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When I was growing up in a rural area, the road leading to our house was a quarter of a mile long and we lived about a long baseball throw from the end of it where my grandparents lived. As would be expected, my brothers and I frequently spent time with our grandparents. On one occasion, when I was probably five or six years of age, I was roaming about the house and saw a small handgun lying beside my grandparents’ bed. I had frequently been around firearms, but for some reason I thought that this small revolver might be some sort of toy. As I picked it up, it was apparent that the cylinder did not contain toy caps but rather real cartridges the heads and bullets of which were readily apparent. I knew that it was not something that I should handle and put it in its place immediately.
I wonder how many similar situations have arisen in more modern times in which the person picking up the firearm had no knowledge about firearms except what was shown on television. The temptation for a child to replicate something seen on a screen could lead to a tragedy and it does happen. In a very high-profile case, a toddler removed a handgun from a purse and killed his mother in a Walmart.
The handgun that I picked up was a Smith & Wesson .32 revolver the loaded condition of which could be seen at a glance. With the striker fired semiautomatics of today such information is not readily obtained, and it would be all too easy for a youngster to pick up such a handgun and instinctively (and easily) pull the trigger. Such happenings with tragic results have been described in the news. Even familiarity with certain types of firearms does not always translate to knowledge of other types. I once handed a Ruger Vaquero single action .45 Colt to a police officer who had no idea as to the procedure for loading and unloading the gun because it did not have anything in common with the Beretta 92 carried on duty. In another case, a police officer responding to a 911 call found the homeowner with a cocked revolver. Being totally unfamiliar with revolvers, he had to call someone else to find out how to safely let the hammer down!
Many years ago, a friend and I were in a gun store. In the case was a Colt .45 Auto of the 1911 style and I asked the store owner to let me see it. He handed me the gun and I remember looking at it and pulling back the slide. Out fell a cartridge and with the slide back I could see that the magazine was loaded. I handed the gun to the store owner who by this time was somewhat stunned and pale. He explained that he had traded for the unloaded gun the previous day and when it was brought in later, he put it in the case without checking it and therefore did not know that the owner had reloaded it.
All of these stories are true and many others could be related, but the point is that safety with firearms begins with knowledge and prevention. That knowledge includes knowing the basics of how firearms operate. It also includes preventing people from handling loaded firearms except in controlled conditions with supervision. My son works a huge gun store and he has people come in to buy a handgun and they wanted to make sure that the trigger could not be pulled by a toddler with the idea that will assure some measure of safety.
Never leave a firearm unattended. If it is carried in a purse or backpack, do not leave the bag where anyone else can gain access to the firearm. A firearm that is kept ready for defense presents a different scenario than if it is kept for storage. To be available for quick use in defensive situations, the firearm must be loaded but secured against incidental contact by visitors or children. Some trigger locks are designed for such use.
Handguns are inherently more dangerous than are long guns. It is very easy to point the muzzle of a short gun in any direction whereas swinging a long gun is somewhat more difficult. Some striker fired handguns have very light triggers, which aids in accurate firing when only pulling the trigger is required. Unfortunately, this characteristic also makes them easy to fire accidentally. There are also numerous cases where such pistols have been fired accidentally while removing them from a holster. Some of these events have even involved police officers.
Striker fired semiautomatic pistols are extremely popular because to fire the piece only pulling the trigger is required. Many, but not all, semiautomatic pistols are designed with a disconnect feature that prevents the pistol from firing when the magazine is removed. Therefore, it is a good idea to keep autoloaders with the magazine removed. Some autoloading pistols also have a loaded chamber indicator. These are desirable features, but they should not replace any of the other steps of firearm safety. My incident with the .32 S&W revolver forever convinced me that revolvers are inherently safer than autoloaders.
Firearms are potentially dangerous. Proper etiquette of firearm handling must be taught and practiced. The most important rule is to treat all guns as if they are loaded and never allow the muzzle to be pointing at anything but the intended target. Anyone who will be using a firearm must be thoroughly familiar with the operation of that firearm. I hear stories from my son who sells firearms about people who want to buy a gun but have no idea how most guns operate or what the controls on the gun do. Anyone who wants to own a gun needs to understand the rudiments of how various types of firearms operate. Reading the instruction manual is a good first step, but hands on instruction by a knowledgeable teacher should follow.
There are essentially two approaches to reducing the risk of an accident with a firearm. The first is keeping the firearm where it is completely inaccessible to anyone except the owner. This is accomplished by having the firearm in a safe or cabinet that is locked and that can be opened only by the owner or other authorized person with no exceptions. This is especially true in all cases where youngsters or visitors may be in the proximity of firearms. My son keeps his firearms in a locked safe with a key on his person at all times in one state and I have the spare key in another state. A second approach is to keep an effective trigger lock on all firearms.
Some trigger locks are not constructed in such a way so as to prevent all trigger movement, perhaps enough to fire the weapon. Make sure that the trigger lock is adequate and compatible with the particular firearm. Even with a trigger lock in place firearms should be kept inaccessible to those who are not familiar with firearms. Numerous safety features are incorporated in particular firearms, but the human mind is the most important safety device.
When in actual use, the essential rules for handling firearms (these are essentially those of noted firearm expert Jeff Cooper) are as follows:
There are an enormous number of firearms in this country and the number of firearm owners is increasing. Many firearms are in locations where they may be encountered by inexperienced persons. We the people who love guns and shooting sports not only need to keep firearms secure, but also need to teach gun etiquette. It does our sport harm when unfriendly media exploits each tragedy to the greatest extent.
On the left is a replica that fires BBs. On the right is a .45 Auto. A tragedy can occur when one is mistaken for the other.
Revolvers come in two types, single action and double action. The single action must be cocked manually before each shot. Double action revolvers can be fired by pulling the trigger.
It is readily apparent that this double action revolver is loaded.
This autoloader may or may not be loaded but it does feature a key lock.
This Sig P225 can be fired by either cocking first (single action) or by pulling the trigger (double action).
This Glock is a striker fired pistol that requires only pulling the trigger. There is no safety or visible hammer.
The safety lever on this Ruger SR22 also functions as a decocking lever. When the safety is moved to the “on” position the hammer is lowered.
On Ruger bolt action rifles, the safety has three positions. When the safety is in the rear position, the rifle cannot be fired and the bold is locked. In the intermediate position, the rifle cannot be fired but the bolt can be opened. In the forward position, the safety is “off” the bolt can be opened and the rifle can be fired.
Older lever action rifles had a safety notch that held the hammer away from the firing pin, but newer models such as this Mossberg 464 have a separate safety.
Jim House has been involved in shooting sports for over 70 years. Now a retired chemistry professor, he has written several hundred articles on outdoor sports and is the author of Gun Digest Book of .22 Rimfire, American Air Rifles, CO2 Pistols & Rifles, and with his wife, Kathleen, Customize the Ruger 10/22 He was formerly the reloading editor for Gun World and a has written extensively for The Backwoodsman, The Illinois Shooter, and Airgun Hobbyist.