The 4 Universal Gun Safety Rules, Plus a Few More You Should Follow

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A Brief History

In 1902, the English politician and game shooting enthusiast Mark Hanbury Beaufoy (1854–1922) wrote some much-quoted verses on gun safety, including the following:

“If a sportsman true you’d be
Listen carefully to me:
Never, never, let your gun
Pointed be at anyone…”

Like Beaufoy, protecting myself and those I care about is what first interested me about firearms. Given my goal of being more safe in more situations, it would be ironic—and even stupid—of me to not take gun safety incredibly seriously.  Regardless of what led to your involvement with firearms, whether you came from a similar place as me or not, following gun safety rules is a necessity.  In this guide, I  cover the 4 universal gun safety rule and explaining the importance of each.  I then go on to add a few I have picked up in my life that everyone else can benefit from.

Digging Deeper: The 4 Rules of Gun Safety

If you have ever been to a gun range, chances are you have seen these rules plastered on the wall somewhere or been required to watch instruction explaining them. The 4 universal rules of gun safety are:

  1. Treat all guns as if they are always loaded.
  2. Never let the muzzle point at anything that you are not willing to destroy.
  3. Keep your finger off the trigger until your sights are on target and you have made the decision to shoot.
  4. Be sure of your target and what is behind it.

You should ALWAYS follow every single one of these rules, but I want to touch on each individually and explain how these rules can help protect you even if you forget to do another one of them. In the (hopefully) unlikely event you catch yourself breaking  one of these rules, be sure to make a mental note of it so you can avoid doing so in the future.

1) Treat all guns as if they are always loaded.

Smith & Wesson “Military and Police” revolver.  Photograph by Oleg Volk.

Many of these rules should be “common sense”—a phrase gun owners have learned to hate due to its frequent use by politicians seeking extreme gun control measures.  Actual common sense, though, is something some people just seem to lack.  Shockingly, not everyone intuits things like not pointing a gun at themselves or their friends.

“Treating all guns as if they are always loaded” is largely intended to ensure you follow the other 3 gun safety rules, no matter the status of the weapon.  If you follow our additional rules, you should always know whether your gun is loaded or not. With that being said, people are forgetful; so you should still treat every firearm as if it is loaded, as it actually could be. I would even argue that many seasoned gun owners can become more careless than newbies about ensuring their guns are cleared after use.  There is no reason not to treat your gun like it is loaded; so just do it.  If you always assume guns are loaded, you will be even less likely to break any of the following rules.

2) Never let the muzzle point at anything you are not willing to destroy.

An indoor shooting range for U.S. federal law enforcement personnel.  A range master is shown supervising typical firearms training exercises.  Photograph by NIOSH.

Every year, people shoot themselves or others unintentionally. Aside from “freak accidents” like ricochets (where in all likelihood the shooter probably did not follow the next two safety rules), they probably broke the 2nd rule of gun safety.  I do not think I need to go into much explanation on how ANY gun can kill someone shot by it or damage anything it comes into contact with.

While you should always also follow Rule 3, you should never assume that you or someone else will keep their finger off the trigger. Even if you/they do, you do not want to be a part of an incredibly unlikely gun malfunction that leads to something or someone unintentionally getting shot.

3) Keep your finger off the trigger until your sights are on target and you have made the decision to shoot.

Indoor firing range showing walls, ceiling baffles, and bullet trap.  Photograph by NIOSH.

By this point you are probably starting to notice how these rules work together, potentially avoiding a disaster if you break another one of them.  DO NOT EVER point a gun at something you do not want to destroy, but if you mistakenly do, and your finger is off the trigger, you are less likely to shoot that thing.

Trigger discipline, as it is known, is incredibly important to make a habit of.  It is incredibly important in recreational shooting and also important in a high-pressure defensive situation. Just because you draw your firearm for self-defense, does not necessarily mean you want to shoot.

As a side note, I would not recommend throwing surprise parties for concealed carry holders You better hope they have good trigger discipline.

4) Be sure of your target and what is behind it.

Shooting targets for woodchuck hunting.  Photograph by User:Piotrus.

This rule applies to recreational shooting and defensive situations. You might have also heard it as “always know your backstop”.  Even if you are shooting a .22 pistol at an AR500 steel target, you might miss. When shooting recreationally, you should always have a backstop behind your targets to stop any missed shots or shots that penetrate your targets. If you are shooting at a private or public shooting range and follow rule 3, you should be safe.

In self-defense situations, this rule can be more difficult to assess and follow on the fly. It is important to identify your target, be sure that you want to take a shot, and know what lies behind your target. Even if you hit your target, an over-penetrating bullet may hit something you do not intend to shoot. Always ensure there are no innocent bystanders behind (or in front) of your target.

