“Accidental” Shootings: Why the 4 Rules of Gun Safety are Important.

Let’s jump right in to answering the question most of you are asking right now, why is accidental in quotes? Any instructor worth their fee will tell you that almost all “accidental” shootings are not accidents but rather are negligent discharges. Proper following of the safety rules would have prevented the shooting. Gun safety is the first thing any gun owner should learn and must be followed at all times. For this post, we are going to focus on Jeff Cooper’s four rules of gun safety. There are many other sets of rules with their own merits, but Jeff Cooper’s were designed from a personal defense perspective and have stood the test of time.

Jeff Cooper’s four rules:

  1. All guns are always loaded. Even if they are not, treat them as if they are.
  2. Never let the muzzle cover anything you are not willing to destroy. This is often said as “don’t point it at anything you’re not willing to shoot”.
  3. Keep your finger off the trigger till your sights are on the target. It is estimated in some studies that around 60% of negligent discharges can be avoided by this rule alone.
  4. Be sure of your target and what is beyond it. Know both what you are shooting and where your bullet will go if you miss or it passes through your target.

Instead of a rule by rule breakdown, I’m just going talk about their application. First, they are intentionally made to overlap. There are situations where you must violate a rule, such as cleaning certain modern handguns that require squeezing the trigger to disassemble it. In this case you treat it as loaded by checking that the chamber is clear BEFORE starting disassembly (rule 1), point it in a direction that you know to be safe (rules 2 and 4), and only then squeeze the trigger and remove the slide. Notice that rules 1, 2, and 4 provided a way to deal with a necessary violation of rule 3 safely.

When practicing or training, these rules are especially important. Firearms are constantly being loaded and unloaded, often by multiple people. Assuming a firearm is unloaded because it was when you set it down 2 minutes ago can have disastrous consequences. When at an outdoor range or shooting in an allowed outdoor area rules 2 and 4 are in play. When people head downrange to check targets it is vitally important that no one is pointing a weapon in that direction. Often the best way to handle this is that firearms are simply not handled, but in an outdoor situation it may be necessary to simply keep the muzzle pointed in a safe direction. Rule 4 means verifying that no living creatures are downrange and that you have an appropriate backstop that all projectiles will go into. Once everything is set up, the range is declared ready and you’re looking down the sights at your target it is time to place your finger on the trigger.

When in a self defense situation, the rules still apply. This is where training and practice matters. Practicing your draw so it’s smooth, quick, and doesn’t involve touching the trigger till you’re on target. Using ready positions to keep the barrel from being pointed at bystanders when not shooting. Firing with both eyes open and quickly transitioning between scanning the area to verify a safe shot then refocusing on your sights. When defending your home rule 4 is vital in making sure that you’re shooting at an actual intruder as opposed to someone you love. These skills must be practiced repeatedly to become second nature. Developing habits that use these skills on the range is how you prepare for those moments. Incorporating the rules of safety into those skills helps ensure that you save lives instead of endangering them.

It is impossible to stress how important these rules are! I gave some examples of three different situations where they come into play, but the truth is that they are the most important part of any situation involving firearms. Firearms can be fun for sport and hunting. They can be the difference between the loss of innocent life and a stopped attacker. But only if they are always handled safely and responsibly!