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Unprepared's Gun Safety Basics
A quick and dirty guide to owning guns without unnecessarily endangering others or going to prison.
People keep asking me to do more gun posts, but the problem is every time I start working on one, a high-profile mass shooting happens that makes me hold off. But it’s a topic we need to discuss, especially since some of y’all are being really stupid about firearms.
There have been several high-profile stories lately of “shoot first, ask questions later” incidents. A meteorologist grabbing a gun because a kid rang his doorbell. Two cheerleaders shot because one got into the wrong car. A man shooting at another man because he was fishing.
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This behavior is, quite frankly, deranged, and threatens the gun rights of the rest of us who aren’t going around acting like psychopaths. Of course, we’ve already discussed many times how people in general seem to be losing their grip, but I’ll try to address the handful of people still out there who haven’t totally lost it.
I suspect that part of the problem is constitutional carry, which allows law-abiding adults over 21 to carry without a license in certain states. While I agree with the principle of it, the problem is that the carry classes for handgun permits are genuinely useful for teaching gun owners the rules of engagement and what to do if they have to use a weapon. I highly recommend taking a course even if you don’t have to.
Let’s talk about some basic gun safety measures and considerations for using firearms. I’m not a lawyer or a firearm instructor, and I urge you to seek expert advice for your area. This is largely common-sense stuff that I learned in my state’s hunter safety course and handgun permit class.
The Basic Rules of Gun Safety
There are many simple rules of gun safety, and the reason to have so many rules is because we’re humans who make mistakes. We all break some of these rules at times, whether we admit it or not—accidentally muzzle-sweeping others, picking up an “empty” gun only to find out it’s loaded, etc. And a negligent discharge—in which you fire a gun when you don’t intend to—can be catastrophic.
So we have multiple-overlapping rules to prevent unintended injuries and fatalities.
Rule 0: Know How the Gun Works
Before you start messing with a gun, you should understand the basics of how it works. You don’t have to understand every single part, but you should know:
How to load it.
How to unload it.
How to cock and uncock it.
How to check if a round is chambered.
Whether it has a manual safety and how it works.
How to safely clear a jam.
Years ago, a friend of ours got nervous while her husband was gone on a business trip and she grabbed his pistol and loaded it. But then later, she didn’t know how to unload it, so she put it up on a high shelf. Not the worst way to handle that situation, but obviously not ideal.
There are many ways to learns the ins and outs of a firearm: ask someone at a gun store to show you, watch a video on YouTube, or read the manual. Ideally, do all three.
I usually recommend buying popular firearm models, and one of the many reasons is because it’s easy to find information on them. A Glock is going to have many more educational resources than some random Eastern European pistol.
Rule 1: Always Assume the Gun is Loaded
When you pick up a firearm, always assume it’s loaded unless you have checked it yourself. That goes beyond just making sure a magazine isn’t inserted: you must check the action on the gun to make sure a round isn't in the chamber. How you do that depends on the gun. For semiautomatic pistols, that means pulling back the slide.
If you do not know how to do this with your gun, you don’t know how to use it. Read the instruction manual, look it up on YouTube, or visit a gun store and have someone show you.
Rule 2: Never Point a Gun at Something Unless You Intend to Destroy It
This is easier said than done. It’s all too easy to “muzzle sweep” another person, which means briefly pointing the barrel at them while moving the gun into another position. Avoiding muzzle sweeps requires constant thought and attention. The fringe benefit is that if you focus on this rule, you won’t carry a gun thoughtlessly.
And yes, this rule applies even if the gun is empty. Why? Because it’s important to engrain the habit. Again, we want overlapping safeguards to account for human error.
Rule 3: Keep Your Finger Off the Trigger Until You’re Ready to Fire
As Marine grunts like to say, “Keep your booger hook off the boom switch.” In the case of quality modern firearms, they will not fire unless the trigger is pulled. If your finger is not on the trigger, it can’t accidentally fire. This requires developing what’s called “trigger discipline,” which means keeping your finger straight outside the trigger guard. To develop a habit of this, practice it with everything you hold that has a trigger, whether it’s a Nerf gun or a squirt bottle.
Rule 4: Always Be Aware of the Target, What’s Around the Target, and What’s Behind the Target
Once you pull the trigger, you are responsible for the entire path of that bullet. If you shoot an attacker and the bullet goes through and hits an innocent person, you are responsible for that. If you shoot a bullet straight up into the air and it lands in a kid’s skull, you are responsible for that. If you shoot at a pit bull, miss, and hit an innocent bystander, you are responsible for that.
When target shooting, it’s key to have a backstop behind the target that will stop the bullet. A hill or mound of dirt is perfect. Oftentimes, rural folks in the woods don’t consider backstops because there are enough trees to usually stop a bullet, but you don’t want to rely on that.
For your carry pistol, you always want to use hollow-point ammo when carrying. It expands after hitting the target, which does more damage, but more importantly, stops or slows down the bullet so it doesn’t just tear through the target and keep going.
You also need to always be aware of the field of fire, which is the 180° area in front of you. In plain English, if you can see it, you may accidentally hit it.
Also be aware of what direction the shell casing is ejected from. It comes out hot and can cause burns. When I take my oldest son shooting, I always have him stand slightly behind me and to my left. That keeps him out of my field of fire and away from the shell casings, which are ejected to the right.
Other Safety Considerations
There are a couple of other safety things to keep in mind.
Always Wear Ear and Eye Protection when Shooting
Have you ever shot a gun without hearing protection? You know that loud ringing in your ear? That’s some of your hearing permanently being blown to bits.
Broadly speaking, there are two types of hearing protection: ear muffs and ear plugs. I vastly prefer earmuffs, because I’ve never found a set of plugs that don’t make my ears ring.
