WARNING: THIS IS NOT INTENDED TO BE INSTRUCTION IN THE
USE OF FIREARMS. OBTAIN FIREARMS INSTRUCTION ONLY FROM A
Since there is always concern outside the shooting community about gun accidents and safety, it's a good idea to know what the commonly accepted safety rules are. Also, while this article won't teach you marksmanship, you're better off knowing this material than not.
If all your knowledge of firearms comes from the popular media, everything you know is wrong. Wipe it out of your mind and we'll start from scratch.
Even if you do not own a gun, there's a good chance that your children will encounter one someday. Your children's friends might live in homes with guns, or your children might find one that a criminal has discarded. There are about 200 million firearms in the U.S., so some sort of encounter is almost inevitable.
To prepare for this, the Eddie Eagle Gun Safety Program suggests you teach your children these steps to follow when encountering a gun:
Eddie Eagle instructional materials are made available to schools, law enforcement agencies, and affiliated groups free of charge. For more information about the Eddie Eagle program, call (800) 231-0752.
See the last section for more information about children and gun safety.
These rules are valid whether you are hunting deer, practicing your target shooting, or confronting an intruder.
(Every organization and person who teaches firearms safety has these rules organized a little bit differently. This is how I prefer to do it.)
Let's elaborate on those rules a bit...
This means you should NEVER relax the amount of care with which you handle a gun just because it's not loaded. Always handle an empty gun with as much care as a loaded one.
There are three reasons for this rule. First, you could be wrong. The gun could be loaded. Maybe you just forgot to unload it, or maybe you forgot that you loaded it. Maybe you missed one of the cartridges when unloading. Maybe someone else messed with the gun when you weren't looking. Maybe you've picked up the wrong gun. There are lots of ways that the gun could be loaded without your knowing it.
Second, unsafe handling is a bad habit. Once you begin to do something unsafe with an empty gun, you will eventually screw up and do it with a loaded gun.
Third, people around you won't know the gun is unloaded. In fact, if they know to treat all guns as loaded, they will naturally assume yours is loaded. At the very least, you will frighten them. At worst, they will do something drastic in reaction to a perceived life-threatening situation. In particular, they might shoot you first.
Violations of this rule have lead to many of the most tragic and avoidable gun accidents.
Although there are lots of things that you probably don't want to destroy---walls, windows, furniture, appliances, pets---the most important point is that you shouldn't aim your gun at people. Don't point your gun in the general direction of people. Don't point your gun at objects with people in or behind them. Keep the gun pointed in a safe direction (usually straight up or straight down) at all times.
Aside from the obvious danger of an accident, pointing your gun at someone is rude and often a crime. Also, as already mentioned, the other person might shoot you first.
To elaborate on this, it is rude to even face a person while holding a gun by its grip. The difference between pointing a gun down and pointing it forward is 1/10 of a second, which no one's reflexes can beat. Thus you are forcing that person to make a choice: Either trust you with their life or draw and fire immediately. It is rude to force that choice on another person. It is also deadly dangerous. Above all, never ever face or approach a police officer with a gun in your hand. They will shoot you. [J.H.]
Obviously, in a self defense situation, you might end up pointing your gun at a person; but you should do so only if that person's destruction is a consequence you are willing to face.
Note: In some circumstances, particularly in urban settings, there are no safe directions. Don't handle guns in those situations.
The trigger is for firing the gun, not for resting your trigger finger between shots. You can rest your finger on the trigger guard or on the body of the gun just above the trigger---this is known as the "index position." Moving your finger to the trigger is such a small movement that it won't slow you down no matter how badly you need to fire.
If your finger is resting on the trigger, it's too easy to fire the gun accidentally. A sudden loud noise could startle you, or you could trip and fall, or run into something. [M.D.] Simple tension in a high stress situation can cause you to tighten the muscles in your hand without being aware of it. [J.H.]
If you don't know what your bullet will be hitting, don't pull the trigger.
Keep in mind that your bullet may miss or pass through your intended target and hit another one. Also, watch out for ricochets off of hard, flat surfaces or even off of the flat surface of a pool of water. (Bullets will skip off of water just like stones.)
The first question that gets asked at a police shooting investigation is "What was your backstop?" The answer had better not be "A school full of children" if the officer wants to keep his job. [J.H.]
