The Safety Rules.

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A reader alerted me to this thread over at GlockTalk, where yet another debate about the first of Jeff Cooper’s “Four Rules of Gun Safety” is raging. Specifically, the argument centers on the allowable “exceptions” to Rule #1: “All guns are always loaded” (or, alternatively, “Treat all guns as if they were loaded.” Cooper himself said “All guns are always loaded. Even if they are not, treat them as if they are.” That comes directly from an article he wrote in 2003.)

I feel entitled to comment, inasmuch as the observance of said rule by gunsmiths has been invoked as one of the “exceptions.” I take exception to that exception, and in fact take exception to the very notion of exceptions! Allow me to explain, and perhaps start some exceptional controversy of my own.

To be blunt: I don’t like Rule #1. In fact, I believe that it is not just unnecessary, but that it actually sets people up to have accidents. I don’t believe it makes anyone safer – I contend that it has the opposite effect.

It boils down to this: people do stupid things with guns that they perceive are unloaded. (Re-read that line, focusing on the word “perceive.”) Once people have convinced themselves that a gun is unloaded, they treat it differently. That is where accidents occur.

The trouble with Rule #1 is that it encourages such shoddy behavior.

Follow me here: “treat all guns as if they were loaded” tacitly admits that there are, in fact, two states for a firearm – loaded and unloaded. If there were not an unloaded state, it would not be necessary to admonish someone to treat a gun “as if” it were in the loaded state, would it? If unloaded guns did not exist, the statement would make no sense. Therefore, the phrase itself establishes that there exists such a thing as an unloaded gun. Clear so far?

While Rule #1 logically admits that there is such a thing as an unloaded gun, it asks us to pretend that it doesn’t really exist. This is important, as the rule only makes sense if the state of being ‘unloaded’ exists, but it implores us to make believe that such a state doesn’t really exist. This situation is called cognitive dissonance: holding two contradictory beliefs simultaneously. It’s a state of mind that humans don’t tolerate all that well.

If one accepts the fallacy that an unloaded state doesn’t exist, it becomes clear in the mind that the remaining three rules apply only to loaded guns. After all, the first rule says that there is no such thing as an unloaded gun; therefore, the other three rules can apply only to loaded guns, because – remember! – unloaded guns “don’t exist.”

Here’s where that cognitive dissonance thing comes back to bite us. The human mind cannot maintain two contradictory concepts (“there is such a thing as an unloaded gun, but it doesn’t exist because all guns are always loaded”) without resolving them in some fashion. The way that most (if not all) people apparently resolve this is to apply the rules to all guns, unless they’ve convinced themselves that the gun in question isn’t loaded.

In other words, to resolve the logical conflict that Rule #1 establishes, the mind translates it to say “treat all guns as if they are loaded, unless you’ve verified that they aren’t.” The other three rules are tossed right out the window, because they obviously don’t apply to unloaded guns! A statement that everyone knows is untrue, which this is, will simply be ignored.

See how this comes about? If not, re-read the preceding paragraphs.

That, gentle readers, is the crux of the problem! The sad side of Rule #1 is that it implies once you’ve verified a gun is unloaded, the rest of the rules don’t apply to it; you may handle it differently. That’s when the accidents come, and is why I say that people do stupid things with guns that they think are unloaded.

Proof? Easy: it is axiomatic that all gun accidents occur with unloaded guns. Those are guns that people had convinced themselves were not in the loaded state, and therefore didn’t fall under the rest of the rules. No matter what the experience or training level of the person involved, “I thought it was unloaded” is the first excuse out of their mouths when something bad happens.

Need more? Here’s an interactive proof: go into any gun store, and watch as customers (and often the counter clerks) sweep muzzles over everyone in the store. Now complain to a clerk about the shoddy practice; I guarantee the first thing you’ll hear from his or her mouth is “don’t worry, it’s not loaded.”

