The four rules of firearms safety, revisited



Firearms are inanimate objects. A firearm will only fire if the trigger is pulled. Photo courtesy Peter Burlingame

by Peter Burlingame

Firearm safety is YOUR responsibility. Guns are inanimate objects and can’t hurt anyone by themselves. Something has to act on the gun for it to fire. Once the gun is in your hand, anything that happens is YOUR responsibility.

Realize that you are an ambassador for all gun owners. There are people that think we shouldn’t be allowed to own guns and accidents with firearms give them ammunition for their fight.

I teach Four Rules of Gun Safety. Always obey these four rules, and you will never have an incident that results in someone getting hurt or killed, unintentionally. Four simple rules. Always follow them. And no one will ever get injured accidentally.

Rule 1: Treat every gun as if it is LOADED.

Obviously there will be times when the gun actually is unloaded, but you need to always treat them as if they are loaded even if you are absolutely sure it is empty. We’ve all heard of cases of one person accidentally shooting another person. Invariably what do these people say? “I didn’t know the gun was loaded.”

To shoot someone, you have to point a gun at them, and pull the trigger. You wouldn’t do that with a loaded gun, right? But if you treat the gun differently because you think it is ‘safe’, because you think it is empty, you are setting yourself up for a tragedy.
As far as we are concerned, there is no such thing as a empty gun.

They do not exist.

Rule 2: Never let your gun point at anything you are not willing to destroy.

Photo courtesy Peter Burlingame

When you pick up a firearm, you must POSITIVELY control it. If you handle guns long enough, there will probably come a time when the gun discharges when you didn’t intend for it to fire. It will probably be your fault. What determines whether or not someone gets hurt?

Rule 3: Keep your finger off of the trigger until the gun is on target and you have made the decision to fire.

It is important to understand that modern pistols have built-in, passive safety systems that prevent them from firing unless the trigger is pulled. You can drop them, throw them, hit them and pistols will not fire unless somehow in that process the trigger is pulled. This is called ‘drop safe’.The firearm will not fire if dropped.

Unlike pistols, rifles and shotguns designed for sporting use are often not ‘drop safe’, even with the safety engaged. It is best to keep them empty unless they are being used, and take measures to insure that they don’t drop or fall.  Military grade rifles are for the most part ‘drop safe’ while the safety is on.

When we talk about keeping your finger off of the trigger, we mean not only just off the trigger, but indexed up on the frame. The reason for this is that under certain circumstances you could pull the trigger unintentionally.

There are three ways that you can pull a trigger when you didn’t intend to.

  • 1. Through a loss of balance, such as you stumble, trip, or fall. What happens to your muscles when you stumble? And if your finger was on the trigger what would happen? And where would that bullet go? (see Rule2)
  • 2. The Startle effect. We’ve all been startled. What happens to your muscles when you are startled? And if your finger was on the trigger what would happen? And where would that bullet go? (see Rule2) The startle effect gets turned up when you are tense, nervous or frightened with the result that you will startle easier and harder than if you are relaxed. If you are in a situation where you are reaching for a gun, will you be tense/nervous/frightened?
  • 3. Sympathetic Muscle Reaction. We are bi-lateral creatures, one side of the body mirrors the other. And what one side of the body does, the other side has a tendency to want to do also. So if one hand is struggling with something, what does the other hand want to do? So for those 3 reasons, keep your finger off the trigger, indexed up on the frame, until you’ve made the decision to fire.

Rule 4: Be certain of your target and what is around it.

You are responsible for Each and Every bullet  that you fire. You are responsible for its final resting place and everything the bullet passes through to get there.

You must positively identify the target as something that is appropriate to shoot. Don’t shoot at noises, or at movement, or at shadows.  Many self defense situations happen in low light situations and it is vitally important that you can see what you are shooting at.  For this reason we highly recommend carrying a flashlight. A bright light in the eyes may be enough to discourage a low level attack. Additionally, flashlights come in handy on many other occasions.

The average pistol bullet when fired at the optimal angle can travel approximately a mile. Many rifle bullets can travel several miles. How many people are within a mile of you right now? It is possible to fire a bullet from where you are and kill someone that you can’t even see a mile or more away. In 2011, an Ohio man fired his muzzle loading rifle in the air prior to cleaning it. The bullet traveled over a mile and a half and killed a 15 year old Amish girl who was driving a horse and buggy.

Most of your shooting will be on a shooting range. To be safe, shooting ranges need two main things a backstop to catch the bullets that you fire and a wide open area so you can keep track of where everyone is. But you won’t get attacked on the shooting range. You’ll get attacked in your home, on the street, in a parking lot. Where is the safe back stop in your house? In the parking lot? Are there innocent people around? Can you see them all?

In a defensive shooting the only appropriate place for your bullets is in the attacker. But assailants make poor backstops. They are small and mobile. Even if you hit them, there is the chance your bullet may pass through them and go on to injure someone else.

That’s why we stress that you carry hollow point ammunition. It is much less likely to go through the person you shoot. If you miss and the bullet hits a hard surface, it will break up and be less likely to ricochet. Full metal jacketed bullets will go right through one or more people and if they hit a hard surface are much more likely to ricochet with the possibility of harming someone else.

Photo courtesy Peter Burlingame

So there you have it. Four simple rules. Commit them to memory. Obey them faithfully and you will never shoot someone unintentionally. This is critical for you as an individual, and to gun owners as a group.

Peter Burlingame is the founder of The Self Defense Initiative, a 25 year old training school based in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Peter is a contributing member of the International Association of Law Enforcement Firearms Instructors and the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association. His articles have been published in the FBI’s National Associates’ magazine, “The Firearms Instructor” and “Survival Quarterly.” You may contact him at Videos at




About Author

Lee Williams can’t remember a time in his life when he wasn’t shooting. Before becoming a journalist, Lee served in the Army and worked as a police officer. He’s earned more than a dozen journalism awards as a reporter, and three medals of valor as a cop. He is an NRA-certified law enforcement firearms instructor, an avid tactical shooter and a training junkie. When he’s not busy as a senior investigative reporter, he is usually shooting his AKs, XDs and CZs. If you don’t run into him at a local gun range, you can reach him at 941.284.8553, by email, or by regular mail to 1777 Main St., Sarasota, FL 34236. You can follow him on Twitter: @HT_GunWriter and on Facebook @The Gun Writer.

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