The Rules of Gun Safety

Courtesy of Gunsite

A printable version of the Rules from Julie Golob.

“Teach them to your children, talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.”
Deuteronomy 11:19

0. Always wear eye protection, and hearing protection where warranted.

1. All guns are always loaded.

2. Never let the muzzle cover anything which you are not willing to destroy.

3. Keep your finger OFF the trigger until your sights are on the target.

4. Always be sure of your target and what’s behind it.

5. Never try to catch a dropped gun.

EXPANDED . . . .

Rule Zero: Eyes and Ears.

Or, Always wear eye protection, and hearing protection where warranted.

[My version of this rule says “hearing protection where warranted” because Rule 0 also applies to Airsoft guns, BB guns, and other non-gunpowder guns. I require my son and his friends to always wear shooting glasses during their maneuvers.]


Protecting your sight and your hearing should be a no-brainer. You want to spend the rest of your life enjoying the world, and all the sights and sounds it has to offer. Think of life without music or television. Bleak, isn’t it?

But a lot of people see movies and TV and soldiers and think they can get away with not wearing protection when shooting.

The problem is, when you shoot a gun without eye and ear protection, you are damaging your hearing every time, and you could damage your sight, if you get hit by a stray shell or ricochet. Hearing damage and sight damage are not reversible. Once you lose hearing, it’s gone. The cilia in your ears, the little hairs that transmit the sound, don’t grow back. And once you damage your eyes, chances are the damage is irreparable.

So, everybody put these on, keep them on, and don’t give me any more lip.



[WARNING: Engineering content.]


The regulations and standards for protective eyewear are found in ANSI Standard Z87.1. Now, this standard covers eye protection for just about every exposure, not just impact, and it’s quite involved.

But you should always use eyewear that’s stamped somewhere with “Z87.1.” This means it meets the impact standards at least.

Regular glasses generally don’t meet this standard, because of the lack of impact resistance, and the lack of side shields. If you wear prescription glasses it may be worth it for you to get a pair of Z87.1 standard shooting glasses.

Off the shelf sunglasses fare even worse. May of them don’t offer even basic impact protection.

Shooters’ eye protection comes in all shapes and sizes and colors. Pick the one you like, and buy 2 or 3 pairs. Different colors help make targets easier to see in different light conditions. The most common are gray for sunny conditions, yellow or amber for low light, and vermillion, which enhances a beige or orange target.


The intensity of a noise, that is, how loud it is, is expressed in units of decibels, or dB. Hearing protection is rated by a Noise Reduction Rating, or NRR, which is also stated in dB. This is pretty much the measure of how much the ear protection reduces the noise level for the wearer.

Generally, noise about 85 dB is considered dangerous, since it can cause permanent damage. Noise over 140 dB is usually painful, and gunfire can range from 120 to 160 dB depending on the caliber and the surroundings of the shooter.

The NRR of hearing protection is measured by the manufacturer using a continuous noise, so its applicability to the sharp pressure wave of a gunshot isn’t exact. However, most experts recommend using ear plugs or ear muffs with a NRR of 19 or higher when shooting.

Obviously, the higher the better. Ear plugs can work, if you use them right. Foam ear plugs need to be inserted all the way into the ear canal, almost flush with the ear opening. Roll them up, and insert them before they expand, by reaching behind your head and pulling your ear back, and inserting the plug with the other hand.

If you can see foam ear plugs sticking out of your ears, you don’t have them in right.

Earmuffs are easier to use, but they can be hot, and they’re bulkier. The choice is yours.

Personally, I wear foam earplugs with a NRR of 21, inserted correctly, during any time I’m at the range. Then, when it’s my turn to shoot, I put on some earmuffs with a NRR of 25. This prevents me from having an involuntary startle reflex when I shoot.


Don’t overlook eyes and ears around the home, too. Wear eye protection when you cut the grass or use hand tools. Wear hearing protection when you use power tools or lawn tools.

I even bought a set of ear buds for my iPod that fit into the ear canal, and provide a NRR of 22. Very nice when I’m cutting the grass, or on the airplane.


Rule 1: All guns are always loaded.

This rule has probably generated the most dissension among gun owners than anything else, including the “9mm versus .45ACP” debate. Some don’t even include it as a rule, arguing that, if the other rules are followed, it becomes moot.

However, it can be argued that unloaded guns cause more “accidental” shootings than anything else in the shooting world. Of course, what really happened is that guns that were assumed to be unloaded did what loaded guns are designed to do when the trigger is pulled. And, since no care was taken about which direction the gun was pointed, the result, many times, is tragic.

A loaded gun is a deadly weapon. To treat it as anything else is negligent and foolish.

But the argument is made that not all guns are loaded. Examples would include guns at a “cold” range, such as at a competition. In this case, guns are only loaded once the competitor is on the firing line, and then only at the direction of the Range Officer or Safety Officer.

The point of this rule, though, is to prevent the negligent discharge of a gun that was assumed to be unloaded, but really wasn’t. As with many things, Lt. Colonel Jeff Cooper said it best in his final version of Rule 1:

All guns are always loaded. Even if they are not, treat them as if they are.

If we treat all guns as if they are loaded, then we won’t point them at anything we don’t want to destroy, and we won’t put our fingers on the trigger until we are ready to shoot.

It’s a mindset that we have to develop, that is part of the overall safety mindset – that our gun is a powerful tool, which we must control and direct at all times.


Certainly one of the scariest and most frustrating experiences is to be around someone who has no concept of gun safety, and insists on waving it around or putting their fingers on the trigger. I have no qualms about asking someone politely to treat the gun as if it were loaded, and please stop that. It is usually at a gun show or gun store. If they get upset about my request, I take myself and my business elsewhere.

