The first time I heard about the four rules of gun safety I was already working in the gun industry. I’d gotten a job at a gun store and already had a lifetime of gun handling behind me. I grew up with guns. I had survived and here I was, helping other people purchase firearms of their own. On one such occasion I cradled a firearm in my hand so that the muzzle was resting in my palm and was admonished by a coworker than such a practice was breaking one of the four rules of gun safety.

Four rules? There were four rules? Pray, do tell!

As the rules were laid out for me I was astonished that safer gun-handling could be laid out so simply. They made such perfect sense! This Jeff Cooper dude is brilliant!

I immediately amended my ways and started working more carefully to abide by the rules that would protect me and others from negligence, exhaustion and perhaps a little recklessness.

Yet, as I trained, I realized that the rules can be hotly debated, broken, misunderstood and perhaps a little more worshiped than followed in some cases.

Either way, ten years in and I’m still finding myself in situations where I’m questioning the rules, what they are really meant to guide and if they can be broken.

I’m not an expert. I have only my opinion to share and know that will likely change on the matter as it has already changed several times. As it is, however, there isn’t much out there in the ways of discussing the four rules of gun safety from the standpoint of, “Hey, let’s sit down and talk about this.”

So, I invite you to pull up a chair and grab a cup of coffee. Let’s sit down and chat about rule number one.

Treat Ever Gun As Though It Were Loaded

People get pretty bound up on the specific words, their order and use here. I’ve seen this written as “All guns are loaded all the time,” or “all guns are always loaded” or other variations of the same.

The point is that a firearm deserves to be treated with the respect that it is in a condition to cause death or great bodily harm at all times.

The rest of the safety rules really hinge off of us believing that this first rule is true. If you truly believe that a firearm is capable of causing death or great bodily harm at all times you tend to treat it a little more soberly.

When Guns Aren’t Loaded

I was once in a class where the instructor lectured on the four rules of gun safety for well over an hour. He was almost violently passionate about rule 1. The inflection he would put on “ALL guns are ALWAYS loaded ALL the time” was almost angry.

That afternoon, while sitting around in lawn chairs he decided it was necessary to show me his gun. He drew it from his holster, swept his entire lap before handing it to me and saying, “It hasn’t been loaded all day.”

The problem wasn’t with his understanding of the rules of safe handling it was that he knew what he was saying wasn’t true.

Guns aren’t loaded all the time.

His problem was that when he knew the gun wasn’t loaded that gave him permission (in his own mind) to break the other rules because his rule 1 wasn’t consistent with reality.

We see this pretty commonly. This is why so many people end up with holes in their legs while they are cleaning their guns. They think that because they believe a gun is unloaded it suddenly makes it okay to break the rest of the rules of gun handling. Because they believe it’s unloaded it’s now okay to let the muzzle sit in your palm while handing a gun to a customer, to point it at their own leg while taking it down to clean it. Because it’s believed to be unloaded it is okay to point at other people in training or demonstrations.

We’ll talk about that further when we get to rule 2 but for now I want to impress upon you the importance of the assumption that your gun truly is loaded and that you will treat it that way.

And herein lies one of my primary complaints with those who carry with an empty chamber.

They have a higher tendency than most to get complacent because they assume their firearm is unloaded. 

Over and over again I read stories or talked to people who have shot themselves or others because they carry with an empty chamber and forgot that they chambered a round or chambered a round unintentionally and did something with their firearms they would not have done had they believed their gun was loaded. This is a direct result of the bad habits built in the false security of, “Don’t worry. It’s not loaded.”

No less than three times in my life I’ve had guns pointed at me under the, “Don’t worry. It’s not loaded,” moniker and it was later discovered that those firearms were, indeed, loaded. I’ve seen other people stare down the barrels of “Don’t worry. It’s not loaded” guns and I’ve given tongue lashings to people who’ve used that as an excuse to point guns at people.

Make no mistake about it. There are times to point guns at people which we will talk about when we discuss rule 2 but I admonish you to be aware that pointing a firearm at someone else is one of the most aggressive actions that one person can do toward another person. It immediately implies intend to do great bodily harm or significant damage. If you think it’s “fun” to be reckless with firearms because you believe a gun is unloaded I hope you reconsider. If you won’t, I’m kind of under the impression you deserve whatever tongue lashing or trouble your recklessness deserves. I only hope you don’t eventually kill yourself or someone else in order to find that out.

If you keep your firearm unloaded for a majority of the time, evaluate your handling and see if it needs to be cleaned up to reflect the fact that one day you might be surprised by just how loaded it can be. It’s not about being “safe” or “unsafe,” it’s about being safer and it’s far safer to assume and treat your gun as though it’s loaded than the alternative.

Those of us who keep our firearms in loaded, firing conditions at all times don’t have to pretend our firearms are loaded at all times. We know they are and for the most part, if we have any sense in our heads, we treat them as such. That doesn’t mean that they can’t fall prey to complacency either, however.

Treat every gun as though it’s loaded.