Complete guide to gun safety

If you own or carry a firearm, for your protection or otherwise, it is your responsibility to do so safely. Nobody can make sure that you are practicing good gun safety except you. Firearms have great destructive potential, and it is your job to conduct yourself with firearms accordingly.

The purpose of this guide is to give you the basic principles of gun safety in all phases, from general handling to safe storage to safely carrying a gun. It is intended as a reference for the novice or beginner, with basic principles of safely handling, owning, shooting and carrying firearms.

We also recommend that you get some training from qualified professionals. Quality training and quality practice will get you quality results, so it's worth investing in.

Alien Gear Holsters is presenting this guide as reference material for informational purposes only. We disclaim any responsibility, liability and otherwise for any errors or omissions contained herein, and the reader assumes all risks handling firearms.

The 4 Laws of Gun Safety

The 4 Laws of Gun Safety, also called the 4 Rules of Gun Safety and other iterations, are basic principles to always observe when handling or shooting guns. Consistently doing these things goes a long way to preventing accidents. They are:

Treat every gun as if it's loaded

Don't point the muzzle at anything you aren't willing to kill or destroy

Don't touch the trigger unless you're ready to shoot

Be aware of your target and what's around it

Each of these rules is the short version of a larger idea that has nuance, context, and should be understood more fully than just reciting this list like a mantra. In other words, there's what the rules say and what they really mean!

So let's expand on each of them a little more.

Treat Every Gun As If It's Loaded

The idea is to understand and respect the destructive potential that firearms have and to conduct yourself accordingly. Ask yourself what would happen if the gun were to discharge. If someone would be hurt or killed, you're doing something wrong.

If you're going to handle a gun administratively, field strip it for cleaning or maintenance, or do some dry fire practice, you need to unload it…and then check to make sure before you even think about touching the trigger.

Don't Point The Muzzle At Anything You Aren't Willing To Kill Or Destroy

This rule is sometimes also spoken or written as "point the gun in a safe direction." The idea is to ensure that even if the gun did "go off," no one would be hurt. 

The idea is also to never point a gun at a living thing unless you have the intention of shooting it…as well as the justification. You don't point a gun at an animal unless it's a threat or it's a game animal that you're going to harvest. You don't point a gun at a person unless they are a clear and present threat to your life.

Don't Touch The Trigger Unless You're Going To Shoot

The trigger is what controls the gun. If you press it, it shoots. Therefore, don't press it, don't touch it, unless you know you want to shoot.

A best practice is to index the trigger finger on the frame (or cylinder if you have a revolver or the receiver of a long gun) whenever you're handling the gun but aren't about to shoot it. Keep the finger out of the trigger guard unless you're about to shoot.

Be Aware Of Your Target And What's Around It

You need to be aware of your target and everything around it. The backstop, if there is any, and any hard, flat surfaces that might create a ricochet; shooting into rocks is not a good idea and neither is shooting over a body of water.

Are you shooting in wide open spaces? Are there any houses in the direction you're shooting? How far away are they? Is the bullet going to fall into earth?

In case of a defensive shooting, you need to know what's behind and around the threat. What you wouldn't want to do is miss…only to wound or kill an innocent.

Big game hunters have to take care to only shoot the quarry they're authorized to. You can't shoot a doe if you only have a tag for a buck; you cannot take chances on killing game you don't have a tag for. What if that deer, pronghorn or elk is mingling with free-ranging cattle? You don't want to take a chance at killing somebody's livestock.

The consequences for not minding what's around the target can be severe. Ricochets can injure or kill. Missing a threat and hitting an innocent will land you in prison. Killing game animals without a permit is called poaching, and penalties can range from a simple fine to jail time and forfeiture of all hunting equipment…which can include not only your gun, but also the vehicle you used to get there.

Granted, the fines tend to be much lower for hunters who voluntarily self-report a mistake, but the idea is that you need to be aware of everything that is around and behind the target prior to pressing the trigger.

Those are the classic Four Laws of Gun Safety. However, some people like to expand on those a little bit.

The Six Rules Of Gun Safety?

Some people and organizations like to expand the four rules out to six, and include some version of the following two ideas:

Know your gun and how it operates

Store your gun in a safe location

The idea is to be familiar with the gun that you're using. While every gun in many respects operates the same way (load, cock, aim, pull the trigger) there are a lot of differences in the controls and the various operating mechanisms.

There's a lot of difference between semi-automatic and manual systems such as bolt actions, lever actions and pump actions. Handguns include revolvers and semi-autos, and there are lots of different kinds of semi-auto handguns. There's single-action, double/single action, double-action only, striker-fired…point being, you need to know how yourgun works and therefore how it has to be operated.

