There’s a humongous donnybrook on a post on our Facebook page about the Rules of Firearms Safety, with people questioning everything from my training to my intelligence to my parentage to my species because of the formulation of the Rules of Safe Firearms Handling I included in the post. Let’s clear up some of the fracas and explain the two major systems of understanding and articulating the Rules, and why I prefer the NRA articulation of the Rules to Jeff Cooper’s. Hopefully this helps the brouhaha turn into a meaningful discussion.
Allow me to preface this discussion with a touch of background on this one. I was taught safe firearms handling by two USMC-veteran grandfathers (one of whom served under Chesty Puller in the 1st Marine Division and was wounded in the assault on Pelileu) and by my pop who was a Recon Marine in Vietnam (3/3, first full platoon on the ground in country, for anyone keeping score at home) Let’s just say that these three men pounded Col Cooper’s Rules into my head from a very early age. I have no ill will toward the Colonel’s Rules and respect them. I just don’t think they’re the best articulation of the rules.
With that said, let’s examine the Rules.
RULE II: NEVER LET THE MUZZLE COVER ANYTHING YOU ARE NOT WILLING TO DESTROY
RULE III: KEEP YOUR FINGER OFF THE TRIGGER UNTIL YOUR SIGHTS ARE ON THE TARGET (some add, and you have made the decision to shoot)
RULE IV: BE SURE OF YOUR TARGET (some add, and what is beyond it)
The core of the Colonel’s official articulation is in caps. The additions are in parentheses.
The NRA Rules:
Rule 2: ALWAYS keep your finger off the trigger until ready to shoot.
Rule 3: ALWAYS keep the gun unloaded until ready to use.
While I certainly respect Colonel Cooper as the father of the modern pistol technique, I think his articulation of the Rules has weathered with age a bit, and as one of the most important martial arts figures in my life, Ed Parker, said, “An ounce of logic can be worth more than a ton of tradition that has become obsolete through the weathering of time.” Let’s analyze each of Cooper’s Four Rules and see why I don’t think they’re the best formulation:
1) ALL GUNS ARE ALWAYS LOADED. No they’re not, but I am not so brain damaged that I can’t see that he means to treat every firearm as if it is loaded. Okay, fine. But the very fact that guns AREN’T loaded all the time and can be checked unloaded all the time makes this one poorly worded. The NRA formulation (ALWAYS keep the muzzle pointed in a safe direction) is clearer, easier, and has no natural point of ignoring it. The low level of awareness of too many people leads them to ignore the rest of the rules when the gun is supposedly “unloaded” because it’s fine, right? We know better, but once this one is thrown out mentally people do more stupid things.
2) NEVER LET THE MUZZLE COVER ANYTHING YOU ARE NOT PREPARED TO DESTROY. Certainly it’s good to think about what we’re pointing a firearm at, but this one is again poorly worded and in a practical sense constantly ignored. When you handle a firearm, you’re going to muzzle lots of stuff you don’t want to destroy. I was dry firing today and pointing my muzzle at my safe, which I do not want to destroy. However, the gun was pointed in a safe direction! (see what I did there?) When you pick the gun up it is pointed at desk and chair and bed. Hopefully it’s never pointed at your hand! It’s far simpler to say ALWAYS keep the firearm pointed in a safe direction, and then define a safe direction as that which would hurt no innocent people and would cause minimum property damage if the gun went off unintentionally. I get that the heart here is “Don’t point the gun at someone unless you are sure you need to shoot them,” but again since it gets functionally ignored as stated, it leads to an easier mental jump to ignoring other parts of this formulation of the Rules.
3) KEEP YOUR FINGER OFF THE TRIGGER TIL YOUR SIGHTS ARE ON THE TARGET. I have no real problem with this one. On the sights, on the trigger. Same as NRA Rule 2, but I like the NRA formulation because it is a second ALWAYS. They are functionally identical here, and both serve a good purpose.
4) BE SURE OF YOUR TARGET AND WHAT LIES BEYOND IT. This is not a bad rule, at all, but it’s part of the first NRA rule already because if you can’t verify your target and backstop, it’s not a safe direction so you don’t point your gun at it. And NRA Rule 3 is valuable because it adds safety without compromising the need to keep defensive firearms loaded, because when it’s used as a defensive tool (the moment it is “on duty”) it should be loaded because it is being used. But the second I am going to hand it to someone else, I unload it because I am not using it anymore, and any time someone hands me a gun I verify that it is unloaded because it is not being used. This is why we say we never hand a loaded gun to someone. And before I put a gun away in the safe, I unload it. And when I put a gun down on the table at the range, I only do so when it is verified unloaded. And when I pick it up, I point it in a safe direction (Rule 1) and keep my finger off the trigger (Rule 2) and verify that it is unloaded (Rule 3) so that if I do something stupid, I don’t streak a .45 through my palm. Some argue that the guns in their quick access safe need to stay loaded because otherwise it’s too much time to load them for defensive use in a home invasion. I believe it is acceptable to say that those guns are also in use as home defense tools, but recognize that they must be secured against unauthorized access in some capacity.
For these reasons, I think Colonel Cooper’s Four Rules, while not evil or terrible, are aged and poorly worded, especially for new shooters and for those learning firearms safety. I prefer the NRA Rules:
Rule 1: ALWAYS keep the gun pointed in a safe direction. (pointing a gun at an armed robber is keeping it pointed in a safe direction!)
Rule 2: ALWAYS keep your finger off the trigger until ready to shoot. (if you bring a gun up and put sights on target, you should be READY to shoot, even if you don’t immediately shoot, so in my expression you can put finger on trigger when the gun comes up on target)
Rule 3: ALWAYS keep the gun unloaded until ready to use. (defensive firearms are in use; when in use, load the gun!)