4 Rules of Gun Safety

Gun safety rules and principles are the set of rules and guidelines that are expected for preventing careless discharge or accidental release, or the negative results of gun glitches. The purpose of gun safety is for minimizing the dangers of damage, injury or unexpected death, caused by inappropriate handling or lackadaisical, treatment of guns.

Daniel Chabert

The idea of gun safety is that guns and other weapons are fundamentally dangerous and should regularly be kept safe and carefully handled. Gun handlers are trained to utilize guns with an adequate level of respect for their dangerous abilities. They are also plainly discouraged from playing or toying with guns, a typical reason for the accident.

The four rules of gun safety were set up to ensure that no accidents occur. If these rules are strictly followed, you can be confident that you will never have an accident with your firearms. These rules vary depending on the source, but the below list happens to be the standard.

1st Law

The gun is always loaded.

Picture yourself at a range, and a friend of yours has a new gun that he just picked up. He asks if you want to shoot it and you say. “Well, obviously!” Even if he shows you that the gun is clear and sets it down, the first thing you should always do when you pick it up is to safety-check it. This also applies to setting it down again. At any time the gun is out of your control, even if you set it on a table for 30 seconds, you need to safety-check it when you pick it up. There is no exception to this rule.

This rule is a matter of keeping a convinced mindset. The reason is to create safe handling habits, and to put off reasoning along the lines of, “I’m sure my gun is unloaded so certain risky practices are OK.” The proposition “the gun is always loaded” implies that, although it may be known that this is not true of a particular firearm, that awareness is never trusted or relied upon. So, even if the firearm turned out to be loaded when the handler thought it was not, treating it as loaded would avoid an “accidental discharge,” and if one should occur nevertheless, it will avoid damage, injury, or death.

Many firearm accidents are consequential to the handler wrongly believing a firearm is emptied, safe-tied, or otherwise disabled when in actual fact it is ready to be discharged. Such misunderstandings can occur from a number of sources.

If a handler at all times treats firearms as capable of being discharged at any time, the handler is more likely to take safety measures to prevent an unintended discharge and to avoid damage or injury if one does occur.

2nd Law

Never point the gun at something you are not prepared to destroy.

If you’ve done your safety check and are completely sure that your gun is unloaded, that does not give you the go-ahead to be sloppy with it. Remembering the first rule, The Gun Is ALWAYS Loaded, you should never point it in the direction of anything that you are not ready to destroy.
This rule is proposed to reduce the damage caused by an unintentional discharge. The first rule teaches that a firearm must be assumed to be ready to fire. This rule goes further than that and says, “Since the firearm might fire, believe that it will, and ensure no harm occurs when it does.”

A result of this rule is that any kind of playing or “toying” with firearms is forbidden. Jokingly pointing firearms at people or other non-targets violates this rule and is perhaps an extreme endangerment to life and/or property. To put off this kind of behavior, the rule is occasionally alternately stated, “Never point a firearm at anything except when you are determined 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 dangerous fragments to be flung at people or objects.

Pointing upward eliminates this risk but replaces it with the risk that the bullet may cause harm when it comes down to the ground again. A bullet fired straight up returns at the terminal velocity of the bullet. Nevertheless, a bullet fired at an angle not absolutely vertical will maintain its spin on the way down and can reach much more deadly speeds.

In cases where the firearm is being handled at home, up and down may actually not be safe directions. For instance, a bullet fired upward or downward possibly will travel through the ceiling, floor and plenum between bordering floors of a multi-story building. In indoor areas where firearms will be handled often, a duly safe direction should be chosen.

Firing ranges frequently determine 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 get rid of possible ricochets. In armories or other areas where weapons must be handled, a container full of sand known as a “clearing barrel” or “clearing can” is frequently used for this purpose; bullets accidentally discharged into the barrel will be safely stopped and contained by the sand.

3rd Law

Always be sure of your target and what is behind it.

Bullets can go through, and past, your projected target. Knowing what’s behind your target is an important step to safety and responsibility.