If you hunt, make sure you can see the animal in your sites when you shoot. A rustling in the bushes is not good enough, it could be anything from a fellow hunter to a couple of kids making out. This is especially tricky when your brain is telling you you're seeing more than you really are. If you see a deer dart into some bushes, your brain will match the rustling of the leaves with the deer's last visible motion and tell you where the deer is, almost as if you could see it. The problem is that you can't tell what else is in the bushes.
In a defense situation, the same rule applies. Shooting through doors or at shadows and sounds is a good way to hit an innocent person. You wouldn't want to shoot your child for sneaking into the house after being out too late, or your spouse for eating a midnight snack. Always identify your target.
This usually means keeping your gun unloaded when you're not using it. Obviously, if you expect trouble at any moment, your gun should be loaded and ready. On the other hand, you shouldn't leave a loaded gun around the house if it isn't for self defense.
If you're at the shooting range, keep the action open until just before you start shooting so other shooters can clearly see that your gun is safe.
If you're out hunting, keep the gun unloaded until you get to the hunting area. Keep the firing chamber empty until you need to load it, and the action open until you're ready to shoot. (Obviously, for some types of game, the gun has to be ready at all times).
A gun in your hand is your responsibility. Never take someone else's word that it's unloaded (or loaded). [J.H.]
On a revolver, simply pop out the cylinder. If it's loaded, just eject the cartridges. This is a little trickier on a magazine-fed gun. If the magazine is removable, take it out. If the magazine is fixed, check it and empty it. Then open the action to empty the firing chamber. (Some revolvers don't have a cylinder that pops out, so you have to unload the gun through a loading gate.)
If someone offers you a gun that you are unfamiliar with, don't be afraid to ask how it works.
This is a very good habit to get into. Get religious about it. Check every time you pick up a gun, every time you hand a gun to someone else, and every time someone hands you a gun. Check even if you see the other person check it first. Don't worry that the other person will feel insulted: Experienced shooters will appreciate that you are concerned with safety---both yours and theirs.
Most firing ranges have a rule against handing a loaded gun to another person. It's a good rule to follow at any time. The polite way to hand a gun to another person is unloaded, with the action open, barrel pointed down and trigger towards them.
In a combat situation, of course, you should still check the gun, but this time to make sure it's loaded. [J.H.]
It's hard to use gun safely if you don't know to use it at all. If you don't know how a particular gun works, read the manual, ask the person you got it from, write the manufacturer for a manual, or seek the advice of an expert.
Most gun manufacturers will be delighted to send you a free manual for your gun if they made it. It's a lot cheaper than fighting a law suit after you do something stupid. [J.H.]
Regular cleaning and proper storage are necessary for safe operation. If you are unsure about a gun, have it inspected by a gunsmith.
The wrong type of ammunition can cause all kinds of problems, some of them fatal. Just because the ammunition fits in the gun doesn't mean it's right for the gun. Ammunition with extra powder (often labeled "+P" or "+P+") can blow up the gun. Ammunition that is too small can result in the cartridge sliding out of the firing chamber and into the barrel. If a correct round is then loaded and fired, the obstructed barrel could blow up the gun.
The correct type of ammunition is usually printed on the side of the gun. You can also get this information from the manual, from the manufacturer, or from an expert.
Always store ammunition in the original boxes, because it's hard to tell the cartridges apart once they're out of the box. Also, don't carry more than one type of ammunition, especially if they look enough alike that you could easily confuse them. (E.g. carrying .22 LR and .410 shells is okay, but don't carry both 12-gauge and 16-gauge shells.)
Gunfire always involves fire and smoke, which can harm the eyes. In addition, autoloading guns are also auto-ejecting, and the ejected casings can bounce back into your eyes. Finally, a shot into a nearby object can produce splinters and other flying debris.
It's important to wear glasses that wrap around the sides or have protective side pieces. You should also wear a hat with a brim that comes down to the top of your glasses to prevent flying shell casings from lodging behind them. ("Deadeye" isn't a romantic nickname when it applies to you). [J.H.]
Hearing damage is cumulative. Firing a few shots without ear protection probably won't hurt you, but continual exposure to gunfire will eventually cause nerve damage and deafness. (Lots of old-time shooters are nearly deaf from shooting without protection.)
