The Cornered Cat

Well, it happened again. On a popular internet discussion board, someone posted graphic pictures of the damage he did to his left hand when he shot himself. The pictures provide a gruesome reminder of how easy it is to do something irreversible or even tragic with a firearm, and most of the replies in the lengthy thread focus on just that.


“Here is the X-ray photo showing the plate and screws that now lock my right wrist in a fixed position. Note the bullet jacket fragments that still float around inside my forearm. The bullet completely expanded and shed its jacket. The lead core continued through my wrist and into the wall. Every once in a while I get a little sore on my arm and a tiny piece of blackened copper jacket works its way to the surface.” — Ryan VanOrden

The user wrote: “Yesterday … I went out in the garage for a much needed break, thought I would take a minute to break down my XD45 and clean it as I hadn’t had a chance to the day before. … I’m fairly new to semi auto pistols, but [have] been around guns all my life. Made the worst mistake of all and forgot to drop the magazine and clear the chamber. All of a sudden she went bang and I wasn’t sure what happened until I saw my glove smoking. Somehow, [I] shot through my hand missing all bones and into my bench. Feeling like a total idiot…. Check and then double check from now on.”

Predictably, most of the online responses to this admission focus on checking to be sure the gun is unloaded. Some of the comments:

These posts are right on target, and yet they also miss the mark. How’s that? There are FOUR rules of gun safety, not just one. By blaming a lapse entirely on Rule One (“All guns are always loaded”), we miss the real lesson in stories like this and risk losing the important safeguards provided by the other three rules. In this case, the fellow who shot himself seems to think he would have been safe if only he had checked the gun better before he began the disassembly process. It’s true that he should have checked better, but failing to unload the gun isn’t the cause of his injury.

Here’s the actual cause of the injury: he pointed the muzzle of the gun at his own left hand and then he deliberately pulled the trigger.

By focusing his entire safety protocol on Rule One—trusting himself to check properly that the gun was unloaded—the shooter set himself up for the injury that followed. When he pointed the gun at his own hand, he broke Rule Two. When he pulled the trigger while the gun was not deliberately pointed at a safe aimpoint with a solid backstop, he broke Rules Three and Four. Chances are, he regularly broke those rules whenever he “knew” the gun was unloaded. And then one day he blinked, his attention briefly wandered and he accidentally violated the first rule… and he had no life-saving habit of following the other three rules. He had no safety net.

Think about the everyday habits that lead to safe gun handling. If you never allow the gun to point at any part of your own body, for example, you cannot come to harm even if the gun is loaded. You cannot unintentionally shoot anyone if you refuse to touch the trigger until you have aligned the muzzle with a safe aimpoint, a consciously chosen spot where an unexpected bullet could cause only minor property damage. You will never shoot through a wall to kill a sleeping child if you refuse to pull the trigger unless you are absolutely sure that an unexpected bullet would come safely to rest within an acceptable backstop. Without good habits, literally all it takes for tragedy to happen is a moment’s inattention, such as failing to check that the gun is unloaded, or failing to really see the status when you do check, or failing to remember that you reloaded the gun before you set it down. But a strong lifetime habit of handling the firearm respectfully even when unloaded can prevent injury and death even when your brain isn’t paying as much attention as it should.

To disassemble a Glock or an XD while following all four rules, handle the disassembly trigger press like you would handle any other dryfire. First, unload the firearm, then lock the action open and double-check that it’s unloaded, using your eyes and then your fingertip to be sure. (That takes care of Rule One.) Be conscious of your muzzle direction at all times. Don’t get sloppy or careless with the muzzle even though you think the gun is now unloaded. (Rule Two.) Close the action and deliberately point the muzzle at a consciously-chosen safe aimpoint. One reason people point guns in foolish directions is because they haven’t consciously chosen a good direction, so choose a specific spot to aim the muzzle before you put your finger on the trigger. (Rule Three.) When you choose that spot, be certain it can really stop a bullet of the caliber your gun can fire. For instance, for a handgun you might choose to aim at a cement wall in the basement, or at the top of a thick stack of books, or at a purpose-made product such as a Safe Directions pad, or at the corner of the floor in a one-story building. (Rule Four.)

Safe Direction Academy Pad
Stack of Books
Even if you’re just cleaning the gun, if you’re going to pull the trigger at all, you need to choose a safe backstop. You can purchase a product like Safe Direction Academy Pad (left) or simple stack up some books (right) to catch the bullet. Either way, never pull the trigger on a firearm, even an unloaded firearms, until your muzzle is pointing at a reliable and safe backstop.

I know some readers will disagree with my analysis. “That’s ridiculous,” these people are thinking. “All he had to do was check. Once you’ve checked that the gun is unloaded, it’s okay to ignore the other safety rules.” But this isn’t true. It isn’t true because repeated experience shows we need more than that.

For some time now, I have made a habit of saving stories about how good people and experienced shooters come to harm with firearms. My interest was not sparked by any mishap of my own (thank goodness, knock on wood), but by people-watching on the range. Studying how other people endanger themselves might help the rest of us stay safer. What I have learned is this: human beings make mistakes. We make so many mistakes, all the time, that you might almost say it’s what defines being human.

Not one of the safety rules, by itself, will prevent an unintentional shot. Not one. They are intended to overlap and provide redundant layers of safety. Even all four of the rules together do not entirely prevent unintentional shots. Following all four safety rules simply reduces the consequences when mistakes are made, ensuring that only things we don’t mind shooting get shot. The rules are based on two universal truths:

The overlapping rules serve to eliminate the danger when one of these two inevitable events happens. They prevent tragedy when someone makes a simple mistake while handling a deadly weapon. They protect human life when a mechanical device fails to work as designed.

Of course, a shooter can break every single one of the rules and still avoid injury or tragedy through sheer luck. The gun you expect to be empty might really be empty. The unexpected bullet might be stopped by a solid beam instead of passing through sheetrock to hit the child sleeping on the other side of the wall. The noise in the brush that the excited hunter shoots at might actually be a deer instead of another hunter. Luck happens. Thank goodness!

Nor is luck the only factor. Because the basic safety rules are designed to interlock and overlap, very often a remnant from one rule can save a shooter’s bacon even though he ignored or discarded another. For instance, a shooter who regularly pulls the trigger (for disassembly or dryfire) without deliberately aiming the muzzle at a solid backstop might be saved from injury by a good chamber check which assures that the firearm is empty. However, habitually breaking one of the basic rules means the shooter’s safety net has a gaping hole in it. It means the shooter has decided to gamble that he will never make even a single mistake within the area formerly covered by that rule. Is this a safe gamble? No! As one of the shooters below admits, “In spite of having years of experience handling firearms, all it took was one moment of distraction for a near tragedy to occur.”

Here are some quotes gathered from firearms discussion boards online. These are not news stories, but first-person accounts written by people who are at least involved enough in the firearms world to be regular contributors to one or more gunboards. These people all have one thing in common: they made a mistake and shot something or someone they did not intend to shoot.

In every one of these accounts, a human being—an experienced shooter much like you or me—made a mistake. Some of these mistakes caused permanent injury. Some caused extreme danger and could have caused death. And some were simply loud and embarrassing. What made the difference in outcome? The Other Three Rules.

So today, as you handle your firearm, pay attention to the other three rules. Follow them even when you “know” your gun is unloaded. The life you save might be your own.