The Cornered Cat
The overlapping, redundant, ridiculously unnecessary safety rules

“But it’s unloaded!”

When someone says those words as an argument for not following the basic gunhandling rules, it often means that that they’ve just discovered that the safety rules overlap. And they don’t like it.

Why do the rules overlap, anyway?

Why can’t we “just check” that the gun is unloaded and then do whatever we like with it?

Or if we want to be extra double cautious, why can’t we just double-check that it’s unloaded and then go about our business?

We don’t do it that way because handling deadly weapons is inherently dangerous. And that danger is always present whenever we handle them. We create rules and systems to insulate us from a danger we cannot entirely eliminate. Rules and systems give us a thick layer of insulation that we can think of as a safety cushion.

But our nice, thick safety cushion often turns into a single layer of cheesecloth whenever we feel silly about bundling up.


Whenever we have only one layer of protection, only one mistake can cause tragedy.


Like a sand castle on a windy day, human safety protocols face a constant and relentless pressure to erode. We must constantly fight this process, watching for it and rebuilding our safety standards every time we notice them beginning to slip.

When we allow our multiple layers of safety cushion to strip down to become just a single layer, then a single mistake can — and too often, does — result in catastrophic pain, injury, or death.

The thing is, the systems we use to mitigate significant hazards to human life are SUPPOSED TO overlap. That’s the point of the whole thing. That’s why people have created careful systems that help  mitigate the inherent and always-present danger of handling deadly weapons. We call those systems “safety rules” and we wrangle with each other, endlessly, about how to word those rules and how to get the concepts across to newcomers and oldtimers alike.

And still, even though nearly all gun owners can recite at least some mangled version of the rules, every day some of these same people …

      • Thoughtlessly press the muzzle into their own hand at the gun store.
      • Or yank the trigger back without aiming the gun at anything in particular as they slam the gun into the holster because the RO said, “Slideforwardhammerdownholster” as if it were all one word.
      • Or dry fire while pointing the gun at an interior wall that would never stop a bullet.
      • Or worse, “designate” 1 that interior wall — the one that would never stop a bullet — as a “safe direction” so they can then teach other people to point the gun at interior walls without thinking about where the bullet will finally end up.

“But it’s unloaded!” isn’t a reason to ignore the other rules. It simply means that we’ve suddenly discovered how much the rules overlap.

Sometimes one or more rules will feel unnecessary and redundant and extra and superfluous and not really needed.

That happens because the rules actually are redundant and they are do overlap. Sometimes, one of the rules feels unnecessary because it is not, strictly speaking, necessary in that moment… as long as everything goes right.

Which, because humans are involved, it won’t always.

Think of the layers of safety rules as being something like a stack of swiss cheese, made of many layers so as to prevent one hole from going all the way through the stack. In this analogy, “I unloaded the gun” is just one slice of cheese. And as too many people have discovered to their sorrow, sometimes there’s a hole in that one slice.

Discovering that the rules are redundant sometimes provokes an emotional reaction: this careful behavior is foolish. I know the gun is unloaded. Why am I doing this ‘unnecessary’ thing by being careful with it even when I know it is unloaded?

You are doing that ‘unnecessary’ thing —

      • creating a safe and solid backstop for dry fire so that an unexpected bullet would definitely come to rest in a known place;
      • refusing to touch the trigger unless and until you have carefully aimed the gun at some specific place and are holding it in a manner that wouldn’t hurt if it fired;
      • never sweeping even an empty gun across your own left hand;
      • carefully controlling the gun’s muzzle direction whenever you handle it, so that it never points at any other human being, or at your beloved pet, or at anything you aren’t willing to pay to replace;

— because nearly all unintended discharges that harm an innocent person, happen with an ‘unloaded’ gun. And most of them happened when the person handling the gun deliberately pulled the trigger.

Because they thought the gun was unloaded.

Because they thought that following the other safety rules was … well, a bit silly … since the gun was unloaded.

Because they felt foolish, following safety rules with an unloaded gun.

Because —


Encouraging that extra level of caution, that refusal to be casual and thoughtless in the way we handle deadly weapons, is quite literally why the rules exist in the first place.

Don’t throw any of them away.


  1. How many legs does a dog have if you call the tail a leg? Four. Calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it a leg.

One Response to The overlapping, redundant, ridiculously unnecessary safety rules

  1. larryarnold says:


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