The Rules

When dealing with firearms, there are rules of gun safety. I’ve mentioned “the rules” here and here and alluded to them here, but I haven’t had a good post that just discusses “the rules” so I’m remedying that with this post.

When I first was learning about guns I heard some basic safety rules, and as you dig around the Internet and talk with other people, you’ll find various incarnations of “the rules”. Some say there’s 1 rule, some say 3, some say 4, some say 10, some have even longer lists. Then you may go to a gun range and get even more rules, but often those rules pertain to the range and not general gun safety (and certainly they never negate the basic rules). All rule sets tend to be well-intended and have good advice. For instance, this 10 commandments of safety has some good stuff to it, both in terms of general safety and good advice for safely walking the fields while hunting. This is a list of 14 safety rules from a US Army manual. However, being an engineer I appreciate simplicity.

Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.

Antoine de Saint-Exupery

As a result, I gravitated to the two front-runners of the gun safety mantra: Col. Jeff Cooper‘s:

  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. For those that insist this particular gun is unloaded, see Rule 1.
  3. Keep your finger off the trigger until your sights are on target. This is the Golden Rule. Its violation is directly responsible for about 60% of inadvertent discharges.
  4. Identify your target and what is behind it. Never shoot at anything you have not postively identified.

and the NRA’s:

  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.

Between the two, I leaned towards Col. Cooper’s version of the rules. I read the debate between the two versions, I read Cooper’s Commentaries, I saw how other gun folk I respected followed Col. Cooper’s version, and I don’t know if I gave into the herd mentality and/or opted to bow at the altar of Jeff Cooper, but I settled on using Cooper’s 4 rules as the rules I would build my foundation upon. Life was good, and safer. But I must admit, something about Cooper’s rules never sat well with me. I think it was rule 1. While I do think rule 1 is a good guideline, there are aspects of gun handling that require you to treat a gun as unloaded, such as dry fire. I have been unable to reconcile the two, as a rule shouldn’t be violated; a guideline perhaps can be, but a safety rule should not. So how can I dry fire if the gun is (treated as) always loaded? In “the debate” a great point was made about this very issue:

The simple reason the NRA’s Rule One is superior is that if this rule is followed – even if all others are forgotten – nobody will get hurt. The same cannot be said about Cooper’s Rule One, and that is yet another reason why it is inferior – especially for the tyro.

The NRA method is far more universal than Cooper’s rules. Further, while there is no excuse for pointing a gun in an unsafe direction, there are lots of good reasons for treating guns as unloaded (e.g., dry-firing, inspecting the bore, etc.) when it is positively determined it is unloaded and made safe. I can dry-fire a verified safe gun in a safe direction; I can’t dry-fire if it is “always loaded.”

No “rule” so frequently and facially untrue carries much weight. That said, I still assert it is a valuable mindset. But proper mindset is a level above following rules to which only a minority of gun handlers ever aspire.

Furthermore, Jeff Cooper himself, at least at one time in his book Fighting Handguns on pages 97-98, advocated point shooting, which would preclude using the sights and thus violate his rule #3.

While sitting in classes at KR Training, Karl starts every class with a safety lecture. I noticed when he teaches safety to beginners, he teaches the 3 NRA rules. I asked him why he teaches that set of rules instead of some other. He gave me a detailed response, but there was one thing about his response that stood out to me:

The NRA rules are written as positive statements (what you should do) in a logical order (safe direction is most important) with nice clean parallel sentence structure (each starting with always for emphasis).

I hadn’t made that observation about the 2 rule sets, but (as usual) Karl is right. In light of my “mindset is everything” posting, this really struck home with me.

So as I think about it: the rule reconciliation, the universality and applicability, the structure, the presentation, the mindset, and the greater simplicity, I’m going to improve my mindset and adopt the 3 NRA rules. This affects my own mindset, as well as what I teach to others. I’ll still keep Cooper’s rules in my head as there’s still value to them, but I’m going to change my mindset to follow the NRA’s.

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18 thoughts on “The Rules”

    1. If all guns are always loaded, how can I dry fire? By definition dry fire is with an unloaded gun, but if all guns are always loaded….

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