Second Rule of Gun Safety Distilled: Keep the Muzzle Pointed in a Safe Direction

I recently published a post that attempted to distill the first rule of gun safety. After some feedback and thought, I thought I would turn that one post in a short series in my attempt to distill the foundations of gun safety from my point of view. As a reminder to existing readers and a notice to new readers, my point of view is simply my opinion as a civilian gun owner without any law enforcement or military background.

This post dives into the second rule. Like the first rule, depending on the source, the second rule is commonly phrased a few different ways. Some will say to always keep the gun pointed in a gun pointed in a safe direction. Others will say to never let the muzzle cover anything you are not willing to destroy. Rarely one will encounter a variation of this rule that isn’t stated as an absolute and that’s arguably the most accurate presentation of this rule, at least from my point of view and how I put this rule into practice.

Before we dive in, lets start with a review of the foundational rules of gun safe gun handling:

  1. Treat every firearm like it is loaded
  2. Keep the muzzle pointed in a safe direction
  3. Only place your finger on the trigger when you are ready to shoot
  4. Be sure of your target and what lies beyond it

With that out of the way, let’s look at rule #2: Keep the muzzle pointed in a safe direction.

Treating this rule as an absolute brings up some questions. Like how can one ever expect to inspect the barrel of a revolver since the gun will inevitably be pointed at one’s on head? Is it even possible to place a gun in a range bag and guarantee that the muzzle never sweeps a passenger in a vehicle it is being transported in? If one practices appendix carry and sits down, isn’t the gun pointing directly at one’s family jewels or leg? What if it’s in a shoulder holster?

These questions might lead one to believe that it is only applicable when the gun it is unholstered (or not slung) and in our hands. But, then it can’t be an absolute right?

So rather like treating this rule like an absolute, it’s my opinion this rule is yet another principle to guide us in establishing safe gun handling practices. Furthermore, this principle commonly follows the first principle. The ordering of the principles is important because it makes more sense when it is applied within the context of the principles that preceded it.

Let’s explore this.

Recall the first principle implores us to never assume the condition of a firearm, but to confirm it. So if the firearm has been confirmed to be be in condition 4 (no magazine inserted and no round in the chamber), one can rest assured that the firearm can be pointed in any direction safely. To be clear, I’m not suggesting that one should now go wave the gun around wildly and muzzle sweep everyone around them. That would be a very stupid thing to do. But one can now safely set a gun in a range bag, place the bag in a vehicle without worrying about the gun muzzle sweeping a passenger in the vehicle. One can also perform whatever maintenance is needed on the gun safely, including inspecting the bore.

On the other hand, if the gun’s condition is confirmed to be in any condition other than condition 4, then keeping the muzzle pointed in a safe direction requires active awareness and discipline.

The other interesting thing about the second rule is that it is also dependent on the context of the environment, activity, and type of firearm. It’s impossible for me to provide an exhaustive list of every combination of environment, activity, type of firearm, and condition. But I’ll cover a few different ones to illustrate my point.

To start, let us explore a common scenario for a practitioner of carrying a defensive firearm: the environment could be anything, the activity is carrying a concealed pistol, the type is a semi-automatic pistol, and the condition is 0. In this scenario, keeping the gun pointed in a safe direction would mean that it is holstered in a quality holster. That’s the only way (that I can think of to maintain good muzzle discipline). The type of carry or holster is not relevant. It could be an inside the waistband holster carrying on the strong side, it could be pocket carry with a pocket holster, it could be appendix carry with an appendix inside the waistband holster, it could be open carry, or it could be purse carry. As long as the weapon is properly and securely holstered in a quality holster, the chances of a negligent discharge are negligible and therefore can be considered to pointed in a safe direction.

Transportation of gun is another common activity for gun owners. Generally speaking, condition 4 (no magazine inserted and no round in the chamber) is arguably the preferred way a gun should be transported. This is especially a good idea if the gun that is being transported is in a bag or a case where it can shift around. Not to mention some jurisdictions place transportation requirements that may include container requirements in addition to firearm condition requirements. Many ranges require condition 4 for transporting a firearm around a range.

Another scenario maybe riding in a vehicle as a passenger while hunting. There may be multiple firearms at play in this scenario, but it is commonly a rifle (or a shotgun). The rifle would likely be unslung and would be in condition 3 (magazine inserted and no round in the chamber) or condition 1 (magazine inserted, round in the chamber, and safety on). In this case, the safest direction of the rifle would be pointed up at the roof of the vehicle. Note that some outfitters or vehicle owners may require the rifle to be in condition 3 to avoid a negligent discharge from ventilating the roof of the vehicle. Either way, a hole in the roof would be preferred over a round going into the vehicle’s powertrain, drivetrain, a tire, the driver, or a passenger.

At a shooting range, specifically at a the firing line, while target shooting regardless of the type of weapon, the only safe direction is downrange without raising the muzzle above the top of the berm is the only acceptable direction for a firearm to be pointed.

The list goes on. But one direction it is never acceptable is directly at another person, unless that person is an eminent deadly threat. I prefer to avoid absolutes, but this is one of the few I will make. This includes pointing the unloaded firearm back at the guy behind the gun shop counter who just handed it to us. While it might be safe, because we confirmed the firearm was indeed in condition 4 (no magazine inserted and no round in the chamber), it’s still bad form and not acceptable.

The point is the definition of what a safe direction is contextually dependent on the environment, activity, type of firearm, and firearm condition. In practice, keeping the gun pointed in a safe direction means we have a responsibility to be aware of the muzzle and the discipline to maintain it pointing in an acceptable direction.

If I were to write my own version of the second rule of safe gun handling, I would write it like this: Maintain muzzle awareness and discipline.

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