More Gun Safety Rules To Follow

While the above rules should keep you safe the vast majority of the time, there are some other rules I follow that can keep everyone even more safe.

5) “Clear” a firearm anytime you touch one.

Important, highly visible safety practices at a shooting range.  Photograph by aeroplanepics0112.

As soon as you pick up a firearm, without the immediate intention to shoot it, the first thing you should do is ensure that it is empty. For semi-automatic firearms, release the magazine, then inspect the chamber to ensure that it is empty.  You should also always do so before leaving the range or putting away your firearm.  At this point, it has become instinctual for me to do this 99% of the time as soon as I touch a firearm.

6) Be sure that your barrel is clear of any obstructions before use.

Barrel for dry firing, in order to ultimately check the unloaded state of a firearm.  Photograph by Cimmerian praetor.

First, be sure that your firearm is empty by removing the magazine and inspecting the chamber.

I mostly shoot pistols and AR-style rifles, so here are my procedures before using those:


Quickly field strip your pistol to the point you can remove your barrel, then ensure there are no obstructions.

AR-Style Rifles

Remove the upper receiver from the lower receiver. Remove your charging handle and bolt carrier group. Ensure there are no obstructions.

No matter what style firearm you are using, never look down the barrel, especially if it is attached to the rest of your firearm. For other firearm platforms, research how to safely check your barrel.

7) Wear your eyes and ears.

Ear plugs are a form of hearing protection

This rule should not need to be said, but always wear shooting glasses and ear protection when using or being around firearms. In the two linked guides, we have gone into detail on the dangers of not follow this rule, and provided information to find the best safety gear.  If you are shooting at a public or privately owned range (that you pay to use), they usually do and should require you to put these on before entering the area where firearms are being shot.

8) Make a habit of safely removing your holstered handgun.

An example of not following the proper trigger discipline (the soldier’s finger is on the trigger); the pistol could also be pointed in the direction of non-targets.  Photograph taken 24 January 1967.

For those of you who concealed carry or just use holsters, make a habit of safely putting away your firearm. Whenever possible, remove the entire holster with your firearm still in it before removing the firearm from the holster.  There is no reason to unholster a loaded handgun that is pointed towards parts of your body.

9) Use the correct ammunition for your gun.

Various rifle cartridges compared to the height of a US$1 bill.  Photograph by Richard C. Wysong II.

Using ammunition that is not intended to be used by your firearm can cause a catastrophic malfunction. ALWAYS carefully read the owner’s manuals for your guns and only use the listed ammunition.  For those of you who frequently shoot different calibers, you may want to consider using color coded tape or rubber bands for your firearms and magazines.  Doing so can help remind you which ammunition to use.  Faxon has even introduced a product with color-coded and labeled rifle caliber marker bands—though you could also just use regular rubber bands.

10) Do not handle firearms under the influence.

A drunk-driving simulator in Montreal.  Photograph by Ich at English Wikipedia.

In most states it is illegal to possess a firearm while under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Regardless, doing so is a really stupid idea.

11) Store firearms safely.

An example (open and closed) of a typical gun safe.  Photograph by User:IssueLips.

There are numerous reasons to securely store your firearms. Always store firearms in secure gun safes when not in use. You can see our list of the best gun safes here.

For those of you with children of your own or who frequently have children at your house, it is even more important to follow safe gun storage practices. I recommend Project Child Safe for more info.

12) Practice Safe Gun Range Practices

Indoor pistol shooting range.  Photograph by Ratha Grimes from Sarasota, FL, United States.

When you bring guns to the range, be sure to always have them in a range bag or case.

Do not remove them from the case until you are in your shooting bay. This keeps you from “flagging” others at the range.

This is a rule at most ranges and if it is not, it should be.

Once you’ve unloaded your firearms, you can then move your bags out of the way.


This article was not intended to scare you about what can go wrong with firearms, but rather to help teach you how to use them safely. If you follow these rules, you should have no issues.

As a final note, be sure to point out anyone handling firearms in a dangerous manner to your gun range’s safety officer. Those who do not follow proper gun safety put not only themselves, but you and others at risk.

Question for students: Have you ever fired a gun?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

The original article can be accessed at GunPros.

For more information, please see…

Sapp, Rick.  The NRA Step-by-Step Guide to Gun Safety: How to Care For, Use, and Store Your Firearms.  Skyhorse, 2016.

The featured image in this article, a photograph by Kencf0618 of a third-generation 9mm Glock 17 with a cable lock, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.


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