Rules of Gun Safety

It is not uncommon for me to take a newbie shooting. Before we go to the range, I send them a link to the four rules of gun safety. Annoyingly, such websites seem to come and go. Since I can’t rely on a specific site to stay up, I made this.

Below are the four rules of gun safety. These rules originate from Jeff Cooper. There are dozens of variations and phrasings, but the number of rules and their meaning haven’t changed:

  1. Treat every gun as if it is loaded.
  2. Never point a gun at anything you are not willing to destroy.
  3. Keep your finger off the trigger until your sights are on the target.
  4. Be aware of your target and what is beyond it.

These rules provide redundant layers of safety to account for our imperfect minds. If you follow these rules, it is impossible to unintentionally cause harm. A negligent discharge can only happen by breaking one or more rules. Unintentionally harming another person can only happen by breaking multiple rules at once.


1. Treat every gun as if it is loaded.

This rule is also stated as, “All guns are always loaded.” The first thing you do when touching any gun is to check if it’s loaded. It doesn’t matter if your friend says, “It’s not loaded.” It doesn’t matter if you just unloaded it a minute ago. It doesn’t matter if Jesus Christ descends from the heavens and tells you, “Verily my child, the gun is empty.” You check it. If it leaves your field of view, you check it again. When you hand the gun to someone else, they check it. When they hand it back, you check it. If this sounds like some sort of obsessive-compulsive behavior, that’s because it is. It is healthy to have an obsessive compulsion about knowing if guns are loaded.

I have been shooting guns for a quarter century. In that time, I have never discovered that a gun I thought was unloaded was actually loaded. But the consequences of being wrong even once are dire, so I check every time.

This behavior isn’t as burdensome as you might think. It only takes a second to check and the process is usually made easier by people leaving the gun’s action open so everyone can see the empty chamber.

If you’re not sure how to check whether a certain gun is loaded, ask. You won’t be faulted for it. (If you are, find a new friend or instructor.)

2. Never point a gun at anything you are not willing to destroy.

This seems pretty obvious. Even if you’re 100% sure the gun is unloaded, don’t point it at someone or something, not even as a joke. It’s not funny. It doesn’t matter if the gun is unloaded. Remember rule #1.

Most people know not to intentionally point a gun at another person, but it’s quite easy to unintentionally point a gun in an unsafe direction. (At a gun range, an unsafe direction is anything that isn’t downrange.) Learning to use guns is complicated, and that complexity can distract you from safe handling. You might be reloading, troubleshooting a malfunction, or simply turning to smile at your friends after a good shot. While caught up in the moment, you may unintentionally point the gun at something (or someone) you don’t want to destroy. No matter what is going on, it’s important to remain aware of the firearm and where it’s pointed.

With pistols, it’s easy to accidentally sweep your hand in front of the muzzle. Even though you don’t change where the pistol is pointed, you can still change what’s in front of it. To help myself obey this rule, I like to imagine a wall beyond the tip of the barrel. That wall is a no-go zone for my body.

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

When grasping a gun, it feels natural to rest your index finger on the trigger. This is comfortable, but it’s unsafe. There are countless reasons why you might unintentionally pull the trigger. A loud noise could startle you. A hot casing could hit your skin. Someone could bump into you. You could slip and instinctively grasp out to catch yourself. Etcetera.

Prevent these scenarios by keeping your finger straight and out of the trigger guard until your sights are on the target. When you are done firing, straighten your finger.

The one negligent discharge I’ve had in my life was because I broke this rule. Thankfully I was following all the other rules so the bullet went downrange and into the backstop.

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

Bullets can go through things. This is rarely a consideration at gun ranges, but it can’t be ignored. If you’re shooting on public lands, make sure your targets are set up in front of a backstop. Don’t shoot at anything that is silhouetted against the sky. If you miss, the bullet could travel for miles.


Shooting ranges usually have more rules than these four. Almost every range requires eye and hearing protection. Most ranges will require customers to keep guns in cases when transporting to/from a lane. Some ranges don’t allow rapid fire. Make sure you read and understand the rules before shooting. Gun ranges tend to be very strict in this matter. If you break the rules -even unintentionally- you could get lectured by a Range Safety Officer (RSO) or even asked to leave.