You know the rules, they’ve been pounded into your head by every instructor you’ve ever had, they greet you from posters on the wall of every range you’ve ever shot at, and you know them so well you can recite them in your sleep:

1. Always keep the gun pointed in a safe direction

2. Always keep your finger off the trigger until ready to shoot.

3. Always keep the gun unloaded until ready to use.

and, depending on where you got your training, another one,

4. Always be sure of your backstop and what is beyond.

Most of us find it easy to follow those rules when we are at the range, and in those few other situations where we handle guns regularly, such as putting them away at home, or cleaning them.

But when you have a gun for personal defense, whether you carry it on the street or simply have it ready at home, suddenly many situations can arise that are very different from being on the range, or at the table cleaning your gun, situations where you can’t depend on habit to help you follow those rules.

Remember: Nobody suspended the rules of gun safety just because you aren’t on the range!

You are still responsible for the fate of every bullet that may leave your gun, and the fate of every person that bullet may encounter. What can you do to keep your defensive firearm safe?

First of all, there is the issue of safe storage. In the gun locks article elsewhere in this issue, I review a number of products, most of them intended for use on unloaded (and therefore, by definition, non-defensive) firearms. If you are going to use a locking device in or on your firearm, be absolutely certain that the manufacturer says that it is OK to use on a loaded gun! That means absolutely no “trigger locks”. You don’t want anything touching the trigger of your loaded gun (even if it has a separate safety), and you certainly don’t want to have to mess about in the vicinity of the trigger to get a lock into place, or to get it off.

In the next issue of W&G, we’ll take a look at some gun boxes that are intended for the safe storage of loaded guns.

Now back to those rules.

1. Always keep the gun pointed in a safe direction

How do you do that when you are handling a loaded gun in your home? Very carefully, and with much forethought.

Might there be family members in the room below you when you are putting your loaded gun in a hip holster? If so, perhaps you should get in the habit of standing near a wall, with your back to it, so that any errant round released as you are holstering will go through the floor and into the downstairs wall, instead of into the middle of the room.

Might there be a neighbor next door, or in the yard? If so, you’d better not sweep the gun past walls or windows that will certainly be permeable to a handgun bullet.

When you are putting your loaded gun into your gun purse, or even into a hidden location at home, is the muzzle always in a safe direction? If not, you’d better figure out how to turn or where else to put it so that you and yours aren’t endangered even as you are trying to protect them.

There are many more “unsafe” directions at home than at the range, probably. The difference is that you can nearly always see other people at the range, which is a strong reminder not to point the gun in their direction, but in your home (or work) environment, you probably don’t see the people who are nearby. But they are there, just behind a wall or two, and you are still responsible for their safety.

2. Always keep your finger off the trigger until ready to shoot.

For a defensive gun, this means keeping your finger off the trigger when you draw your gun, or when you pick it up because you have seen or heard something that has put you on high alert.

It takes a small fraction of a second to move your finger to the trigger after you have decided that shooting is necessary. In all other circumstances, you, any innocent bystanders, and the person you may (or may not) have to shoot are all safer with your finger stretched firmly out along the frame of the gun, not on the trigger.

Always keep your finger off the trigger (and against the side of the gun) until your sights are on target AND you have made the decision to shoot.

3. Always keep the gun unloaded until ready to use.

This one is easy to follow with a defensive gun, since it implies the gun must be fully loaded and ready to go at all times.

4. Always be sure of your target and what is beyond.

When you are under the influence of the adrenaline rush that is an inevitable part of a life-threatening situation, you will naturally focus intensely on that person who is about to try to kill you. Can you really remember that there may be innocent bystanders in the background?

Absolutely. Police often report that they held their fire in an otherwise definite-shoot situation, because they were aware of fellow officers or other people in the background.

You can practice awareness at this level by looking around you from time to time, mentally picking out a random person on the street, or at work, or anywhere you happen to be and asking yourself to decide, rapidly, “Would it be safe to shoot from here to there, if I had to shoot that person?” You’ll find you can take in the immediate surroundings and the background in a very quick glance.

The 3 basic firearm safety rules are amazingly simple, and powerful. As long as you obey them, you will never have a fatal firearm accident. The rules are so powerful that even if you happen to slip up a bit, and break any one rule, you still won’t have a fatal firearm accident. You actually have to break any two of the rules simultaneously to have a serious problem.

By consciously practicing all three rules in public, and in private, as well as at the range, you virtually ensure the safety of everyone you are entitled to protect, and isn’t that what having a gun for protection is all about?

This article was reprinted from Women&Guns magazine, May-Jun. 2000, Copyright © 2000, Lyn Bates