Basic Gun Safety – The four rules

Why is gun safety and firearms training important?

We regularly see tragic stories in the news about people being killed due to somebody mishandling a firearm. More often than not, these injuries and deaths could have been prevented if basic firearms safety rules would have been followed. Unfortunately, many people handle guns when they have no knowledge about basic gun safety.

Everybody can benefit from knowing basic gun safety rules. If you already own a gun, or are planning on buying a gun, you have a responsibility to learn how to safely handle a firearm. If you don’t like guns, you can benefit from learning how to safely handle firearms as well, in case you ever unexpectedly encounter a gun somewhere. I believe the best way to learn gun safety is through formal firearms training, such as an NRA Basic Pistol Course or Oklahoma Self-Defense Act Course (or similar courses in other states).

In the meantime, if you have a gun it’s essential for you to learn some basic gun safety rules until you get formal training. I’m going to explain the Four Rules of Basic Gun Safety. These rules are simple, and will save lives if followed.

The Four Rules of Basic Gun Safety

Colt Gold Cup - Basic Gun SafetyColonel Jeff Cooper is credited with introducing the four rules of basic gun safety. You might see these rules written differently in various places, but they all mean the same thing. You should follow these rules religiously any time you handle a gun. Practice them until they become second nature.

The four rules of basic gun safety are:

1.       All guns are always loaded.
2.       Never let the muzzle cover anything you are not willing to destroy.
3.       Keep your finger off the trigger until your sights are on target.
4.       Be sure of your target and what is beyond it.

1. All guns are always loaded.

A common statement from people who accidentally shoot someone else is “I didn’t think it was loaded.” Every time you handle a gun you should treat it like it’s loaded, even if you just unloaded it yourself. Obviously, a gun is capable of inflicting deadly injuries. Therefore, it should be treated with the respect that its destructive capability demands. You should follow all four gun safety rules any time you are handling a gun, whether its loaded or unloaded. You should NEVER “play” with a gun or treat it like it’s a toy.

2. Never let the muzzle cover anything you are not willing to destroy.

If you don’t know, the muzzle is the end of the barrel where the bullet comes out. Cover simply means “point at.” So, Rule #2 could be stated, “Don’t point a gun at anyone you’re not willing to kill.” Imagine that a death ray is coming out of the hole in the end of the barrel and will destroy anything or kill anybody in its path. The only way to keep that from happening is to keep the gun pointed in a safe direction.

3. Keep your finger off the trigger until your sights are on target.

Another common excuse for accidental shootings is “I thought it was on ‘safe’.” Your trigger finger is the “primary safety.” Countless accidental shootings would be prevented if Rule #3 were followed.  Mechanical safeties can fail, but properly maintained modern firearms will not fire unless the trigger is pulled. You should keep your finger outside the trigger guard and straight along the frame until your sights are on target and you are ready to shoot.

4. Be sure of your target and what is beyond it.

Always make positive target identification and be aware of what is behind your target. Bullets can travel a long distance. You’re criminally responsible and civilly liable for every bullet that leaves your gun. Make sure your shot won’t hit an unintentional target before you shoot.


Safe handling of firearms is a primary responsibility for people who own or use guns. Thousands of tragedies could be prevented every year if people would simply follow the Four Rules of Gun Safety.  You should learn safe gun handling before you ever concern yourself with marksmanship or tactics. The rules listed above will help you be a safe gun handler. Remember to practice them every time you pick up a gun and try to find a basic gun safety course if you haven’t taken one.

Photo Credit: Colt Gold Cup by M&R Glasgow (CC BY-ND 2.0)