Hearing protection comes in two general flavors: exterior (muffs) and interior (plugs). Plugs may be adequate for outdoor ranges. Muffs are essential at indoor ranges. Indoors, the overpressure from firing the gun has nowhere to go and is reflected back at you from the walls. It can be conducted to your inner ear through the mastoid bone and do damage even though you don't feel anything. You should probably use both muffs and plugs simultaneously and always get the highest rated ones you can find (typically 29 db for muffs and 30+ for plugs). [J.H.]
If you pull the trigger and the gun doesn't fire, there could be several reasons. It may not be loaded, or it may not have fed the ammunition from the magazine after the last shot. If the cartridge is loaded okay, it might simply be a bad round that doesn't fire---a misfire. Finally, it could be a hangfire, a round that fires slow.
Since you can't tell without examining the round, and since a hangfire going off while you're looking at it would be dangerous, it's best to just hold the gun pointing at the target for at least 30 seconds. If it doesn't go off, you can begin to investigate.
A squib round is one that has a weak powder charge. The bullet could easily get stuck in the barrel. If this happens, the report will be quiet and the recoil will feel funny. You should immediately unload the gun and inspect the barrel and firing chamber(s) for a stuck bullet. You may want to have a gunsmith examine the gun before you begin firing again.
See below for more information about children and guns.
A magazine-fed pistol, rifle, or shotgun loads the firing chamber from the magazine every time the bolt, slide or pump mechanism is operated. If you're not paying attention, you could accidentally load the chamber. An autoloader requires even more care because it will keep the chamber continuously loaded until the weapon runs out of ammunition---you don't have to do anything.
This can present a hazard when you try to unload the gun. Simply removing the magazine (or unloading a non-removable magazine) is not good enough because there could be a round in the firing chamber. You have to cycle the loading mechanism to get it out of there. However, if you cycle the mechanism before removing (or unloading) the magazine, you will simply load another round to replace the one you ejected.
The solution is to remove (or empty) the magazine first, then cycle the loading mechanism to eject the loaded round. With no cartridges in the magazine, the firing chamber will not be reloaded.
Accidentally loading the chamber is probably the single most common cause of accidental discharges: You want to show someone your gun, or you want to check the trigger pull to see if it's smooth enough, so you cycle the slide to eject the round from the chamber, then remove the magazine. Now you check the trigger with a careful tug and BLAM! Where'd that come from? Of course, if you were being careful where you were pointing the gun then there's no harm done except to your ego and your reputation.
The old adage "alcohol and gunpowder never mix" is as true today as ever.
A "safety" is a mechanism on a gun designed to prevent the gun from firing. Since keeping your finger off the trigger also prevents the gun from firing, safeties are mostly intended to prevent accidents if the gun is dropped or snagged on something.
(Note: Most long guns are not drop safe, regardless of safeties. In most cases long gun safeties only block the trigger. They do not block the firing pin or even the hammer.) [J.H.]
In gun training circles, the subject of safeties is a bit controversial. Instructors are concerned that students may attempt to use the safety as a substitute for safe handling practices. Consequently, many safety courses never even mention them.
The consensus seems to be that if your gun has safety mechanisms, you should learn how they work, and you should use them whenever possible, in keeping with the idea of minimal readiness.
However, a safety is a mechanical device and any mechanical device can fail. Use them, but never depend on them.
Keep in mind that even the best safety mechanism is not as safe as unloading the gun; and since you shouldn't relax your safe handling with an unloaded gun you certainly shouldn't be any less careful with a loaded gun that has the safety on. In particular, don't assume that it's okay to pull the trigger or violate any of the other safety rules just because the safety is on.
Airguns, paint guns, and dart guns aren't firearms, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't follow the safety rules with them too.
First of all, they do fire projectiles which could hurt people under the wrong circumstances.
Second, some of these guns look enough like real firearms to frighten people into thinking you are dangerous. This is definitely rude, possibly illegal, and sometimes dangerous---people might take drastic actions such as jumping out of window to avoid you or trying to shoot you first.
Third, you can pick up bad habits this way.
Obviously, you have to make adjustments. For example, the whole point of having paint guns is that you and your friends can play with them and shoot each other. Still, it's good practice to treat these guns like real firearms by following all the safety rules (finger off the trigger, muzzle pointed in a safe direction, unload when not in use, etc.) except when it is necessary to shoot a participant in the game.
Be cautious and thoughtful about who you loan your guns to and the circumstances under which you loan them. (State laws may also apply). [J.H.]