Of course, at a range or in my home is another issue. I try to be as nice as I can, but nothing pulls the barium rods out of my nuclear asshole reactor quicker.


Once, when my son was perhaps 8 or 9 years old, we were getting the BB guns out for a shooting session. We put on our safety glasses, and I took down the trusty Red Ryder Range Model Lever Action Carbine (without a compass in the stock, or this thing that tells time), and I tilted it back and forth to make sure there were no BBs in the action.

I handed it to my son, and asked, “Is that loaded?”


Wrong answer. The guns went back up, to be brought out another day.

He’s never forgotten that lesson. And he knows every gun is loaded, even if there might not be any ammunition in it.


Rule 2: Never let the muzzle cover anything which you are not willing to destroy.

If there was a single gun rule that, when violated, resulted in the most damage, injury, and death, it would have to be Rule 2.

After all, the direction a gun is pointed determines where the bullet goes when the gun fires. While Rules 1 and 3 are devoted to preventing the gun from going off unintentionally, with Rule 2, it doesn’t matter whether the gun is fired intentionally or unintentionally (or, as the anti-gun crowd believe, it goes off by itself). This Rule must be followed, or bad things happen.

Rule 1 is a philosophical rule. It takes a change in the shooter’s thinking to make it work. You need to have a change in your attitude, so that you always treat the gun as if it were always loaded, even if it isn’t. Which it is – see Rule 1.

Rule 2 is a concrete rule. It doesn’t matter how you think about the Rule, what your attitude is. The gun is pointing where the gun is pointing, regardless of how you think about it.

In my experience, Rule 2 is the most violated of all the safety rules. The main reason for this is ignorance and inexperience. New shooters may be used to playing with a toy gun, or not having a gun around at all.

And then there are the thousands of very bad examples on TV and in movies.

Wow. Not only did Vincent violate Rule 2, he violated Rule 3. Bad things happened. Sorry, Marvin.

Almost as bad are the hundreds of images where an actor points the gun in the air as they move around. No one tells viewers that this isn’t for good safety practice, this is so the gun is in the shot with the actor’s face.

This Rule takes concentration. Nothing about Rule 2 can be left to attitude or thinking or philosophy. You must be aware where your gun is pointed at all times, or bad things can happen.

So, what works when teaching Rule 2? Zealous enforcement and repetition. When you find someone waving a gun around, call them on it. Whether you are polite about it or not depends on the situation and the violator, I suppose, but you should be firm and unequivocal in any case. In my family, we are all allowed to call “MUZZLE!” and push the gun downrange or toward the ground if it’s safe to do so.

A search of most gun forums will also find many accounts of violation of this rule at gun ranges, gun shows, and gun stores. When a polite but firm reminder not to point the gun at something they aren’t willing to destroy goes unheeded, the only recourse then is to leave. I know I’ve done it.


Rule 2 is the failsafe of the gun rules. Follow it – make sure the gun isn’t pointed at anything you aren’t willing to destroy – and even if someone violates the other rules, you will be safe.


RULE 3 – Keep your finger OFF the trigger until your sights are on the target.

Is that what how they taught you?

This would seem as straightforward a gun rule as one could imagine. Since the way to make a gun fire is to pull the trigger, if you don’t want to shoot something, don’t touch the trigger.

Sadly, even a casual search of news reports and videos on Youtube show this to be the most violated safety rule of all.*

“But Rooster,” you say, “we see it all the time. What about when someone drops a gun, and it goes off?” After all, in movies or on TV, if you drop a gun, it goes off. If you drop a machine gun, it fires until the clip magazine is exhausted.



Fortunately, that image is a load of steaming dung, straight from my old horse Bo.

The design of modern guns has advanced to the point where the only way to get them to fire is to pull the trigger. They won’t fire if you drop them, or hit them, or kick them. They don’t “go off.”

Yes, you will read in news reports that a dropped gun fired – Google it yourself – but when you read those reports, you find one of two things present. First, the gun involved is some kind of older gun, like a derringer or Colt SAA. Yes, older guns like the Colt Single Action Army will fire if the hammer is struck from the outside. Even some older 1911’s will fire, unless the firing pin has been replaced with a lighter version.

The second possibility is the person involved is lying or has no idea what they are talking about. That”s because the trigger was pulled. Period.


It follows then that the way to prevent guns from firing except when you want them to fire is not to pull the trigger. For the shooter, this means keeping your finger off the trigger until you are sure the gun is pointed at what you wish to shoot.

Now, since positive reinforcement is much better at altering behavior than negative reinforcement, let’s turn that around.

RULE 3 – When the gun is aimed at the intended target, then it’s safe to put your finger on the trigger.

Until then, put your finger on the frame alongside the trigger. For instance, find a spot like the front of the trigger guard, or the slide lock, as a tactile reference, like this:

Or, you can find other tactile references. Then, train yourself to use them.

What about resting your finger lightly on the trigger, like Jack Bauer, until you’re ready to shoot?

Sadly, when we humans are startled, we experience a flinch reflex, and we will pull the trigger. And the gun will fire. (And we will tell the newspaper reporter “The gun just went off.” And they will know we are lying. And they will print it any way.)

So, train yourself to keep your finger off the trigger, and index your finger somewhere else. And practice it.

And, for heaven’s sake, ignore the people in the movies or on TV.

* tied with Rule 1 and Rule 2.

RULE 4 – Always be sure of your target and what’s behind it.

RULE 5 – Never try to catch a dropped gun.

For now, see Chance Bellew’s article in Shooting Illustrated.

One thought on “The Rules of Gun Safety

  1. Pingback: Thoughts on Gun Safety | Fill Yer Hands

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