What is a safe direction?

When it comes to the rules of gun safety, most people recite something similar to Col. Cooper’s 4 rules. I used to do the same, but over time came to prefer the NRA’s gun safety 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.

Why I believe that’s a better rule set is another discussion for another time (Karl Rehn of KR Training does write about it). What I want to focus on here is the notion of “safe direction”.

We are to ALWAYS keep guns pointed in a safe direction. Thus, we need to know what a safe direction is. Here’s how the NRA elaborates on rule 1:

This is the primary rule of gun safety. A safe direction means that the gun is pointed so that even if it were to go off it would not cause injury or damage. The key to this rule is to control where the muzzle or front end of the barrel is pointed at all times. Common sense dictates the safest direction, depending on different circumstances.

Emphasis added. I think that’s pretty plain and clear.

The reality is, while the definition is clear and simple, putting it into practice isn’t always so easy. The reason is, “safe direction” can change. What you may need to think about is “the safest possible direction, right now”.

Let’s say you’re at the gun range. You’re at the established firing line. Given that, it’s reasonable to say that pointing your gun downrange is a safe direction: if you pointed a gun downrange and the gun discharged, the bullet would eventually be stopped by the big dirt wall or whatever it is the range has as a backstop/bullet trap. The only thing that might be damaged between the gun and the backstop is the target you were shooting at, but of course that’s acceptable. Thus, downrange is a safe direction.


Well, generally speaking yes. But what if a person walked downrange because they wanted to put up a target? Now is downrange a safe direction? I would say no. This is why gun range rules have it that no one goes downrange if there are people/guns on the firing line, and that if people are going to go down that all guns are rendered safe (e.g. benched, unloaded, action open; holstered; etc.) and everyone steps off the firing line with no gun handling permitted while folks are downrange.

So when handling a gun, if your safe direction no longer is the safe direction, what do you do? You have to find what the safest possible direction is now.

Could that be up in the air? Maybe, but remember that gravity is always in effect: if a bullet goes up, it’s going to come down. Do you know where it’s going to come down? Can you guarantee it will not cause damage, injury, or death?

Could that be down at the ground? Maybe. I wouldn’t say directly down at your feet, given you probably don’t want to destroy your feet. Perhaps then angled down pointed just a few feet in front of you? Perhaps. Consider the ground surface. If it’s dirt, that’s one thing. If it’s a hard surface like concrete or tile, that bullet will splatter.

How about at that wall? Maybe. Could that wall stop a bullet? If it’s drywall, like most homes and buildings use for walls? No, that won’t stop a bullet at all (even birdshot will go through drywall). Cinderblocks and bricks? Better chance of stopping, but that could depend (e.g. a 9mm handgun round should stop; some rifle rounds could go right through). Consider that where the bullet comes to rest doesn’t stop where your eyes stop. My eyes cannot see through the wall, but I know that while the wall stops my eyesight, it does not stop a bullet. So, I must continue to consider beyond my eyesight to the point where the bullet would come to rest. If you want to see what bullets can go through, check out The Box O’ Truth for much information, experiments, and pictures.

What if you were in a personal defense situation? Let’s say you’re at a crowded shopping mall and hear shots fired. There are innocent/uninvolved people all around you. Where is the safe direction now? Of course, if the bad guy is in front of you, you could argue the safest possible direction at that moment is pointing the gun at him!

I’d like to think it should “go without saying” that pointing a gun at yourself is not a safe direction, no sir, not even a little bit safe. Alas, there are more than enough stories of people pointing guns at themselves, “relax, it’s unloaded”, press trigger, and tragedy ensues. Lots of rules violated, but that’s the one thing about safe direction: if you follow it ALWAYS the worst you might end up with is manageable damage to property, and injury to your pride.

This is also why there are multiple safety rules, because they provide layers of protection: there must be violation of multiple rules for truly bad things to happen. Point the gun in a safe direction but fiddle with the trigger? That can be OK. Point the gun in an unsafe direction and the trigger is never touched? That can be OK. Point the gun in an unsafe direction and press the trigger? That’s going to be a problem. This doesn’t permit you license to knowingly violate one rule while following the others; all the rules begin with ALWAYS and that means always.

Going back to the gun range situation, do not allow yourself to be lulled into thinking safe direction but violating it. I see it all too often where a line of people are on the firing line. Someone in the middle of the line goes to work the slide on their semi-automatic handgun. They want or need a little more strength, leverage, and comfort in working the slide so the gun comes in and gets turned sideways — much more ergonomic and better leverage for the person working the gun — but now where is the muzzle pointed? At the person next to them! If you point a gun at someone, that can be considered aggravated assault. Not to mention, it’s impolite, inconsiderate, and unsafe range behavior. Safe direction is an ALWAYS proposition.

The reality is, safe direction is fluid and dynamic. As well, sometimes the safest direction may not be an ideal safe direction: it may be the best you can do is point at the floor and risk some lead splatter in your shins because that’s the least risk of damage and injury of all possible choices. You must consider where the bullet will come to rest (a place you may be unable to see), what there is between the muzzle and that point of rest, if between those points there’s potential for damage or injury, and if that damage or injury is acceptable or not. You must ALWAYS point the gun in a safe direction. You must ALWAYS (re)evaluate if that safe direction is still a safe direction, and if not find the new safe direction and point it that way.

I wrote this article because I often mention safe direction, but can only give it lip service because I don’t want to distract from the larger point of whatever else I’m writing about. Now, I’ve got an article that elaborates on the topic and it’s simple to link to for further discussion. Feel free to link to this article to help in your discussions of gun safety and “safe direction” (please give proper credit). Shoot safe.

6 thoughts on “What is a safe direction?

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