Even if you cannot be held liable in your state, you don't want the burden of guilt that comes with someone getting killed with a gun you were responsible for.
It is your responsibility to learn these rules.
If you're thinking of mixing children and guns in the same household, there are a few things you should know.
Hiding your gun is a good idea, but not good enough. Kids like to explore and find new things, so hiding your gun is of limited benefit. A child may very well go through all of the drawers and cabinets in the house. Putting the gun out of reach only works until your kid learns to climb or use a ladder or stepping-stool. (Don't think your kids don't climb on the furniture just because you've never seen 'em do it.)
Don't make the mistake of thinking your child is too weak to use the gun. Large autoloading pistols will have strong slide springs that even many adults find difficult to work, so you may be tempted to leave the chamber of a gun empty on the assumption that your child won't be able to load it. Also, there are gun locks that use a strong spring or rubber band to hold the gun, on the theory that only adults will be strong enough to release the gun. Both these methods are insecure against any child larger than an infant. Your child can probably find some way to put his entire weight on the slide or the lock, usually by carrying it to a stairstep and standing on it.
Basically, if your child-proofing mechanism depends on your child's lack of height, strength, or intellect and your child is beyond infancy, it's not good enough. Children spend many years being small and weak, and they learn lots of ways to compensate. They also have a lot of spare time to figure things out. Your children can probably defeat any mechanism you can. Thus, the only effective child-proofing methods are those that also work against unauthorized adults. You need real security.
Gun stores and gun magazines have lots of useful security products for sale. A trigger lock will be good enough for most people (but never use one on a loaded gun). There are also locks which extend a long rod down the barrel or which go through the action. One of those plastic-coated bicycle locking cables can be threaded through the receiver and out the ejection port of many magazine-fed guns. You could even take the gun apart and put a padlock through a hole in one of the important pieces to prevent reassembly.
If you want protection from damage during transportation, you should purchase a lockable gun case. You could also invest in a gun safe. This would offer protection against theft, and it would allow you to store a self-defense gun loaded and ready.
Locks with multiple wheel combination mechanisms should have at least five wheels. More is better. Unfortunately many come with only three. This may fulfill the letter of the law in some states, but it is not secure. They can be opened in 10 minutes, on average, simply by systematically trying every possible combination (there are only 1000). [J.H.]
One weakness in this whole approach is that it only keeps your children from mishandling your guns. If your child finds a gun on the street, or discovers one at a friends house, all of your gun locks won't help. A different approach must be used. You need to "gun-proof" your child.
The idea is similar to the approach many parents use when they are concerned about their children's exposure to sex, AIDS, drugs, or any other issue with an important moral dimension. Children have a better chance of getting it right if their parents teach them than if they learn from television or from their peers. You need to talk to your children about what's important, about your values.
When your children are young, teach them what to do when they encounter a gun: Stop! Don't touch. Leave the area. Tell an adult. (The Eddie Eagle materials mentioned earlier may be useful here.)
If your children play with toy guns, begin teaching them the safety rules right from the start. If they learn to handle the toys safely, they'll be less likely to do something disastrous when they get their hands on the real thing. Help them form good gun safety habits.
When your children get a little older, they may become curious about real guns, especially if they've seen you with one. Answer your child's questions about guns. When you're watching television, point out unsafe gun handling and other mistakes.
It would be best if you satisfied their curiousity before they try to satisfy it themselves. Unload the gun and let them handle it. Remind them of the safety rules. Show them how it works. (If you think you can get away with it, teach them to clean it for you.) Just make it clear that they're not to touch the guns without your supervision.
Try taking them shooting. Even a very young child can shoot safely if you are always standing right behind him or her. It's not too unusual to see 7-year-old children shooting with their parents. Again, make sure they follow the rules and show them proper shooting behavior. You might want to find a place where you can shoot up a few melons or gallon water jugs. It's fun, and it's a graphic illustration of why guns are not toys.
There's always the chance that shooting will turn into a fun family hobby. Chances are, however, that your children---especially if young---will find shooting to be loud and scary, or more likely, loud and boring. Oh well, at least you've got a child who knows about gun safety, who isn't dangerously curious about guns, and who isn't likely to do something stupid.
If you don't feel comfortable training your own kids to shoot, there are plenty of instructors available. Contact the NRA for a list of instructors in your area, or call a local gun club or gun shop.