Still not convinced? Ask Massad Ayoob to tell you the tragic story of a well regarded and highly experienced competition shooter who accidentally killed his wife – with an “unloaded” gun, of course. My contention is that he followed Rule #1 like most people, but that its logical failings caused him to treat the gun differently because he was sure it was unloaded. The result was sadly inevitable.

This is why the forum debate runs so many pages, and ultimately devolves into the attitude “of course, Rule #1 doesn’t apply to experienced shooters, who understand what the exceptions are.” I’m sorry, folks, but I believe that any safety rule that implies or encourages “exceptions” – experienced operator or no – is a “rule” that should be looked at with a great deal of skepticism.

One of the best shooting instructors I know – Georges Rahbani – has done just that. He acknowledged the problem and dealt with the issue by eliminating what I’ll call “Traditional Rule #1” from his curriculum. Instead, he teaches that any and all guns, loaded or unloaded, are treated to the same standards, which he calls The Three Commandments of Gun Safety:

Never point a gun – any gun, loaded or unloaded – at anything you are not willing to shoot.

Keep your finger out of the triggerguard until you are ready to fire.

Know where your bullets will land and what they’ll touch along the way.


There are no exceptions, and thus less chance for the accidents that usually result from them.

The big difference between his rules and Cooper’s is that if you forget everything except the first one, you’ll still be safe. With Cooper’s rules, if you forget all the others accidents will still happen and people will still get hurt. The goal of gun rules should be to prevent injury or death, to the shooter or others; if one follows these rules, whether the gun is loaded or not, it will reduce that risk to the lowest probability.

As you might guess, in my line of work the chances of a negligent discharge are somewhat higher than usual. Consequently, my interest in the safety rules is higher than usual! The online debate mentions that gunsmiths must, out of necessity, violate the Traditional Rule #1 and thus don’t need to follow the other rules.

Not in MY shop, bunky!

I follow the Three Rules as codified above. I don’t point a gun (any assembly capable of igniting a cartridge) at anything I’m not willing to shoot. That means, in my case, a solid concrete wall in the back of my hillside shop. Because of that, I know what my target is, and what the backstop is. Finally, I don’t put my finger into the triggerguard until my sights are on target (the gun is pointing at that backstop.) Yes, all the time and every time; I’m rather fond of my various body parts, and desire to retain them in full operating condition!

I think that’s enough pot-stirring for one day. Next time, we’ll see how an ancient religious principle can help to reinforce the constant observance of the safety rules.

-=[ Grant ]=-


UPDATE: In the years since this was written, Georges and I have both separately refined our approach to safety rules. As of this editing (December 2014) I teach the following:

– Always keep the muzzle pointed in a generally safe direction as much as possible (“generally safe” meaning that, should the gun discharge, it will not injure anyone.)

– Always keep your finger someplace other than the trigger unless you’re actually shooting (which I teach as “extended on the frame above the trigger.)

– Always remember that the device in your possession is, if used negligently or carelessly, capable of killing you or someone else. (Takes care of all the other things like “make sure you know where your bullets are going, be sure of your target, etc.)



About the Author:

Grant Cunningham is a renowned author and teacher in the fields of self defense, defensive shooting education and personal safety. He’s written several popular books on handguns and defensive shooting, including "The Book of the Revolver", "Shooter’s Guide To Handguns", "Defensive Revolver Fundamentals", "Defensive Pistol Fundamentals", and "Practice Strategies for Defensive Shooting" (Fall 2015.) Grant has also written articles on shooting, self defense, training and teaching for many magazines and shooting websites, including Concealed Carry Magazine, Gun Digest Magazine, the Association of Defensive Shooting Instructors ADSI) and the popular Personal Defense Network training website. He’s produced a DVD in the National Rifle Association’s Personal Firearm Defense series titled "Defensive Revolver Fundamentals" and teaches defensive shooting and personal safety courses all over the United States.
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