The Rules of Gun Safety
- Always keep guns pointed in a safe direction.
- Keep your finger outside the trigger guard until you are ready to shoot.
These are the two failsafes. No accidental shooting occurs without both of these rules having been broken. (A common corollary to these rules is always assume a gun is loaded.)
A safe direction means that the gun is pointed so that even if it were to discharge it would not cause injury or damage. The key to this rule is to control where the muzzle (front end of the barrel, where the bullet comes out) is pointed at all times. Be sure of your target. This is often listed as a separate rule, but it is part of the first: Whatever your muzzle is pointed at should be able to stop your bullet without unintended harm, and if there’s a chance you’ll miss the target then be sure there’s no chance you could injure people or property beyond the target. The “safe direction” can vary with the particular gun and the circumstances. Examples:
- The lethal range of a shotgun loaded with birdshot does not exceed 100 yards, so it is technically safe to fire it towards people and property that are further away. But it is not safe to discharge a shotgun at very close, hard targets, including the ground, because traditional shot can bounce back at lethal velocities.
- The lethal range of a rifle can exceed a mile. Most bullets can penetrate walls, vehicles, and other cover and retain lethal velocity. The only reliable stop is a bullet trap or earthen berm.
- Outdoors the “port arms” position is considered a safe direction. It is not, however, safe to intentionally fire into the air: People are killed by bullets falling back to earth.
- For rifled guns the “low ready” position, with muzzle pointed ahead of the feet and clear of any other people, is considered safe, because the ground will absorb or dissipate an accidental discharge. Indoors it’s generally the least unsafe direction, even though there may be people or property at risk below a floor.
- When practicing dry firing or instructing away from a range there is often no truly safe direction. In those cases extra precautions are taken to ensure that guns are unloaded and remain unloaded. But even then: Under no circumstances is a gun with a closed action pointed at a person!
Other Safety Rules
- Ensure your gun is rendered safe before holstering or releasing it from your control. This depends on the particulars of the gun in question, but the following rules apply:
- If the gun has a manual safety then engage it.
- If the gun has a decocker, decock it.
- If you are laying it down or handing it to another person, open the action, or insert a chamber flag, so that everyone can readily confirm it has been rendered safe.
- Never attempt to catch a falling gun. Most modern firearms are drop-safe, meaning that no fall or impact can cause them to discharge. However, every firearm is designed to reliably discharge when the trigger is depressed. Your fingers might slip inside the trigger guard and trip the trigger, and this accidentally happens so often when people try to catch falling guns that it is universally considered to be not worth the risk.
Safety at Shooting Ranges
In most populated areas there are ordinances and laws against discharging firearms outside of the course of legal hunting or self-defense. Shooting ranges allow people a safe harbor to practice discharging their guns. However, stricter rules are typically enforced at shooting ranges than would apply elsewhere.
When you go to a range you should expect to find a firing line, and the following conventions:
- No guns are allowed to be uncased or unholstered except at the firing line.
- No muzzles can point behind the firing line at any time.
- No people are allowed forward of the firing line unless the line is declared safe (or “called cold”).
- When the line is called safe all exposed guns must be rendered safe, with their actions open.
- While the line is safe, nobody is allowed to handle firearms, and typically they must stay some steps behind the firing line to make it clear that they are not handling the guns on the line.
- All firing must be into the designated backstops.
Many shooters, especially those whose only experience comes from shooting ranges, are unaware that the following conditions are considered safe:
- Properly holstered handguns. A gun secured in a holster is not a threat, regardless of where the muzzle is pointing. It cannot be made to discharge.
- Properly slung long-guns (with their safety on). Rifles and shotguns can be carried muzzle-up or muzzle-down. They all have manual safeties because they are customarily slung without the benefit of a holster to cover the trigger and/or hammer. A slung long-gun is considered safe, even if, in the course of sitting or bending, the muzzle points at the bearer or another person, though again it is incumbent on the bearer to avoid such miscues.
- Any gun with the action clearly open or blocked. For example, break-action shotguns are often carried open, and because it is so easy to confirm that they are in this condition little care is given to where their muzzles point.
How Dangerous is Ammunition?
Loaded ammunition, even in large quantities, is not particularly dangerous. A round will not discharge unless it either sustains a concentrated strike to its primer or else it is heated to the powder’s autoignition point, which for smokeless powder is 300-400F. And a round that discharges outside the confines of a gun barrel is roughly equivalent to a firecracker of the same size. I wouldn’t want to hold a round in my hand and discharge it, and I wouldn’t set my kids loose with a hammer on a batch of live rounds. But it’s only when the energy of the round is concentrated in a gun barrel that it becomes a weapon. For example, in one demonstration firefighters confirmed that they could safely approach piles of burning ammo cooking off: their standard protective gear was sufficient to stop all projectiles!