This rule is proposed to eliminate or reduce damage to non-targets when a firearm is deliberately discharged. Accidental damage may happen if a non-target is misidentified as a target, if the target is missed, or the bullet hits something—or someone—other than the projected target.
Handlers are trained to positively identify and confirm their target. Furthermore, they learn that even when firing at a valid target, unintended targets could still be hit, for three reasons:

  • The bullet may miss the projected target and hit a non-target around or past the target.
  • A non-target could pass in front of the target and be hit with a bullet intended for the target.
  • The bullet may go through the intended target and hit a non-target beyond it, this is called “over-penetration.”

As a result, this rule requires handlers to always be sure of their target; not just the target itself, but everything around the target.

This may create situations that present dilemmas for a handler. This kind of situations are for example a police officer in a riot, a civilian faced by a possible intruder at night, or a soldier in a situation where civilians are close to the enemy. Indecisiveness or misjudgment of the handler’s skills in such a situation may cause unwanted outcomes, such as injury to the handler owing to hesitation, or the handler violating rules of engagement and causing unintentional damage.

Hunters are usually prohibited from shooting across roads and trails, or after sunset and before dawn, due to the risk of accidentally hitting an inadvertent target. All discharges of firearms is forbidden in some cities, in part due to the risk of hitting unnoticed targets.

Training is used to reduce the risk of such outcomes. Target practice increases the accuracy with which the handler can discharge the firearm and therefore increase the chances that the projected target is hit. Education about terminal ballistics gives the handler understanding of the characteristics of a bullet following a target hit. This knowledge together with an insight into the handler’s own can-do makes it easier for the handler to make suitable decisions about whether to discharge or not, even if given small time and/or put under immense stress.
Ammunition can be selected to lessen the risk of over-penetration.

4th Law

Keep your finger off the trigger until your sights are on the target.

This 4th rule, debatably the most significant one, should be practiced at all times (as with all of these rules). With any modern firearm, as long as your finger is away from the trigger guard, your firearm will not discharge. Being aware of this, there should be 0% chance of a careless discharge. Notice, we didn’t say ‘accidental discharge,’ because there is no such thing. It’s negligent, period.

Every time you pick up a firearm, you should ensure you do this. With this attitude, each and every time, it will become second nature. Should you have to draw your firearm one day, you will impulsively place your trigger finger along the frame and slide instead of directly on the trigger or inside the trigger guard.

This rule is proposed to prevent an unwanted discharge. Generally, a firearm is discharged by pressing its trigger. A handler’s finger may, against his will, move for any of several reasons: the handler is startled, a lack of full attention on body movements, physiological reasons past 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, as a result, trained to minimize the harmful effects of such a motion by keeping their finger off the trigger pending when the muzzle is pointing at the target, and the handler desires to discharge the firearm.

The trigger guard and area on top of the trigger of a firearm serves as a natural point for a handler to keep their finger out straight next to the weapon, so as not to violate this rule. One more suggestion is to keep the trigger finger above the trigger guard so that there is less chance of the finger unwillingly slipping into the guard when anxious. A properly-indexed trigger finger helps to remind the person holding the firearm of the direction of the muzzle.

Apart from the four core rules that have been mentioned and explained above there are still some other rules. These are:

Learn how to operate your gun perfectly.

Try to be totally familiar with your rifle or weapon. You should know every detail and mechanical attributes of your gun. Also, you know how to properly load, unload, and remove a glitch from your gun. Obviously, different guns have been manufactured with different mechanics. What works in your first gun may be different in this new one.

You have no reason to think that what applies to a particular model or make is exactly applicable to another. You should ask a couple of direct questions as regards the operation of your gun from your weapons dealer. Nothing stops you from contacting the maker personally if you still need more explanation.

Always keep your gun safe.

Store your gun safely and securely. Guns and ammunitions should be put away individually. By this, you are not only storing your gun, and you are preventing unauthorized use. Whenever the gun is not in your grasp, safety should be the first thing to consider.

You can make use of a gun safety box when storing your firearm. A trigger lock or cable lock can also be used to prevent it from being fired. Remember to always empty your gun, and store it empty in a secured and locked box. It is sensible to keep your ammunition in a place different from where you kept your rifle or gun.

D0 you have a rule or tip for gun safety? Share it in the comment section.

Daniel Chabert is a snowboarder, foodie, guitarist, Saul Bass fan, and RISD grad. Doing at the intersection of art and computer science to give life to your brand. I’m a designer and this is my work.

