The Cornered Cat
Unintentional Discharges Project – Part 2

Awhile back, I got interested in how firearms mishaps occur — especially mishaps that involve experienced shooters who should know better. What leads up to them? What mistakes are frequently made and why are those mistakes made? When a gun “just goes off,” what common factors might be involved? 1

My interest was not sparked by any serious mishap of my own (thank goodness, knock on wood), but by listening to people, especially newcomers, on the range as they discussed how to stay safe around firearms. It seems to me that studying how people have endangered themselves might help the rest of us avoid making similar mistakes.

One question I have constantly thought about while doing this study: Are the Four Rules actually enough to prevent negligent shots, or should firearms handling be hedged about with additional safety precautions over and above the Four Rules?

For reference, here are the Four Rules:

  1. All guns are always loaded. (Treat them so!)
  2. Never point the gun at anything you are not willing to destroy.
  3. Keep your finger off the trigger until your muzzle is on target and you have made the decision to shoot.
  4. Be sure of your target and what’s around it.

Not one of these four universal safety rules, by itself, will prevent an unintentional shot. Rather, they are intended to overlap and provide redundant layers of protection from injuries.

Further, even all four of the rules together do not entirely prevent all unexpected or unintentional shots. We see this in a number of incidents where people fired more quickly than expected, even while carefully following every single one of the safety rules on the range. So even all the rules working together do not always stop an unexpected round. The overlapping rules do, however, make it almost impossible for a normal moment of inattention to injure or kill someone.

This what we see, over and over again, as we look at these types of events. Keep this in mind, because it turns out that many — the vast majority! — of close calls happen when people are in fact doing their reasonable best to handle guns safely under the normal pressures of everyday life.

The overlapping rules are based upon two universal truths:

  1. All human beings make mistakes.
  2. All mechanical devices can fail.

These safety protocols overlap. This is by design! The overlapping nature of these rules serves to reduce the number of bad outcomes from the mistakes that humans will sometimes make. The rules do not prevent mistakes, but they do make it less likely that  normal human mistakes will turn into unbearable tragedies. They also function as redundant systems to help protect human lives when a mechanical device fails.

It is important to understand that a shooter can break every single one of the rules and still avoid injury or tragedy through sheer luck.

The gun that you expect to be empty might really be empty.

The unexpectedly-fired bullet might be stopped by a solid 2×4 stud in the wall instead of passing through sheetrock and empty space to hit the child sleeping on the other side.

The noise in the brush that the excited hunter shoots at might actually be a deer instead of another hunter.

Luck happens.


Luck happens.
But we never, ever count on luck.


Nor is luck the only factor. Because the basic rules are designed to work together and function as an interlocking safety net, even when a shooter breaks one rule, very often a different rule – or a remnant of one – can save that shooter’s bacon.

For instance, a person handling a gun might sometimes pull the trigger without first pointing the muzzle at a specific target with a solid backstop. This would, of course, break Rule Three. Perhaps they never realized that this rule applies to gunhandling at home as well as on the range. Maybe they “only” meant to take the gun apart or to check the trigger after they cleaned it, and did not think of Rule Three at all. In any case, the person did not choose a specific place for a bullet to land before they touched the trigger, which means they definitely broke Rule Three.

But the person who did this might still avoid an unintentional discharge because they did double-check the gun to be sure that it was truly empty (one possible implication of Rule One, although not the most important aspect of that rule).

Or they might unexpectedly fire the gun, but still avoid injury because they at least kept their own body parts away from the muzzle while they were handling it (a weakened form of Rule Two).

This means that even a single poorly-understood or poorly-followed rule can help prevent a tragedy. That’s the way the interlocking safety rules are designed to work.


Even a poorly-understood or poorly-followed rule
can help prevent a tragedy


This does not mean it is a smart idea to ignore any one of the rules simply because we intend to follow at least one of the others. It only means that people who try to follow the rules often avoid injury because the rules are so very redundant.

Understood completely and used properly, the gunhandling rules work together to create a strong safety net. Habitually breaking one of the rules means that the shooter’s safety net has a gaping hole in that particular spot. It means the shooter has decided to gamble that he will never make a single mistake within the area formerly covered by that rule.

Is this a safe gamble? I don’t think so!

As one of the shooters in my files admits, “In spite of having years of experience handling firearms, all it took was one moment of distraction for a near tragedy to occur.” In many of these cases, a single moment of distraction caused – or nearly caused – a tragedy simply because the person had in the past avoided the same unfortunate outcome only by repeated good luck.

When used as intended, the redundant and interlocking rules make it impossible for a single moment of inattention to cause any lasting harm. So as you will see in the collected stories when they are published, injuries and close calls happen most often when someone violates more than one of the rules.

This is why it is important to follow each rule, every time, even though they overlap. Even in circumstances where it might feel overly cautious to follow all of the rules all the time, the rules overlap for good reason.

When a person regularly breaks one rule, but has long avoided serious consequence by consciously and carefully following one of the other rules, this is the circumstance where a single moment of distraction can cause danger, injury, or death – because this is the exact condition under which the interlocking rules are no longer redundant and no longer protect against that single moment of inattention.

This is why “but it’s unloaded!” is the most foolish response of all, when someone calls out careless gunhandling for what it is: dangerous.

In the near future, I will be releasing an e-book that contains many of these incidents, along with some observations about what we can learn from the experiences of others. I hope it will be useful to you!


  1. I am still collecting these stories. If you would like to help, please send your story — along with as many details as you can recall and feel comfortable sharing — to pax at cornered cat dot com. Unless you prefer otherwise and clearly let me know, your contribution will be anonymous.

2 Responses to Unintentional Discharges Project – Part 2

  1. larryarnold says:

    Are the Four Rules actually enough to prevent negligent shots, or should firearms handling be hedged about with additional safety precautions over and above the Four Rules?

    Actually, I believe the Four Rules are part of the problem; or more specifically the First Rule.

    All guns are always loaded.

    This “First Rule” is not a rule. Rules come in two forms:
    Positive rules – “Do X.” Positive rules are almost always stronger than the alternative;
    Negative rules – “Do not do X.”

    “All guns are always loaded” is merely a statement. It does not tell students either to do or not to do anything. You (and others) acknowledge that by adding (Treat them so!) This converts the statement into sort of a rule.

    But it still doesn’t give any clear direction. I teach new shooters, and many of them are so new that they don’t know how to treat a loaded gun.

    And the First Rule raises the issue of whether the gun is loaded, when it really doesn’t matter. How should you treat a loaded gun? The same way you treat any gun.

    If the First Rule is Point the gun in a safe direction it’s simple to define “safe direction,” so even the never-touched-a-gun student knows exactly what to do.

    More importantly, they are learning to point the gun in a safe direction not because it might be loaded, but because it’s a gun.

    Loaded or unloaded, safety on or off, action open or closed, it’s still a gun; therefore keep it pointed in a safe direction, keep your finger off the trigger until ready to shoot, and make sure of your target and what’s around it.

    [/rant] Sorry.

  2. karlrehn says:

    I wrote a long blog post about the flaws in Cooper’s 4 rules, and even Rule #3 of the NRA ruleset. In truth only 2 rules are needed: muzzle direction and trigger finger. All other rules are a subset of those “lifestyle” rules, as Tom Givens refers to them.

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