And then we come to the subject of storage. Firearms should be stored safely, and any gun that isn't kept for the purposes of home or personal defense should be stored unloaded. Unwanted access should be prevented, and ideally ammunition is stored separate from your firearms.

Safe storage is a large topic in and of itself, which we're going to cover in greater depth later on.

How To Check To See If A Gun Is Loaded

loaded gun indicator

If you don't know if a gun is loaded or not, there are a few ways to check.

Most modern semi-auto pistols have a loaded chamber indicator. Sometimes it's a little lever that tilts up when the gun is loaded and sometimes it's a little different.

Some guns have a hole in the top of the chamber that you can look down into and see the case of a cartridge. Some guns are designed so the extractor on the slide - a little bar on the right side of the gun that pulls cases out of the chamber - will bulge out when the gun is loaded.

Revolvers are a little different. Modern double-action revolvers have a swing-out cylinder that you have to release. When the cylinder pops out, you'll see if it's loaded or not.

Single-action revolvers have a loading gate on the right side of the gun behind the cylinder. Open it, and you'll see the cylinder's chambers…or the cartridges it contains.

For long guns like rifles and shotguns, you have to open the chamber by pulling back the bolt.

Gun Safety At The Range: Shooting And Handling

people shooting guns at a range

If you can follow the Four Rules mentioned above, you are far less likely to have a serious safety problem at the range. However, there are some additional safety protocols that you need to be aware of while handling and shooting at indoor and outdoor ranges.

Wear Ear And Eye Protection At All Times

shooting ear and eye protection

A gunshot produces anywhere from 140 decibels to 170 decibels from an unsuppressed firearm, depending on the caliber, the ammunition, and the gun. With suppression (a "can" or "silencer") a gunshot produces 110 to 140 decibels, depending on the caliber, the ammunition, and the gun.

Instant hearing damage (which is irreversible) occurs if you are subjected to any noise of 130 decibels or more without hearing protection. Therefore, wear ear protection and yes, even if you have a suppressor.

Suppressing a gunshot down to truly safe noise levels is actually very hard; most people think just putting a can on it is enough and it just isn't…at all. Get ear pro, and wear it.

Eye protection…should speak for itself. Do you want to get hot brass in your eye? If not, then wear eye protection.

As to clothing, avoid open-toed shoes and wear a shirt and pants. Wearing long sleeves and gloves is probably best to avoid lead exposure, but most people will never be exposed to enough lead from shooting in their lifetime to have anything to worry about.

The Four Rules In Action

shotgun shooting

At a range, whether it's an indoor or outdoor range with lanes and safety officers or on public or private lands, that is where you put the 4 Laws of Gun Safety into action.

A good practice is to not load or chamber a round until you're on the firing line, with your muzzle pointed downrange or your pistol holstered. The muzzle should never be aimed anywhere except downrange at the target.

That's why a lot of the shooting sports have what's called the "180 rule;" in essence, you get disqualified if the muzzle of a loaded gun goes beyond 180 degrees from the target. 

You don't want to touch the trigger until you're aiming at the target. You shouldn't put a target in an unsafe location or fire at one if a target has been placed in an unsafe location. If there's a chance of a ricochet or anything other than the bullet going into the dirt, that's not where the target should be.

Other People At The Range

people at shooting range

Unfortunately, an aspect of gun safety at the range is completely out of your hands and that is other people. You can control what you do, but you can't control what other people do.

If you go to an indoor range or the typical structured outdoor range, there's probably a firing line. There may even be a firing line and a safety officer regulating when the range is hot and cold. In those environments, the firing line creates a guard rail for safety. Don't go beyond the firing line on a hot range, and don't take a loaded gun beyond a certain point.

However, when shooting outdoors on public or private lands, you need to pay close attention to what other people are doing. Imagine a line extending out to infinity to your right and to your left. Don't shoot if anyone is in front of it. If someone around you walks downrange, stop shooting. Holster your pistol if you have to.

Therefore, pay attention to those around you.

Gun Safety While Carrying

everyday carry set-up

Once you've gone beyond merely owning, handling and shooting guns safely at the range, how to safely carry a gun is the next logical step. It is imperative that if you are going to carry a gun in public, you do so safely.

Remember, anything and everything you do with a gun can have legal consequences regardless of where and how it happens and whatever permits you might have. You are responsible for anything that happens.

The best thing to be responsible for is nothing. When nothing happens, there are no consequences; if you conceal carry correctly, no one knew about it at all besides you.

So, let's talk about how to make sure that nothing happens while you're carrying.

