The Evolution of Firearms Safety Rules

Yesterday, I shared a story about someone being KILLED by a mistake with a firearm. Apparently, he was the father of young triplets… and all he was doing at the time was opening the gate at the range when someone else shot him in the head from a good distance away on the range property. Possibly from inside of one of the range buildings, in fact. What is being reported is that an employee of the range was working on a rifle and it went off. I have no doubt that the person who fired the gun was very well versed in some set of Firearms Safety Rules and would $100 that he could recite 3 of them very quickly, probably 4. I would also bet that there are several signs posted around the property listing safety rules as well.
In response, many people wanted to post the word “negligence” or quote some set of “THE” Rules and simply move on. That is a typical response in these situations because people have been conditioned to think that is okay… and that simply reminding people (yet again) that there are firearms safety rules is somehow enough. I decided over a decade ago that such responses were self-serving at best and really just contributed to the problem. Safety with Firearms needs to be approached in a completely different way than it has been (by many) for 30+ Years. Safety needs to be a concept, not a list of Do’s and Don’ts… especially if that list is full of “ALWAYS” and “NEVER”. That antiquated approach simply hasn’t worked.

One of the first problems with anyone who starts a conversation about gun safety with a list of “the” rules is that there isn’t even any such thing. The NRA uses one set (3), Gunsite/Cooper popularized another set (4) and there are countless variations of both. In fact, the Cooper rules were originally only 3 rules and they were originally taught as rules for gun handling during a gunfight. As you start to think about how the rules are actually applied and when it is impossible to apply them, that really makes as lot of sense. As with much that becomes dogma, it isn’t the first kernel of information that is flawed, it’s the attempt at making something Universal or Unquestionable that ruins it. “The” Rules is a perfect case in point.
Anyone who really understands them knows that they can’t be followed with the “always” and “never” and that practical gun handling is full of exceptions… which is why the rules get missed. The constant re-explanations to new students, the asterisks, the exceptions: that is where confusing and complacency sets in. The first time someone sees footage from SHOT Show or disassembles a Glock, “the rules” as they are generally recited go right out the window. They aren’t doing the job. Time to move to a better approach.

I first proposed this over a decade ago when one student killed his friend in a hotel room while “practicing” after a class at Gunsite. The establishment was responding (in chat forums, as this was pre-social media as we know it today) that if they “would’ve just followed the rules” it never would’ve happened. I called BS… armed with enough knowledge and experience to know that many of those people regularly violated even their own rules in everyday gun handling and classes and the belief that we as educators owed our students, the gun community ourselves and anyone else within range of our firearms a better approach. That pretty much established my role as outcast in certain circles of the firearms instructor world, which was nice because it took the pressure to “fit in” off the table. :-). If you study the history of “the rules” and particularly the actions of many of those who preached them the most ardently, some of the luster fades pretty quickly. Simply citing “the rules”, most sets of which I feel are impossible to follow in the first place, as the reason a Father of 3 died this week when he was standing by the gate of a shooting range is a sorry response from a community that is supposed to be responsible in the exercise of our Second Amendment Rights. We need to do better.

Over time, the approach that I (and now many others) advocate has started to catch on. Safety is not simply a set of rules that you recite and then ignore when you need to or when it is convenient or when “everyone knows” they don’t apply. Safety with firearms is a Concept. That concept is best summed up as Balancing Risk and Benefit. Safety requires critical thinking and gun handling specifics need to be adapted to accommodate activity, location and context. When mistakes are made, we need to see if we can figure out how they happened at a much deeper level than “He didn’t follow the rules” in an attempt to hold people accountable and, more importantly, educate others so that they may avoid similar mistakes.


Here are some resources from myself and others explaining these ideas more thoroughly:

When the 4 Rules Fail (Published by Bearco Training)

Balancing Risk & Benefit (published at

The Problem with Firearm Safety Rules (published at Safety Solutions Academy)

Safety as a Concept (published at USCCA)

Three Safety Rules, Evolved (2005 Version, published at Personal Defense Network)


This topic is always controversial and sometimes a bit contentious. If you’ve been emotionally triggered by this article, I’d ask that you take a deep breath and try to figure out why. If you take Firearms Safety as seriously as you take your investment in the way you’ve approached firearms safety, you should be open to following those links above and considering that there may be a better way. If you’re still not open, maybe read the concept of Respectful Irreverence and then give the other links a shot.