The Cornered Cat

In January 2008, a gun owner handled his pistol carelessly, and shot himself in the leg. Not wanting the lesson he learned to go to waste, he (of course!) started a website with the slap-yourself-in-the-forehead title of The site includes a detailed explanation of what he did, what he was thinking when he did it, and what happened after the shot fired. It also includes several gory pictures of his injuries, so you’ve been warned.

In this article, I will use this man’s experience as a springboard to discuss good and bad safety habits. I’m analyzing this, not to rub salt into his wounds (he surely doesn’t need anyone to do that, poor guy!), but to help others learn from his mistakes. He gets full marks for being brave enough to put his incident up on the internet for others to learn from. That being the case, let’s learn from it.

Here’s what the injured person had to say within a few days after his injury happened:

This incident happened because I got so used to handling guns and taking them apart and putting them together that safety measures became automatic. This is a good thing when you’re talking about keeping your finger away from the trigger until the gun is sighted on a target. It’s bad when it involves checking to see if a gun is unloaded. In this case I had just installed a grip safety and was checking to see if the safety worked properly. It did. You just can’t trust your unconscious mind to do the right thing.

You should NEVER allow safety to become “automatic”. If you do it’s just a matter of time before your gun goes off when you don’t want it to.

These two paragraphs show that, at the time he wrote this entry, the injured man still did not understand what had happened or why it happened to him.

To begin with, we know that his injury was not caused by “safety measures [that] were automatic.” We know this, because another way of saying that your safety measures are automatic is to say that you have developed good habits. Like everyone else who handles firearms on a regular basis, this man did have gun handling habits, things that he did with the firearm naturally and with very little conscious effort. Unfortunately, the habits he had built weren’t good ones. If he had built good safety habits, those good habits would very likely have carried him safely through the time when his brain went on vacation. They would not have jumped up to bite him in the leg while he was distracted.

Here’s the deal: the basic firearms safety rules form an interlocking system. In order to shoot yourself, or anyone else you don’t intend to shoot, you have to violate more than one of the safety rules. At the time he was injured, this man blamed his injury on a single lapse (failing to check the gun’s loaded status). But in fact there were several, separate safety lapses that led to his injury. The non-existent chamber check simply completed the cycle of bad safety behavior.

Let’s start off with a  refresher on the Four Universal Rules of firearms safety:

  1. All guns are ALWAYS loaded. (Treat them so!)
  2. Do not point the gun at anything you are not willing to destroy.
  3. Keep your finger off the trigger until your sights are on target (and you have made the decision to shoot).
  4. Be sure of your target (and what’s beyond).

Let’s break this down a little more.

Rule One

Some people do not like Rule One. For instance, this link provides one example of a typical objection to the rule (from noted revolversmith Grant Cunningham).

It is my opinion that the more people who follow Traditional Rule #1, the more accidents like his will occur. Again, Traditional Rule #1 leads people to do dumb things with guns, because once they’re convinced the gun is unloaded they feel at liberty to ignore the other three. ~ Grant Cunningham

Let me just say here that I find this argument considerably less than persuasive. We should throw out Rule One, because when people break this rule they always come to grief? I don’t buy that! We should keep Rule one, because when people break Rule One, they always come to grief.

Rule One, the first and most basic rule about firearms safety, simply means that the safety rules always apply. That’s all it means. It means the safe gunhandling rules apply No Matter What. That’s the heart of the rule. It means you cannot make excuses like, “But I thought the gun was unloaded!” or, “But the safety was on!” or, “But I was just getting ready to clean it…” Such excuses allow bad safety habits to form. This understanding is the beating heart of every safe interaction with firearms. Safe behavior around firearms always comes back to the question of whether you respect the gun’s awesome destructive power, and treat it accordingly — or whether you take that power lightly and treat it with casual disregard.

Rule Two

Violating Rule Two is, I think, the most immediate cause of this man’s injury. He pointed the gun directly at his own body before he pulled the trigger. Why he did so is not really the critical point. The critical point is that he did so. He pointed the gun at himself so casually that it was only later, after he was bleeding, that he realized he’d done it. That means that this type of behavior was very likely an ongoing bad habit, and not a simple one-time lapse.

The injured man might not have fully understood this point at the time of his injury, but he did come to understand it later. Here’s what he wrote in an update on Aug. 2, 2009:

Even after you KNOW it’s empty, keep it pointed in a safe direction and keep your finger away from the trigger. You may be thinking “WHY? IT’S EMPTY.” Well, that’s not the point. If you don’t worry about where it’s pointed when “It’s unloaded”, eventually you will make the mistake of pointing it in the wrong direction when it’s loaded.

That’s exactly right.

A habitual following of Rule Two results in a very strong negative emotional reaction to having the muzzle of a firearm pointed anywhere near one’s own personal body parts, regardless of who holds the gun. It means you react just as strongly when you sweep yourself as you would if a complete stranger did so.

Rule Three

It’s interesting that in his account of the negligent discharge, the man directly cited Rule Three: “keeping your finger away from the trigger until the gun is sighted on a target.” The problem here is that even though he noted his safety lapse in regards to a different rule, he thought he always obeyed this one. And yet—he purposely pulled the trigger of a gun whose sights were not lined up on a deliberately-chosen safe aimpoint. That’s how he shot himself.

What happened here probably goes back to a problem of definitions. “Keep your finger off the trigger until your sights are on target.” What’s a target, anyway? Is it a piece of paper? A deer or a rabbit? A human being? A watermelon or jug of water? A chunk of steel? All of these things can certainly represent a target, but not one of them is a target. They are simply examples of objects that might be used as a target. Here’s what a target actually is, by its very nature:

A target is anywhere you have deliberately chosen as the optimum spot for a bullet to land in a given situation.

A target may be represented by a bad guy, by a piece of paper, by a dirt clod, by a spot on the floor, by a piece of fruit or a chunk of steel. In every case, this is a spot the shooter has deliberately chosen as the best place for a bullet to land.

Rule Three means that any time you put your finger on the trigger of a gun, you should first point the muzzle at a deliberately-chosen “best spot” for the bullet to land. This applies whether you are hunting, target shooting, competing, cleaning the gun, dry firing, and at any other time the gun is in your hand. It applies at home, in the field, and everywhere you carry a gun. It applies no matter what you intend to happen when you pull the trigger—whether it’s for dryfire or live fire, cleaning the gun or demonstration purposes. It does not only apply to cardboard shapes at the range!

Rule Four

Rule Four is all about the target—being sure it’s a valid target, being sure there’s nothing behind the target that you’re not willing to shoot, being sure that no one can come between you and your intended target. The person who committed this negligent discharge and put up that web site violated this rule along with the all the others, because as he noted, “there really WAS no ‘safe direction’ [where he was sitting] when you take into account the possibility of a ricochet.”

So here’s the bottom line: Every time you pick up a firearm, you are building either a good safety habit or a bad one.

Which will it be, today?