The Four Primary Rules of Firearm Safety

Gun Ownership Is on the Rise

According to NSSF (National Shooting Sports Foundation), nearly five million Americans became first-time gun owners in 2020. That’s five million on top of the nearly 100 million-plus gun owners already in the United States.

While we here at Daniel Defense are thrilled to see more and more Americans exercising their Second Amendment rights, there’s also some cause for concern. Maybe not so much concern as an interest in whether these new gun owners—and their more experienced brethren—are taking the awesome responsibility of owning a firearm seriously. Not just the responsibility of understanding the firearm, knowing how to use it, and training with it to be proficient, but also how imperative it is to know and practice gun safety consistently, as in each and every time you handle a firearm.  

Never point a firearm at something you’re not willing to destroy.

So, in the interest of everyone’s safety—both gun owners and those around them—we thought now might be an appropriate time to go over a few basic gun safety tenets. If you’re new to gun ownership, these are four rules you should commit to memory and practice at all times. If you’re an experienced gun owner, please take a moment to review these rules because complacency can lead to bad habits. And, with firearms, one mistake or cut corner can literally be a matter of life or death.

This information may seem like common sense, which it is, or even a bit basic. But it’s as timeless and important as ever now that so many Americans are deciding to take the step and become gun owners. Besides, even if you’ve got this information down pat and practice it religiously, knowing that others have at least been exposed to some of the basic tenets of gun safety only serves to make us all a bit safer.

Rule #1: Treat Every Firearm as if It’s Loaded

“But what if I know absolutely, positively that it isn’t?” you may ask as a new gun owner. Well, that doesn’t matter because you being wrong only once could be disastrous. The one line you’ll hear or read repeatedly in reports of accidental shootings is, “I didn’t think it was loaded.” Or even, “I was positive it wasn’t loaded.”

If you treat every single firearm you handle, every single time you handle one, as if it’s loaded, you don’t have to think. You will automatically act the same way each and every time, which will be in the safest possible manner.

What this means is, even if you’ve removed the magazine (or unloaded the firearm another way, say, emptying a revolver’s cylinder), cleared the chamber, and locked the slide or charging handle back so there’s no possible way the firearm could fire, you still treat it like it’s loaded and could discharge when handling it. Not only will this make you and those around you safer, it will help ensure that you don’t develop any bad habits. If you’re acting safely and conscientiously by treating every firearm as if it’s loaded, even one you know to be unloaded, that’s behavior you’ll continue to exercise automatically with firearms you know to be loaded. Because there should be no difference in how you treat either, since your mindset is that every firearm you handle is loaded. 

Rule #2: Always Point the Muzzle in a Safe Direction

This rule goes hand-in-hand with Rule #1. The muzzle is the business end of a firearm, and where it points, a projectile can go. And projectiles, be they bullets or shotgun pellets, they can destroy, injure, or kill. So, the direction the muzzle is pointing is very important.

This rule doesn’t just apply to when you’re consciously pointing a firearm at a target, either. It, like treating every gun as if it’s loaded, is in effect all of the time. When you’re walking with a firearm, loading a firearm, transporting a firearm, etc., the muzzle should always be pointed in a safe direction. Which means, if you’re loading your pistol at the range, its muzzle should be pointed downrange, not at a fellow shooter to your left or right. Or, if you’re handing a pistol to another person, even once you’ve unloaded it and made it safe, its muzzle should not be pointing at that person or anyone else in the vicinity. Or, when you’re walking a field with your hunting buddy to kick up a pheasant, the muzzle of your shotgun should be pointed in a direction away from where your buddy is walking. 

This rule is also sometimes stated as: Never point a firearm at something you’re not willing to destroy. And that something doesn’t have to be a person. So, if you’re loading your gun and the muzzle is pointing at your new truck, ask yourself if you’re willing to destroy your pickup. Or, if you’re loading your shotgun in a duck blind and the muzzle is pointing at your faithful retriever, are you willing to destroy her? So long as you’re consistently asking yourself this question when handling firearms, muzzle awareness should follow naturally.

Rule #3: Keep Your Finger Off the Trigger Until Your Sights are on Target

The easiest, most common way for an accidental discharge to occur is for a finger to accidentally pull the trigger. This could result from the stress of a situation, a surge of adrenaline, a stumble, a spasm in your hand, or any number of other reasons. So, your trigger finger should really only be inside the trigger guard and on the trigger after you’ve put sights on your target and you’re ready to fire the gun.

That means, don’t carry or handle a firearm with your finger inside the trigger guard. It really only takes a split second to move your finger from a safe position to inside the trigger guard to pull the trigger—especially with proper training and practice. Retraining yourself to keep your finger out of the trigger guard, by the way, can be a tough habit to break once developed, so it’s imperative for new gun owners to adhere to this rule and not fall into this unsafe habit.

Please don’t use television shows or movies as examples of exceptions to this rule. Depending on the show, you may see most every single character carrying a gun—cops and bad guys included—putting their finger on the trigger the moment they pick it up or draw it. Chalk this onscreen bad habit up to no budget for a firearm technical advisor on the production, but it’s still a huge no-no!   

Rule #4: Be Sure of Your Target and What’s Beyond

Firearms are very powerful and human beings are, well, human. Which means they’re imperfect. So, once you’ve identified and verified a target you’re prepared to shoot, be sure you’re also aware of what’s beyond that target and that it’s safe for you to fire. Because, the fact of the matter is that you may miss and the projectile may go well beyond your target and hit what’s behind it. And even if you’re a deadeye and hit your target, the projectile may pass right through it and keep traveling.

So, if you’re out in the desert plinking cans with your AR and no one else around, you still need to make sure your shots aren’t heading in the direction of the highway a few hundred yards away. It’s best to make sure they’re going into the side of a hill or a sandy berm, where they won’t harm anything. Or, if you have your crosshairs on a trophy buck but there’s a farmhouse 50 yards directly behind him, pass on that shot because there’s a possibility you could miss—or have the bullet go through him—and endanger the home and/or the residents in that home.

Even in, or especially in, a high-stress self- or home-defense situation, it’s important to know your target and what’s behind it. Many family members, friends, or other residents have been accidentally shot in the dark by another resident investigating a suspicious noise with their gun in hand but not enough illumination or training to properly identify their target. And even if shots were fired at a legitimate home intruder, if those shots were to miss and go into a child’s bedroom or, in the case of an apartment building, through the wall and into an adjoining apartment, the results could be disastrous.

So, don’t just point and fire. First, properly identify your target and verify that it is, in fact, a target. Then, consider what’s beyond that target before considering firing your gun. This goes back to Rule #2. You may be willing to destroy the target your muzzle is pointing at, but are you willing to destroy what’s lies beyond it?

These are just four rules for exercising gun safety, but there are certainly more. To view a more extensive list of gun safety rules, we recommend checking out NRA gun safety rules.

We’re also curious to hear from you experienced gun owners out there. What advice would you offer to new gun owners? Let us know what you’d tell them in the comments section below.

To all of the gun owners out there, both old and new, enjoy your firearms, but please be safe.