From my own experiences and the lessons and teachings of others, there are a few considerations to applying the rules of gun safety in the real world.

Treat every firearm as loaded

Treating every firearm as if it were loaded should be common sense. Unfortunately, common sense is often a commodity in high demand and low supply. In my experience, most negligent firearm discharges occur because the gun was not treated accordingly. For personal defense, this rule is more applicable to mindset than it is practice.

The greatest weight of carrying a firearm for personal defense isn’t the firearm; it’s the responsibility of carrying a weapon readily capable of causing serious physical injury or death. A firearm isn’t an intimidation tool, nor is it something to be brandished. Training and education are critical to carrying and owning a firearm for personal defense. To paraphrase Massad Ayoob, it’s more than just knowing how to use it; it’s about when to use it. You should mentally prepare and educate yourself accordingly on the legal side of lethal force.

Never point your firearm at anything you’re not willing to destroy

Whether at home or performing any activity involving a firearm, it’s imperative never to point your firearm at something you don’t intend to damage or hurt. However, the real world complicates this objective. For example, a crowded restaurant, mall, or store is far more complex than a square shooting range. There are people everywhere, and they’re unpredictable. If shooting starts, the average and blissfully ignorant individual panics. The panic may materialize in the form of freezing in place, running, or fighting.

Pistol at combat tuck
Combat tuck keeps the firearm in a sound place of retention while orienting the muzzle downward.

Ranges lull us into a false sense of competence with muzzle discipline. For the most part, none of the aforementioned issues are present on a range. However, practicing various muzzle positions — whether you’re a fan of them or not —expands your ability to maintain muzzle discipline in a position where it won’t flag innocent people. There’s no “silver bullet” position to keep your muzzle in these environments, but there are some positions that are better than others depending on the circumstances.

Temple Index
The temple index orients the firearm upward. I use my thumb to index on the front edge of my ear. While the photo angle is deceiving, the firearm is positioned so peripheral vision isn’t blocked on that side.

Keeping the firearm in a “combat-tuck” position with the muzzle angled down is popular, but orients the muzzle where it still points at legs, torsos, or — worst case — children. Another position is the temple index. I was introduced to this position only recently, and I’m still training in it some. If executed correctly, it’s a safe and practical position. While placing a gun near your head is somewhat disconcerting, the muzzle is oriented, and your hand is indexed in a position where the firearm won’t inadvertently muzzle you or others. However, if in a multi-level structure, be conscious of what is above. There are plenty more positions to try and practice beyond just these two.

Keep your finger off the trigger until ready to shoot

I cannot stress this one enough. When it comes to the rules of gun safety, violations of this rule seem to be the biggest source of negligent discharges. Barring a foreign object depressing the trigger, your finger is what makes the gun go “boom”.

In the past, the old phrasing was “Don’t touch the trigger until you’re ready to shoot”. While I may not be the most optimistic individual, I’ve found students, and people in general, tend to be more receptive to positive affirmation, direction, and feedback. When the brain hears “don’t”, it doesn’t receive it as well as the “keep” phrase. Furthermore, I take it a step further and prefer describing where the finger should go as opposed to where it shouldn’t go. So, where does it go?

Rules of gun safety finger on slide
While not everyone can reach it, finger placement on the slide clearly separates the trigger finger from the trigger guard and trigger. If anything, keep your finger as high as possible.

For a semi-automatic handgun, keep the trigger finger as high on the pistol as possible. For most folks, this is at the top of the frame where it meets the slide. If you’re lucky enough to have monkey fingers like me, I place my trigger finger on the slide and religiously tend to follow this. A negligent discharge at the range or home is dangerous. A negligent discharge during a public self-defense encounter is even worse.

Be sure of your target and what is around and behind it

When on the range, we rarely have to be concerned about our background, the target, or what is around it. Most ranges are — and should be — controlled environments. The real world is far different from that. Earlier, I presented the crowded store scenario — and it’s just as applicable here. Numerous examples exist of law enforcement and civilians accidentally shooting innocent persons. These instances weren’t acts of malice on the defender’s part but a lack of proper training. The classic range day doesn’t prepare us to think critically under stress while trying to stay alive. Knowing when not to pull the trigger is critically important because of the unintended consequences of a missed shot or passthrough on the bad guy.

Wall door and brick
Evaluating structures, like your home, for background is important. Bullets will penetrate differently through interior doors, exterior doors, vinyl siding, drywall, or brick.

Part of a tactical mindset is “gaming” out of your environment if a critical incident occurs. Identifying paths of escape for a fire or violent incident, recognizing potential threats, etc. In addition to this type of planning and threat recognition, a proper tactical mindset evaluates areas of cover and angles of fire and assesses the best possible backdrops. This practice may be overwhelming while strolling through the mall. However, this mindset is easily accomplished at home, work, or any other frequented place. If you take a shot at a home intruder, where will it go?

Recently, a Florida homeowner shot a few rounds with an AR-15 at a perceived “intruder” from inside his house into his backyard. Unfortunately, the intruder was the pool guy completing maintenance late. After completing his first volley of a couple of rounds, the homeowner continued to empty the remainder of his 30-round magazine in the direction of where he last saw the perceived threat. The homeowner never hit his intended target and, instead, covered the neighborhood with high-velocity projectiles. This is a cautious example of gross negligence.

The above example emphasizes another important point: know your target. The homeowner shot at the pool guy, not an intruder. I wonder if the homeowner thought to attach his conscience to every round he fired. Know your target and your background.

The Rules of Gun Safety in Practice

The greatest shooters mastered their craft by making fundamentals second nature. Accordingly, skill mastery requires quality repetition by the end user. No one becomes an expert or competent through wishful thinking or rising to the occasion. To this end, applying the rules of gun safety to the real world is no different. Safe gun handling practices on the range or other controlled environments develop good habits. However, by thinking beyond the environments you have handled or used a firearm, you can develop good habits and a safe response in environments where you may potentially have to use a firearm when it matters most.

Tom Stilson began his firearms career in 2012 working a gun store counter. He progressed to conducting appraisals for fine and collectible firearms before working as the firearms compliance merchant for a major outdoor retailer. In 2015, he entered public service and began his law enforcement career. Tom has a range of experience working for big and small as well as urban and rural agencies. Among his qualifications, Tom is certified as a firearms instructor, field trainer, and in special weapons and tactics. If not on his backyard range, he spends his time with family or spreading his passion for firearms and law enforcement.

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