Safe Carrying Starts With The Holster

firearm in holster

The first step to safely carrying a gun starts with a holster. When a loaded gun is secured in a holster, it is for all intents and purposes inert. It cannot "go off," as nothing can actuate the firing mechanism.

The basic job of a holster is to securely hold a pistol and prevent anything from entering the trigger guard while the gun is inside it. It should also securely attach to the person wearing it.

To securely hold a gun, the holster should be made for the make and model of pistol that goes into it. The holster must be made of a durable material and should have enough tension to keep the gun securely inside it.

You should be able to turn the holster upside down, without the gun coming out of it.

The holster material should be rigid enough to keep anything at all from being able to get into the trigger guard while the pistol is holstered. If you can feel the trigger through the holster, it isn't fit to use except maybe as a protective sleeve in a safe.

The holster should securely attach to you in some fashion, whether that's using clips that attach to your belt, or perhaps some sort of strapping system to attach it elsewhere. Pocket holsters should be more than a sleeve; they must have some sort of pocket catch device to keep the holster in the pocket.

Wear Enough Belt

holster and gun belt

There are some finer points to selecting a gun belt, but the belt is the foundation on which the holster rests. It's what secures the holster and therefore the gun to your body. Therefore, wear enough belt.

Typical department store belts usually aren't sufficient. Get an actual gun belt. Leather or web belt, whichever works for you.

The holster keeps the gun secure, the belt keeps the holster secure. Therefore, make sure you're wearing a sufficiently strong belt to keep it that way.

Don't Ever Carry A Gun Without A Holster

ShapeShift pocket holster

One of the most frequent causes and contributing factors to negligent discharges is carrying a gun without a holster.

Don't put a loaded gun in a backpack unless it's in a holster. Don't carry a loaded gun in your pocket. Don't put a loaded gun in a purse.

And no, just because it's a snubby revolver or other double-action gun doesn't make it ND-proof. Revolvers have absolutely been discharged accidentally/negligently/unintentionally, and even modern double-action revolvers have drop-fired because someone put it in a backpack or purse and dropped it.

Just don't.

Always Look The Gun Into The Holster

IWB holster

Where a lot of accidents occur when handling a loaded gun is when holstering. Bits of shirt and so on can get into the holster after you draw the pistol. Modern striker-fired pistols are known to get the trigger snagged, causing an accidental discharge.

"Glock leg" is a thing and there's an easy fix for it. Ever hear someone say you'll shoot yourself in the leg (or elsewhere) if you appendix carry? That only tends to happen when someone doesn't holster the pistol with sufficient care.

When you put a loaded pistol in a holster, what you want to do is look the gun into the holster. Look at the holster while you bring the pistol to it, making sure to check for and clear any obstructions.

Slowly insert the pistol until it's fully seated. If it isn't seating in the holster, start over.

Put it this way: there is no such thing as speed reholstering. Take your time, be careful, and be safe.

Minimize Administrative Handling Of Loaded Guns

man showing unloaded pistol

One of the other safety hazards is administrative handling, and this is the area where having a holster is a benefit.

Administrative handling is the term for performing various tasks with the gun besides shooting, such as loading and unloading, taking the pistol out of the holster or putting it in, basically every action that involves touching the gun without shooting it.

An unloaded gun has zero chance of firing. When the gun is loaded and not holstered or placed in a locked safe, the chances are more than zero. The idea, therefore, is to make the chances zero as much as possible.

If you want to top off the magazine to take advantage of the "plus 1" ability of a semi-auto, the best way to do that is to load the pistol, eject the magazine, and safely holster the pistol. Then you top off the magazine and re-insert it with the gun holstered.

Instead of taking a loaded concealed carry gun out of the holster and putting it in the safe, take the holster off with the gun still inside it and place both in the safe. The reverse is also true for putting the gun on.

There are other examples of administrative handling, of course, but the idea is to reduce the amount of time that an unloaded gun is outside of a safe or a holster.

This also applies to long guns. Long guns, such as shotguns or rifles, should be placed on safe and slung when loaded and not being pointed safely downrange at a target.

It's also a good idea to keep the action open whenever possible. If you can put ammunition in the gun but leave the action open - a common practice with police departments; it's usually called "cruiser ready" - so much the better.

Long guns have manual safeties for a reason. It turns out they're meant to be used!

Some people think they're clever by quoting "Blackhawk Down" as an excuse for not placing their gun on safe. What they're actually communicating is that they aren't safe with firearms and don't care if they place themselves or other people in danger.

