Here are the Four Universal Rules. These rules always apply, every time you handle a firearm — no matter who you are, no matter where you are, and no matter what you intend to do with the gun.
The Four Rules
As long as firearms have existed, there have been safety rules:; "Keep your powder dry." "Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes." "Never handle a weapon behind the firing line."
Some rules applied only to long guns. Some applied in limited circumstances. Some would apply only to range work, some only to field work, some only to hunting, some only to guns with external safeties, some only to revolvers or only to single-action semi-autos or only to double-action only handguns…
There were a lot of rules.
Col. Jeff Cooper deserves a great deal of credit for being the first to perceive the need for truly universal safety rules, rules that would apply to all firearms at all times. He’s the first one who boiled all of the various rules about firearms down into just four rules — rules that are simple enough that even a child can follow them, rules that provide a completely interlocking safety system, rules that pretty well everyone else in the gun world has acknowledged as simple and basic and enough.
You might not think that’s a big deal, but there’s a lot of genius that went into those four simple rules. Complexity is easy; simplicity is difficult. Cooper made firearms safety more simple at a time when firearms were becoming more complex. That’s genius.
Why are there four rules, instead of only one? Because each one of the four rules provides one layer of safety. If you violate only one rule, the chances are that no one will be harmed. It requires a violation of at least two of the rules in order for any significant harm to result.
Rule One, "All guns are always loaded," means that you must always treat your firearm with the respect you would give a loaded weapon. When you follow this rule, even after you have just checked to see that your gun is unloaded, you still never do anything with it that you would not do with a loaded gun.
This is the cardinal rule, and all other safety rules follow naturally from it.
Some people apparently believe that merely checking to see the gun is unloaded means you can then treat it like a toy — that you can point it at your friends to pose for a picture, or at your training partners for disarming practice, or at a flimsy interior wall to check trigger function. That’s a foolish, foolish idea that kills a certain number of people every single year.
Rule Two, "Never point the gun at anything you are not willing to destroy," simply states the logical consequence of Rule One. No matter what you are doing with your firearm — whether you are unloading it, cleaning it, or showing it to a friend — you never allow the muzzle to point at anything you do not want a hole in, nor at anyone you are not willing to kill.
You must be conscious of muzzle direction the entire time you are touching the gun. If you must pick the gun up or put it down, you must be conscious of where the muzzle is pointed from the very moment when you first touch the gun until the moment when you finally remove your hand from the gun. If you cannot pick the gun up without allowing it to point at something that shouldn’t be shot, don’t pick it up. If you cannot put the gun down without allowing it to point at something that shouldn’t be shot, don’t put it down.
Whenever you handle your firearm, think of it as a Star Wars light saber: anything it crosses will be cut in half.
Rule Three is "Keep your finger off the trigger until your sights are on target." It should take a conscious effort to put your finger on the trigger; you should never, ever, ever find your finger resting on the trigger or within the trigger guard when you didn’t consciously and deliberately put it there.
What is a target? A target is anywhere you deliberately point the weapon, where you would not mind sending a bullet. If you are not deliberately pointing the weapon at the optimal spot for your bullet to land, your finger does not belong on the trigger. It is that simple.
It follows that in order to clean a firearm such as a Glock, which requires you to pull the trigger when disassembling the gun, you must have a safe target with an adequate backstop in your home. At the very least you must have a spot on the floor which you have deliberately chosen as the optimal spot to put a bullet, a spot where your dog never sleeps. Under no circumstances would you point the gun in a random direction during the disassembly process, and especially not at any portion of your own body.
If you do not have a decent spot to deliberately point your gun, with an adequate backstop, you should not put your finger on the trigger. No matter what kind of gun you have and no matter what you intend to happen when the trigger is pulled.
Because the human startle reflex can overwhelm your finger muscles, you should not rest your finger on the trigger even when your sights are on target until you have made the conscious decision to shoot. This is especially important if you ever have to take an attacker at gunpoint. That person will be a target, by definition, but unless or until you decide to shoot him you should not put your finger on the trigger while the gun is pointed at him.
Rule Four, "Be sure of your target and what is beyond it," sounds deceptively simple, but it covers a world of potential tragedies. Among other things, it means you always identify your target, and that you carefully consider the backstop — or lack of a backstop — beyond your target.
Hunters need to be certain that they always visually identify the game they are shooting. It is not enough to merely hear a noise, or see a quick flash of motion or color. You must see enough of the animal to positively identify it as both legal and safe to shoot.
When shooting at the range, you must never commence firing until you are certain that no one is lurking behind or around the targets. It isn’t enough to simply hear someone call the range clear. You must look for yourself, because you are the one responsible for where your bullets land.
Be sure also of the space between you and your target (could someone come between you and what you’re shooting at?) and around your target (if you miss your target, what will you hit instead?).
For concealed carry permit holders, it is vitally important to be overwhelming sure of the circumstances before pulling your handgun and blazing away in public. If you are not overwhelmingly certain that the person you intend to shoot is an immediate, deadly threat to an innocent person, then your gun is not the correct solution to the problem.
Rule Four also means that every time you fire a gun in practice, you must have an adequate backstop which will stop a bullet. When you practice dry firing, you must have a safe backstop in your home. On the range, you must never allow the muzzle of your firearm to point above or around the berms which are designed to contain the bullets.
What is an adequate backstop? It depends upon the type and power of the firearm you are shooting. A shotgun loaded with birdshot, for example, requires only a long stretch of open air before the pellets will come harmlessly to rest. But rounds from a hunting rifle can literally travel miles if they are not stopped by hitting something very solid.
If you use a gun "for keeps," as in hunting or self-defense, it may not be possible to have a solid backstop as you would on the range. Nevertheless, you are responsible for every shot which leaves your firearm, not only for those which hit the intended target. So you must always be conscious of what is beyond and around your target.
Good hunters are always aware of the direction and angle their rounds will travel once they have left the muzzle of the gun. Many hunters prefer to fire at a downward angle, so that the shot will simply strike the ground if it misses or passes through the animal. Many will never fire at an animal silhouetted on a ridge line, because under those circumstances, missed shots will travel for several dangerous miles before coming to rest.
For self-defense, you should always be aware of the angle your shots will travel and the likelihood of hitting an innocent bystander. If you can fire at a downward or upward angle, to avoid hitting others, do so. If there is an innocent standing directly behind your target, reposition yourself if possible so that the innocent is no longer in the line of fire. You must weigh the deadly threat from the attacker on one hand against the deadly threat from your bullets on the other hand.
Always remember that you will be called to account for every round you fire, not just the ones that hit your intended target.
The Four Rules