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Comments (21)

  1. I don’t have a reply, but I do have a question. How can you have a gun for protection at home if it’s unloaded and the ammo is stored somewhere else?

  2. This has got to be for storing the service weapon after shift. No one carries with the slide locked back, the magazine removed and the chamber clear.

  3. Decal sticker on the locker of every officer in a large metropolitan city:

    1. Keep Finger Off Trigger
    2. Point Muzzle in Safe Direction
    3. Remove Magazine
    4. Lock Slide to Rear
    5. Look! Make sure Chamber is Clear!

    Seems to work for law enforcement.

  4. What Was instilled in my brain and what I teach

    1. Treat
    2. Never
    3. Keep
    4. Keep
    5. Know

    1. Treatment every weapo as it were loaded
    2.never point a weapon at anything you don’t want to shoot
    3.keep your weapon on safe until you are ready to fire
    4. Keep you finger strait and off the trigger until you are ready to fire
    5. Know your target and what lies beyond it

  5. I disagree with rule number 4. It has the correct intent, but the wording is the opposite of what it should be. A picture of your “finger on the trigger” has just been imprinted in your mind based upon the current wording. Why would you be surprised when you accidentally put your finger on the trigger, since that is the image you created in the synapses of your brain? It is like saying, “Don’t think of an elephant.” What is the picture that pops into your mind: an elephant. I would reword the rule to be, “Keep your finger indexed on the frame, until your sights are on the target.” Or “Keep your finger indexed on the frame, until you are ready to shoot.” The picture in your mind is much different, and reinforces what you are actually being asked to perform.

  6. #5 the definition of a “safety” is “something that can fail”. Dad taught me that, basically to remind me that you can never rely on a mechanical safety to take the place of safe gun handling

  7. Interesting enough, the NRA has three rules. In my opinion, they are not as good as the four. In correspondence with the NRA, they defended their rules on the basis that you might be dealing, on the range, with people so inexperienced that the term muzzle escapes them.

    Here are the NRA’s 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

    Number 3 is difficult to reconcile with concealed carry.

    1. The NRA rules are the basics to get you on a range and practicing fundamentals. When you’re teaching someone with no experience you need to keep them safe and minimize the flood of information. Instructors want to build confidence with the fundamentals before the carry issue is introduced. Most NRA Certified Instructors (self included) will concede the four mentioned here, as they are the prudent ones coming from Jeff Cooper’s teachings. As far as #3, if you are concealed carrying for self defense you are using the firearm. Note it says using, not shooting.

  8. For those who think they know it all and did not read this —-

    I have been shooting 60 years. Scouts, Service, family and will still gladly except a reminder.

    Shutting up listening will not make IT shrink.

    From law #1—

    If God Almighty hands you a gun and says “Son it’s unloaded” you can trust God. BUT you better clear it yourself !

  9. I practiced rule #4 so much that I even found myself keeping my finger off of the switch on my cordless drill.

  10. Ref. Law #1. It was a couple of years ago, Triangle T ranch was the locale for a Civil War reenactment. A participant loaned a Sharps carbine to a photographer that he might use it as a prop for folks he photographed off the field. I was in period civilian garb. He passed it to me. I opened it, and ran my ‘pinkie’ into the chamber. “What did you do that for? He received a short lecture on the First and Second Laws. Force of habit, since 1955.

  11. Yes! I will own up to my errors….. I have experienced the negligent discharge. Fortunately three of the four rules were in effect, so there was no injury. While I will forever be embarrassed, and hold myself in contemptuous self-recrimination, by the occurrence, I do take a degree of comfort in knowing that even some of our most vaunted experts have had their moments of agonizing error. I recall a magazine article in which the “Gunners’ Guru” Jeff Cooper described his experience with calmly racking the slide of a 19ll and squeezing the trigger in his living room. Fortunately for Cooper, three of the four rules were being followed, so….. like me, he only put a .45 caliber hole in the wall……a painful reminder…..

  12. First rule is a good way to confuse/turn off new shooters and old…IF they are taking their instruction literally. “TREAT every gun as if it is loaded” is much more palatable than the obviously false “The gun is ALWAYS loaded”. Why start with such an ironically ambiguous first rule?

    As stated, the rules “vary according to the source”. The sources that don’t start off with a blatant falsehood get my vote and thanks.

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