In fact, here's an actual Delta veteran who was in SFOD-D during the "Blackhawk Down" era on the topic:

The idea is that you want to handle a loaded gun as little as possible if you aren't immediately about to shoot it. Unload it, holster it, or safe it.

Ammunition Safety

line of bullets

A gun is little more than a Rube Goldberg device with some plastic and metal. What is actually dangerous is the ammunition. The combustion of the powder and the bullet it sends into flight is what actually hurts people.

So, let's go over the safe use and storage of ammunition.

Only Use The Ammunition That Your Gun Is Made To Use

Somewhere on your firearm will be a marking that says what ammunition you're supposed to use. Typically it's on the barrel or the slide of a semi-auto…

Glock 26

…on the barrel of a revolver…

Taurus revolver

…and also on the barrel of shotguns and most rifles.

Ruger rifle

However, some long guns will have the chambering marked on the receiver, including most semi-auto rifles.

long gun receiver markings

Shotguns will also note chamber length. Most shotguns made these days have either a 3-inch or 3-½ inch chamber. Use only the correct length (or shorter) shotshell. If the barrel isn't marked, you'll need to research the gun and/or take it to a gunsmith to get it checked out.

Have a look at your owner's manual. It will say what ammunition to use in your gun, and it's recommended that you stick to it.

What About +P Ammunition?

Plus p ammo

You might hear that you have to use +P ammunition for defense or some other purposes. +P means over-pressure, meaning that ammunition has additional powder added to make the projectile travel faster.

If the manufacturer says not to use +P in the factory gun, then it's a good idea to stick to that recommendation and for two reasons.

Additional powder increases the chamber pressure. While the additional pressure is not much of a problem for modern semi-autos of recent manufacture, it can accelerate cylinder wear in revolvers.

Older revolvers and certainly any single-action reproductions should never be loaded with overpressure ammunition.

Another reason is that the frame, slide and other components take a beating from the additional velocity. If you absolutely must use overpressure ammunition, you should look into some stronger recoil and (if applicable) hammer springs.

Multi-Caliber Guns: .38/.357, .22 Magnum/.22 Long Rifle And More

.357 magnum revolver

There are some multi-caliber guns, but they are specific chamberings and in specific firearms. Bear in mind that many are for specific calibers and in specific instances.

Some firearms that chamber .22 Magnum will also fire .22 Long Rifle. However, take care to read the owner's manual as not all of them will; it is more common for a .22 WMR revolver to be able to fire .22 LR cartridges than any other type of firearm in those chamberings. DO NOT attempt to fire .22 WMR in any firearm chambered in .22 LR.

Almost any firearm chambered in .357 Magnum will also fire .38 Special ammunition. Revolvers and lever-action rifles have few issues doing so. However, a few boutique semi-autos (such as Coonan and Desert Eagle pistols) are made in .357 Magnum; these guns cannot chamber or feed .38 Special. DO NOT attempt to fire .357 Magnum from any gun chambered for .38 Special.

The same applies to .44 Magnum and .44 Special.

Any revolver chambered for .45 Colt can fire .45 ACP. You will need moon clips to secure the cartridges, as .45 ACP is rimless, as well as a cylinder that's machined to use them.

Some 10mm firearms are said to be capable of firing .40 S&W. While .40 S&W is literally a light 10mm load in a shorter case, it isn't guaranteed that a .40 S&W case will correctly headspace in the chamber, which is dangerous.

With that said, .40 S&W is completely safe for use in 10mm revolvers. Since a moon clip must be used to seat the cartridge in the cylinder and .40 S&W is just 10mm Short, there can't be any issues.

As you can tell, multi-caliber function is heavily dependent on the caliber(s) in question as well as the firearm they are being used in. Therefore, take great care in learning how or if your firearm can use any other caliber. If it cannot, do not attempt it.

Safe Storage: How To Safely Store Firearms And Ammunition

Gun Safe

One of the most important aspects of firearms safety is how to store them. Safe storage is of paramount importance; if you cannot safely store your guns in some fashion you should not have them.

Safe storage is necessary to prevent unwanted access. If you're keeping one or more guns loaded for defensive purposes - such as a concealed carry handgun or a long gun for the home - it is imperative that nobody be able to get to it that is not supposed to.

What Is Safe Storage?

combination lock

Safe storage means a storage medium, such as a lockbox, locking cabinet or better yet an actual safe, that has some sort of locking mechanism.

The stronger and more complex the locking mechanism, the better. A simple lockbox is better than nothing; a locking steel cabinet is better than that and an actual safe is better still.

Put simply, "safe storage" as a broader concept is a container that actually locks instead of merely closing. The typical gun case is not enough, unless you add a cable lock or padlock…and even that is little more than the bare minimum.

