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The traditional 4 rules of gun safety really should come with a prefatory rule that goes like this: Never assume that an accidental discharge can’t happen to you. The second you make that assumption, no matter how experienced you are with firearms, you risk becoming complacent. And that’s when mistakes happen.

Instead, assume the opposite, that it can happen to—because it can. An accident discharge can happen to anyone, myself included. As long as you keep that fact front of mind and you never forget the 4 rules of gun safety below, then you will both be on your toes and you’ll know the right ways to safely handle firearms at all times. Here’s a refresher.

The 4 Rules of Gun Safety

1) Always keep a firearm pointed in a safe direction.

A man works on a rifle at a shooting range while following the rules of gun safety
Even if you’re working on your gun, it needs to be pointed in a safe direction. NSSF

It doesn’t matter if a gun is loaded or unloaded; you must never point a gun at something you don’t intend to shoot. When hunting in a group, it’s often best to keep a gun pointed up or down. When walking single-file with other hunters, you can usually point it safely to one side. But there are always exceptions, so be aware of where the muzzle of your gun is pointed at all times, no matter where you are. And if you’re with someone who isn’t being careful, correct them or leave.

Unfortunately, a common place where accidents happen to hunters is around vehicles. Be aware of where others are when you’re loading, unloading, or casing your gun after a hunt. Car doors can’t stop bullets.

You also need to take ricochets and walls into account. Bullets can sail through drywall like it was a paper target. They can also penetrate floors and still have enough energy to kill or injure someone. When you’re handling a gun at home, such as when cleaning a firearm, be aware of where you are, which direction other people in the house may be, and where your neighbors are. When I move a gun around the house, I keep the muzzle pointed in a safe direction, and I leave the action open for an extra layer of protection.

2) Treat all guns as though they are loaded.

A man handles a rifle while talking to a clerk at a gun shop
Always treat a gun as if it were loaded, even when you know it isn’t. NSSF

You’ll develop good habits if you handle all guns as if they are loaded. The second you don’t, you can start getting sloppy. Young shooters and new shooters sometimes have a hard time grasping this. They may treat a gun as if it were a toy when they know it isn’t loaded. You simply cannot do this or allow it.

Accidents can also happen when someone who isn’t familiar with a particular gun action assumes its unloaded. This rule applies when you’re in a gun shop, too. Even though an expert is handing you a gun, you need to assume it’s loaded and point it in a safe direction. If possible, keep the actions on your guns open when you’re not using your guns, and even in that case, assume every gun you see or handle is ready to fire.

3) Keep your finger off the trigger until you are ready to shoot.

A man fires a rifle at a shooting range
Your finger should stay outside of the trigger guard until you’re about to shoot. NSSF

Never touch a gun’s trigger until you’re absolutely sure you’re ready to fire. And never trust a gun’s safety, either. I had my own negligent discharge when the safety on one of my shotgun malfunctioned. No one was injured, but it did scare the hell out of me, and the fact remains that I should NOT have trusted the safety. You should never touch a trigger while your gun is on “safe” or between “safe” and “fire.” On some guns, this may not fire the gun right away, but it could cause it to fire as soon as you flick the safety off, long after you’ve touched the trigger.

4) Always be sure of your target and what’s beyond it.

A man in camouflage hunting turkeys in the woods
When you’re hunting or when you’re at the range, you need to be sure of your target and what’s beyond it. NSSF

Bullets can travel for miles, and shotgun pellets can travel for five football fields before falling. If you aren’t sure that your target is in front of something that will stop the bullet or know what lies beyond it, don’t pull the trigger. When hunting, you need to be aware of your surroundings and whatever is surrounding the animal you’re about to shoot. If not, you could miss and send a bullet flying for a long way toward who knows what.

Even when you hit your target, the bullet from your rifle will likely pass through it and continue traveling. I’ve shot deer and recovered bullets lodged halfway through trees 50 yards behind them. You need to take ricochets into account here, too. They come into play when hunting in rocky country or when shooting steel targets. Avoid shooting skylined animals on ridge tops, and be aware of any buildings near where you plan to hunt or shoot.

Ways to Practice Gun Safety Beyond the 4 Rules

A girl fires a rifle at a gun range, with adults overseeing and ensuring the rules of gun safety
Ear and eye protection isn’t just for kids. If you’re shooting or around guns, it’s a good idea to wear it. NSSF

The 4 rules of gun safety above should have you covered for just about every situation, but you should also keep in mind a few more key things. First, is eye and ear protection. When you’re shooting, it’s smart to protect your ears and eyes. Even the report of a .22LR will damage your ears eventually.

You also should be sure to store your guns safely. This is especially true if you have youngsters in the house. Tigger locks are affordable ways to secure a gun. If you can spend a little more money, consider a good gun safe or lockable cabinet. Finally, it’s important to fire the right kind of ammunition in your firearm. Your gun’s chamber might be able to hold different kinds of cartridges, but that doesn’t mean it can safely fire them. You’ll usually find the cartridge your gun is supposed to shoot printed on the barrel. And if you aren’t sure, you need to ask a professional like a gunsmith or gun-shop owner. Some older guns can have a hard time handling modern ammunition, too, so you’ll want to have them checked by a gunsmith before firing.

4 Rules of Gun Safety: Final Thoughts

If you’re going to be around firearms, you must commit these rules to memory and develop safe habits. Any gun, no matter how small, can destroy something or take a life in a split second. If you’re around others who aren’t following these rules, you need to say something or get yourself to a safer place. If you’re teaching others to shoot or hunt, they need to know these rules, too. Finally, if you or anyone else nearby is on anything that would impair your or their ability to follow these rules—like drugs, medication, or alcohol—you or they should not pick up a gun. Remember, a gun is a tool and a very powerful one at that. It’s up to you to make sure it’s used safely.