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Gun safety is a collection of rules and recommendations that can be applied when possessing, storing, or handling firearms. The purpose of gun safety is to eliminate or minimize the risks of unintentional death, injury or damage caused by improper possession, storage, or handling of firearms.

Glock17 With Cable Lock

A 9mm Glock 17 secured for transport (or storage) with a cable lock.

Rules and mindsetEdit

Gun safety

Example of safe firearm handling. The firearm 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 stored carefully and 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 loadedEdit

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|date= }} 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.

Point the muzzle away from non-targetsEdit

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.[4] 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.[5] Several accidents have reportedly been caused by discharging firearms into the air; although the evidence in a few such cases has been disputed,[4] 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.[6] It is also possible that the muzzle will inadvertently be pointed at a non-target such as someone's head or an aircraft.[7]

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.

Keep fingers off the triggerEdit

Designated Marksman Rifle 2

Finger off the trigger and outside the trigger guard

This rule is intended to prevent an undesired 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.[8] 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 itEdit

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|date= }} 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.

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.

For firearms not in useEdit

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.[9]

Gun safesEdit

A Gun safe or gun cabinet is commonly used to physically prevent access to a firearm. These have the primary purpose of preventing theft.[9]


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 either to store the entire firearm in a safe or lockable gun rack, or to lock the "vital piece" (bolt, etc.) away in a safe place.


Trigger lock on a revolver

Trigger lock fitted to the trigger of a revolver

There are several types of locks that serve to make it difficult to discharge a firearm. Locks are considered less effective than keeping firearms stored in a lockable safe since locks are more easily defeated than approved safes. After stealing a locked firearm, a thief can bypass the lock at their leisure.[9]

  • Trigger locks
Trigger locks prevent motion of the trigger. However, a trigger lock does not guarantee that the firearm cannot be discharged (see above). Some trigger locks are integrated into the design of the weapon, requiring no external parts besides the key. Generally, two pieces 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. Other types of trigger locks do not go behind the trigger, but encompass the full area behind the trigger guard making the trigger inaccessible.
There is controversy surrounding manufacturing standards, usage, and legislation of trigger locks. While supporters of trigger locks argue that they will save children from dying in gun accidents, critics point to demonstrations that some models can be removed by children with very little force and common household tools. Many firearms can go off if the gun is dropped. It is important to make sure to look for firearms that fully disengage the hammer when the safety is put on.[10] A former senior product manager at Master Lock, a trigger lock manufacturer, was quoted as saying “If you put a trigger lock on any loaded gun, you are making the gun more dangerous.”[11] Critics also point out that a trigger lock will increase the time it takes a gun owner to respond to a self-defense emergency. In 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a Washington, D.C. law that required handguns to be locked or otherwise kept inoperative within the home, saying that this "makes it impossible for citizens to use them for the core lawful purpose of self-defense."[12]
Although there are no universal standards for the design or testing of trigger locks, some jurisdictions, such as the state of California, maintain a list of approved trigger lock devices.[13] In Canada, a trigger lock is one of the methods prescribed by law to secure a firearm during transport or storage.[14]
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 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.

California effected regulations in 2000 that forced gun locks to be approved by a firearm safety device laboratory via California Penal Code Section 12088.[15] All gun locks under this code must receive extensive tests including saw, pick, pull, and many other tests 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.[16]

Open bolt indicatorEdit

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, 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.

Secondary dangersEdit

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 such as earplugs (disposable or reusable) or ear muffs (including electronic devices that amplify quiet sounds) can be used to reduce the risk of hearing damage.[9]

Hot gases and debrisEdit

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. Revolvers store spent casings in the chamber, but may emit a stream of hot gasses and possible fine particulate debris laterally from the interface between the revolving chamber and the gun barrel. Any of these may hurt the handler or bystanders through burning or impact damage. (One episode of Mythbusters covered this possibility and showed the definite risk of severing a finger from a person's hand due to the extremely focused and high pressure jet of gas coming sideways from the space between the front end of the revolving cylinder chamber. (This is the reason that hand placement while shooting a revolver is so very critical and imperative to learn and practice before ever attempting to shoot.) Because eyes are particularly vulnerable to this type of damage, eye protection should be worn to reduce the risk of injury. Prescription lenses and various tints to suit different light conditions are available.[9] Some eye protection products are rated to withstand impact from birdshot loads, which offers protection against irresponsible firearms use by other game bird shooters.[17]

Toxins and pollutantsEdit

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.

Indoor ranges require good ventilation to remove pollutants such as powder, smoke, and lead dust from the air around the shooters. Indoor and outdoor ranges typically require extensive decontamination when they are decommissioned to remove all traces of lead, copper, and powder residues from the area.

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. Malfunctions of the primer and/or powder within a cartridge are colloquially known as "misfires", and include failures to discharge (duds), delayed discharge (hang-fires), and incomplete or insufficient discharge (squibs). Mechanical malfunctions of the firearm are generally referred to as "jams", and include failures to feed, extract, or eject a cartridge; failure to fully cycle after firing; and failure of a recoil- or gas-operated firearm to lock back when empty (largely a procedural hazard, as "slide lock" is a visual cue that the firearm is empty). In the extreme, an overloaded round, blocked barrel, poor design and/or severely weakened breech can result in a catastrophic failure of the receiver, barrel, or other parts of the firearm (a "kaBoom" or "kB").

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 firearm can fail explosively resulting in serious injury.


Since handling a firearm is a complex task, with possible fatal outcomes if done improperly, 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.[18] This is codified in many states' penal codes as a crime of "carrying under the influence", with penalties similar to DWI/DUI.[19]

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.