Concealment furniture looks cool, but unless it has a locking mechanism or you are the only person who is aware of its existence…it is not safe storage.

A locking steel cabinet or an actual gun safe is best, as these will have the strongest locking mechanisms.

Keep As Few Guns Loaded As Possible

gun with loaded chamber and empty chamber

If you own multiple firearms, most of them should be stored unloaded.

Every time a gun is loaded, the risk of an accidental/negligent/unintentional discharge goes from zero to more than zero. Therefore, the fewer loaded guns there are in your home, the better from the perspective of mitigating or reducing safety risks.

Obviously, it's a good idea to keep your carry gun loaded. It's a good idea to keep a dedicated home defense gun (such as a home defense handgun, shotgun, or carbine) loaded and possibly even an auxiliary home defense gun if you keep one.

If the purpose of the gun is not for any immediate or emergent needs…it doesn't need to be loaded, and therefore shouldn't be.

Storing a magazine loaded is not an issue (magazine springs only wear out after repeated cycles of loading and unloading/firing, not by mere compression alone) so it is totally fine to store your ammo in magazines.

Ammunition Storage

Ammunition

Ammunition should be stored in a cool, dry location.

Temperature control is not as important as moisture control; swings in ambient temperature do not affect ammunition but moisture can. If any moisture enters the case - if it does, it does so through the primer pocket - a cartridge can rust from the inside out.

You'll know if a cartridge has gone bad if there's obvious rust around the rim.

At a minimum, ammunition should be stored out of easy reach of children if not in a secure container or locker of its own. If money were no option, the absolute best thing would be to have one safe for guns and another for ammunition, but few have the disposable income to do so.

It's a good idea to be concerned with fire protection, but the costs of a quality safe that will resist a housefire for very long are considerable. While it would be best to have one, few can afford it. If you can't, a top tip would be to only keep enough ammunition on hand in a secure container that can be easily evacuated in case of an emergency.

Children And Safe Storage

Family

If you have children, storing your firearms safely and securely is of paramount importance.

Children are one of the highest-risk groups in terms of injuries and fatalities due to accidents. Firearms are one of the leading causes of death of teenagers besides car crashes, including homicides and suicides by firearm.

Your job as a parent is to make sure that the risk to your children is as close to zero as possible.

This can be a sensitive topic.

Some people won't have guns in their homes for this reason. Some people won't allow someone who carries a gun in their home (with the gun) for this reason. Gun-free zones around schools - regardless of what anyone's opinion about them might be - were literally created for this reason.

Say what you want about their agenda and/or bias, but Everytown For Gun Safety does produce data. According to their research, there were 369 accidental shootings by or involving children, resulting in 242 injuries and 142 deaths in 2020.

They found 91 percent of children killed or injured in unintentional shootings were under 18. 70 percent of shootings occurred in a home. Teenagers (children aged 14 to 17) were the most likely to be the shooter and most likely to be the victims.

While this isn't an argument for safe storage laws and correlation is not causation, it is the case that states with safe storage laws have the lowest rates of accidental shootings involving children.

They also found that 74 percent of school shooters obtained their guns from their home or the home of a relative or a friend.

The US Secret Service found a similar trend in their research into school shootings.

The Secret Service also found that the guns used by school shooters were only meaningfully secured (meaning in a locked container) in 16 percent of the incidents they investigated in their 2019 report. In those instances, the guns were locked up but the shooter knew how to get the keys or knew the combination to the safe.

So what does this mean?

Again, this is not to argue for safe storage laws, but this is absolutely to say that unsecured firearms are dangerous to children. If you have children, or grandchildren, or there are nieces/nephews or other children that regularly visit your home, you must have a way to secure any firearms and whatever you use - a locker, a locking case, a safe - cannot be opened by them.

A best practice for parents is to store firearms unloaded whenever possible and to store ammunition and firearms separately if at all possible.

Children cannot be able to open your storage medium. If you use a lockbox or locker, children cannot have access to the keys. If you use a safe, they cannot know or be able to find the combination.

As your children get old enough, then you'll want to have conversations with them about guns and safety.

Gun Safety Mostly Comes Down To Awareness

For the most part, gun safety is being aware of what you're doing and acting accordingly.

Be aware of where the gun is pointing. Be aware of whether it's loaded. Be aware of what could happen if it could be fired, and what would happen if it did. Imagine what the worst-case scenario is, and do what you can to prevent it.

It's like being aware while driving, or doing anything else where there are consequences to acting carelessly. Just pay attention, don't do anything careless or stupid, and you’re less likely have problems.

About The Author

Writer sam hoober