How Dangerous Are Guns?
In the normal course of operation firearms pose various dangers to shooters and bystanders (beyond the obvious danger of fired bullets).
Most recoil-related injuries are minor.
- Autoloading pistols have recoiling slides. If a grip is too high they can pinch the web of the thumb during cycling.
- Long guns with reciprocating charging handles can bruise anything that gets in their way. E.g., it only took one shot with a high mag-well grip on a SCAR 17 before I realized my thumb should be somewhere else.
- Any scoped gun can cause “scope bite” if the shooter’s eye is held too close to the scope and the gun isn’t held snugly. The result can be a blow to the eye socket by the rear of the scope, causing a small cut or bruise.
- Heavy-recoiling guns that aren’t held snugly get a running start and hammer anything in their way, which is usually the shooter’s cheek and/or shoulder. It only takes one loose shot to cause a bruise that will make it uncomfortable to continue.
- The most punishing recoil is produced by light guns with heavy rounds and the absence of recoil-absorbing buttstocks or braces. This is not something to shrug off: Sharp recoil can cause detached retinas and concussions. Even stalwart shooters will avoid more than a dozen or so shots in a day with the most extreme recoilers.
Auto-ejecting firearms fling brass cases that are hot enough to cause first degree burns. Barrels, gas blocks, and suppressors subject to extended firing can get red hot.
Revolvers have a gap between the cylinder and the barrel through which propellant gas vents at peak pressure. Revolver shooters must be sure to keep their hands and fingers clear of that gap during firing to avoid burns and even maiming.
A properly operating firearm without a suppressor poses dangers to hearing. Muzzle blast can exceed 160dB.
A supersonic bullet alone creates a sonic crack that can approach 140dB at a distance of 10 meters from its flight path. However, since the sonic crack emanates from the bullet and not the muzzle it is only a problem in confined spaces or when a bystander is adjacent to the bullet’s path (e.g., working in the target pits). Therefore hearing protection should be worn whenever:
- Unsuppressed firearms are being discharged
- Suppressed firearms shooting supersonic bullets are discharged on an indoor range
- Supersonic bullets are traveling near a listener
Guns are machines for projecting hot metal at high velocities. Eye protection should always be worn when in the vicinity of discharging firearms.
Lead is the most commonly used projectile core. If the base and bearing surfaces of a bullet are not jacketed (typically in copper) then small amounts of the bullet will vaporize during firing. More significantly, lead styphnate is the most common priming compound, so each tiny primer pellet ejects some amount of lead into the air. Unless you specifically select lead-free primers and lead-free or jacketed bullets you will be exposed to some amount of lead during shooting. To avoid accumulating toxic levels of lead in your body avoid touching food before washing your hands. Keep in mind your shooting clothes and gear will have lead residue on them. Indoor ranges can amplify the risk of lead poisoning depending on their design and maintenance.
You can’t appreciate the frequency and unpredictability of ricochets until you’ve seen a high-volume tracer shoot. (Here’s a video showing an M134 firing from a helicopter. It’s shooting fifty 7.62 NATO rounds per second, and every fifth bullet is a tracer. The red lights filling the sky as it shoots are ricocheting tracers.) Even when directed at earthen berms a surprising number of bullets can deflect up to 90 degrees from their flight path and head off in a random direction. Fortunately they almost always do so at a much reduced velocity. But bullets that hit small rocks can create secondary projectiles that can head almost anywhere.
Failures & Sabotage
Ammunition can be readily sabotaged to either fail to fire or to expose a gun to destructive pressure levels.
A firearm can be sabotaged to fail to fire. Typical function checks cannot detect all sabotage or mechanical failures. The best test I know of to confirm a gun will fire when loaded with a live round, besides test firing it, is to rest a pencil or other flat object directly against the firing pin hole and pull the trigger. If the gun is working the firing pin should pop the pencil forward.
Of course firearms can also be sabotaged in numerous ways to fail only under live fire. If you are moderately concerned you should follow a proofing protocol. If you are very paranoid that your firearm has been subject to deteriorative sabotage then you would need forensic tests to verify the integrity of its critical components.
Fortunately, modern quality firearms are designed to fail “gracefully,” venting gases and metal fragments away from the shooter as much as possible. I have read numerous reports of catastrophic failures, and I don’t recall any in which the shooter suffered serious injuries.