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.[20]

Whether programs like Eddie Eagle are effective has not been conclusively determined. Some studies published in peer-reviewed journals have shown that it is very difficult for young children to control their curiosity even when they have been taught not to touch firearms.[21] Gun access is also a major risk factor for youth suicide.[22] The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) advises that keeping a gun in the home, especially a handgun increases the risk of injury and death for children and youth in the home.[23] If families do keep a gun in the home, the AAP advises keeping it unloaded and locked up, with the ammunition locked in a separate location, and the keys to the locked boxes hidden.[23]

Polling shows that over half of parents who do not own a gun have never talked with their children age 5-17 about gun safety.[24] The ASK Campaign (Asking Saves Kids) is based on the fact that many families with children have a gun, and almost half these guns are left unlocked or loaded. The ASK Campaign urges parents to ask their friends, neighbors and family members if they have a gun in the home before sending their children over to play.[25]

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:

Blank ammunitionEdit

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|date= }} Blank ammunition, which is a primed casing filled with gunpowder, either crimped or covered with a wad, is dangerous up to 15 feet. The gun sport of Fast Draw uses blanks to break balloon targets eight feet away. When the gun is fired, unburned powder comes out with enough force to break a balloon. The gun sport of Cowboy Mounted Shooting challenges the horse and rider to race through a designated course while firing at and breaking balloon targets several feet away with blank ammunition. In the past, people have injured or killed themselves believing that blanks were not dangerous. Therefore, the first and second rules ("always treat the gun as if loaded", "never let the muzzle cover non-targets") apply to any gun, even one loaded with blanks.

History and teachersEdit

While gun safety in different forms has existed since the creation of firearms, Jeff Cooper (1920–2006), an influential figure in modern firearms training, formalized and popularized the above-listed "Four Rules" of safe firearm 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:[26][27]

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, Bob Munden and Ignatius Piazza.

See alsoEdit


  1. Morrison, Gregory Boyce; Cooper, Jeff (editorial adviser) (1991). The Modern Technique of the Pistol. Paulden, Arizona, USA: Gunsite Press. ISBN 0-9621342-3-6. LCCN 9172644. 
  2. "NRA Gun Safety Rules". The National Rifle Association of America. 2009. Retrieved 2009-05-18. 
  3. "The Vital Four ACTS of Firearm Safety". Royal Canadian Mounted Police. 2004-01-23. Retrieved 2009-05-18. 
  4. 4.0 4.1 "Can a bullet fired into the air kill someone when it comes down?". The Straight Dope. 1995-04-14. 
  5. "Mythbusters Episode 50: Bullets Fired Up". Mythbusters. 2006-04-19. 
  6. "New Year's Eve Injuries Caused by Celebratory Gunfire — Puerto Rico, 2003". Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2004-12-24. 
  7. "The Aviation Safety Network Website". Aviation Safety Network. 2005-01-12. Retrieved 2009-05-18. 
  8. Ayoob, Massad. "The subtleties of safe firearms handling". Retrieved 4/12/11. 
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 9.4 Carolee Boyles. "Safety sells - safety devices for gun owners and their firearms". Shooting Industry. 
  10. (2007-06-13). "The Lockdown: Gun locks - unsafe at any caliber". Retrieved 2008-05-16. 
  11. Slater, Eric (February 16, 1999). "Hype Over Trigger Locks Provokes Fear of Firearm Accidents". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2009-03-03. 
  12. Egelco, Bob (June 27, 2008). "RULING'S RICOCHET - A right to own guns: Supreme Court defines 2nd Amendment - gun lobby expected to challenge S.F. ban on handgun possession in public housing". San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved 2009-03-03. 
  13. California DOJ Bureau of Firearms (2008-05-06). "Approved Firearms Safety Devices Compability Chart". Retrieved 2008-05-16. 
  14. Royal Canadian Mounted Police. "Storing, Transporting, and Displaying Firearms". Retrieved 2008-05-16. 
  15. "Aroner-Scott-Hayden Firearms Safety Act of 1999". State of California. 1999. Retrieved 2009-05-18. 
  16. "Pro-Lok: Professional Quality Tools - CADOJ REGULATIONS". PRO-LOK. 2007-2009. Retrieved 2009-05-18. 
  17. Roy Huntington. "Gun safety & safety products". Shooting Industry. Archived from the original on 2012-07-08. 
  18. "Gun Safety Rules; Save a life by reading this page and give it to a friend.". 2000-2009. Retrieved 2009-05-18. 
  19. "MSP - Carrying Under the Influence". State of Michigan. 2001-2009.,1607,7-123-1591_3503_4654-10961--,00.html. Retrieved 2009-05-18. 
  20. "Eddie Eagle Safety Program". The National Rifle Association of America. 2009. Retrieved 2009-05-18. 
  21. "Gun Safety for Kids and Youth - What if I've taught my kids not to touch a gun if they find one?". University of Michigan Health System. 2010. Retrieved 2012-01-13. 
  22. "Suicide-Proof Your Home". The Center to Prevent Youth Violence. 2011. Retrieved 2012-01-13. 
  23. 23.0 23.1 "Gun Safety: Keeping Children Safe". The American Academy of Pediatrics. 2012. Retrieved 2012-01-13. 
  24. "Gun Shy? 14 Million Parents Have Never Talked Gun Safety With Their Kids". National Poll on Children's Health, University of Michigan Health System. 2010. Retrieved 2012-01-13. 
  25. "ASK (Asking Saves Kids)". The Center to Prevent Youth Violence. 2011. Retrieved 2012-01-13. 
  26. Rose, R. N. (November 22, 1956). The BEAUFOY VERSES, in The Field. Archived from the original on 2009-10-26. Retrieved 2008-06-29. 
  27. Beaufoy, Gwendolyn (1930). Leaves from a Beech Tree. 

External linksEdit

Movie clips of firearm accidentsEdit

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