I also highly recommend electronic muffs. They have a built-in microphone that pipes ambient sound into your ears and shuts out loud noises like gunshots. This way, you’re not audibly isolated from your surroundings while you have the muffs on, and you can even use them while hunting or in defensive situations.
And of course, make sure to buy something rated for gunfire. Don’t stick AirPods in your ears and start blasting.
You also want shooting glasses to keep things like shrapnel, hot shell casings, and bullet fragments out of your eyes. I’m stuck wearing glasses anyway, so I often just roll with that, but that’s probably stupid.
Wash Your Hands after Handling Ammo!
Bullets are made from lead. Lead is bad. Wash your hands after handling guns and ammo. If you spend a lot of time in indoor shooting ranges, you may want some special wipes or even a respirator to avoid breathing in lead fumes.
You need a safe place to store your guns, whether in your home, on your person, or in your vehicle to discourage theft and unauthorized use.
The gold standard for home storage is a gun safe, especially the big, heavy, expensive ones. But realistically, most people don’t have budget or space for those. A cheaper one, like from Harbor Freight, is fine for keeping kids out of the guns.
A few guidelines:
Buy one with a bit more capacity than what you need.
Bolt it to the floor so thieves can’t just carry the safe out and disassemble it at their leisure. It’s best to figure out how to do this yourself so outsides don’t know where your gun stash is.
It’s ideal to install it in a closet or other concealed area so as to not draw attention.
Don’t talk to others about your guns.
You might buy a small safe to store things like handguns. Be aware that many of these small safes can be opened by simply banging on the top. I have a solution: bolt it to a nightstand with a shelf directly overhead so the top can’t be struck.
Don’t keep guns in your car, that’s how they get stolen. On the occasions when you have to stash a gun in your car, put it in a lockbox hidden somewhere in the trunk.
When storing a handgun on your person, you need a holster. Besides holding your gun, the main function of a holster is to keep you from accidentally pulling the trigger.
A few requirements:
The holster must completely cover the trigger.
The holster should be hard and not squishy, because you don’t want to squish the trigger.
The holster should be made specifically for your model of pistol for a tight fit.
There are a lot of debates about brands, styles of carry, etc., but the main thing here is that the holster keeps your booger hook off the boom switch.
Safariland is a respectable brand, but even then you have to be careful. I purchased a Glock 19 holster designed to accommodate a weapon light, only to discover that the well was wide enough that I could slip in a finger and pull the trigger.
Instant deal killer. Yeah, I probably wouldn’t do that accidentally myself, but what if I fell asleep wearing the gun and one of my kids starting feeling around in the holster? Yeah, that shouldn’t happen, but again, we must always account for human error. Remember Murphy’s law: if it can go wrong, it will go wrong.
Rules of Engagement
I’m not a lawyer, and self-defense laws can vary greatly by jurisdiction, but it really should go without saying that you can’t pull out a gun and start blasting because someone looks at you funny.
Merely drawing your gun from your holster could get you slapped with a felony, much less aiming it at someone else or firing it.
A good question to ask before drawing: Is this worth prison time? As in, if you’re sitting in a jail cell when all is said and done, you at least know that if you had done nothing, you’d be dead. If you ain’t scared of jail, maybe ask instead, Is this worth being sued? or even Is this worth being hounded by an angry mob and being made unemployable?
Because even if you think the law is in your favor, a judge and jury might disagree. And even if you’re legally vindicated, your life could otherwise be ruined: broke from legal fees, abandoned by those closest to you, and fed to the wolves of the media and public opinion. George Zimmerman and Kyle Rittenhouse are two key exhibits there.
It’s really worth avoiding using a firearm if you can help it. That’s why I also recommend carrying pepper spray.
I’ll offer some general guidelines, but I strongly encourage you to take a handgun course in your state and get the practical ins and out of the law as it applies to your state.
Some general guidelines:
The gold standard for self-defense is being able to say truthfully, “I was afraid for my life.” If the person you shoot is armed, that’s going to be a stronger case. If they’re unarmed, that’s a tougher sell, but if the other party has a significant size and strength advantage or you already have significant injuries, you may have a case.
The legal system often rules against people who act in self-defense after agitating the other party. It pays to attempt de-escalation. “A soft answer turneth away wrath.”
A good practice when a situation is escalating is to start backing up. This not only puts you in a better tactical position, it also helps to deescalate. Doubly so if you hold your non-dominant hand out (as if to say “stop”) as you ready your draw hand, which sends a clear warning.
You can’t just shoot somebody for trespassing or stealing your stuff. However, if you live in a “castle doctrine” state, you may have every legal right to blast anyone who steps into your home or vehicle uninvited. However, that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.
Likewise, don’t shoot someone who’s running away from you.
It is to your benefit to not get involved in other people’s business. The law does not look kindly on vigilantes and you’re often embroiling yourself into a world of trouble with no clear upside. Of course, I find that people are going to do what their own sense of honor and morality dictates, but do understand that you may face dire consequences.
Don’t shoot at anyone or anything you cannot identify. It’s a good practice to pair a flashlight with your gun.
Avoid stupid people and stupid situations if you can help it. That probably applies even more when you’re carrying a gun.
Any time you use a firearm against another person, you are rolling the dice with the justice system, and I strongly encourage you to avoid needing to deal with the justice system if you can help it.
I’ll leave you with one final thought: when you carry a gun, you carry a grave responsibility. You need to be more aware of what’s going on around you. You need to be careful that your words and actions don’t inflame others. You need to stay sober (and this is probably the law where you live).
Carrying a gun shouldn’t make your head swell. On the contrary, it should be a sobering remind of the incredible responsibility that has been entrusted to you.
Unprepared is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.