Fourth Rule of Gun Safety Distilled: Be Sure of Your Target and What Lies Beyond It

This segment wraps up my opinions (as a as a civilian gun owner without any law enforcement or military background) on the fundamentals of safe gun handling. Let’s cover the fourth and final fundamental principle.

There are many flavors of the fourth rule. Some flavors say one must be certain of what is between you and the target and between the target and the backstop. Other flavors just focus on being aware of the backstop. Regardless of the flavor, all variations focus on reminding us that we are responsible for every round that leaves our firearms and accountable for the damage it does. As such, we have a duty to know what the firearm will do when the trigger is pressed.

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 #4: Be sure of your target and what lies beyond.

There is so much to unpack in this rule that it’s hard to decide where to begin. Let’s start with remembering that when we are ready to press the trigger, we have already put the first, second, and third principles into practice. That means we have confirmed the condition of the firearm, are aware the direction the muzzle is pointed, and have intentionally and deliberately placed our finger on the trigger.

The fourth rule isn’t just applicable when actually shooting live ammo. It’s applicable to every single trigger press. I’ll cover a few scenarios.

The first scenario is arguably the most obvious as most, if not every, gun owner shoots live ammo at a target at least once. This could be for recreation, training, or just to verify a gun is operational. There are many different settings for this scenario including, but not limited, to private property, an indoor range, or an outdoor range. Regardless of setting, the scenario is pretty much the same. We have a loaded firearm, pointed at a target, finger on the trigger and are ready to take a shot. Since we have the intention of striking a target and nothing else with the projectile, we should be certain there isn’t anyone in the line of fire and there is a safe place for the projectile to stop. This is where most people stop and squeeze the trigger. But, in my opinion, it’s insufficient.

Let me share a story with you. About a year ago, I was at the range doing trying out some different hunting loads in a rifle. I was being very careful about the shots I was taking with the intention of collecting the targets afterwards and measuring group sizes. As I was getting into it on the hundred hard range, a couple of guys set up in the bay next to me. We held a cease fire and they set up their target next to mine at the 100 yard line. Nothing out of the ordinary so far. That’s until the range went hot and they started shooting and hitting my target. Of course, I got upset as some of my work had to be scrapped. I immediately mentioned it to them and they apologized and informed me they had just mounted a new scope and were trying to figure out how to zero it. I suggested they take the rifle over to the twenty five yard range and start making adjustments there as it would be a lot easier to get on paper.

The point is the guys next to me had idea how far off their zero was. Granted me getting upset was the only thing that came of it. But, had the elevation on their scope been way off they could have easily sent projectiles over the berm which could have resulted the negligent harming of the neighboring properties live stock or worse. This means knowing your target and what lies beyond is not enough. We also have to be certain of the path the projectile will follow. Furthermore, it follows that we have to be confident in our abilities to actually hit the target we are aiming at.

Hunting is another scenario. In this scenario, hunters have a responsibility to only take safe an ethical shots. Like the target shooting scenario, a safe shot means projectile will only impact the intended target and come to rest safely behind it. Not wound another animal or another hunter. The ethical component means that we are as certain that we can be that we have properly identified the game and are confident the impact will be in the vital zone and quickly dispatch the animal. This means a hunter has to know the distance to the animal, understand bullet drop, and wind drift. They also have to know the limits to their ability and their equipment. All of this is bundled up nicely into the fourth rule.

Self defense scenarios present a who different set of circumstances. In urban and suburban settings, residential and commercial building walls generally don’t make a good backstop. We also have to deal with innocent bystanders who maybe running erratically due to panic. Again, proper target identification is mandated by the fourth rule. That’s in addition to only taking shots that can be made while being certain the bullet will come to rest safely and not hitting unintended people.

The fourth rule also applies to scenarios where the firearm is unloaded. For example, a function check after performing firearm maintenance requires a trigger press. In this scenario, it’s not a bad idea to point the firearm into a bullet stop (like a bucket filled with sand or a large stack of books). There are several people that will say this isn’t necessary since we have confirmed the firearm is in a condition where a round isn’t chambered and the magazine (or cylinder) is empty. This means we are certain the firearm will only “click” or not click when the trigger is pressed which will confirm its functional state. Whether one points the gun at a bullet stop or not is up to the individual. At the same time, that same individual is responsible and accountable for what happens if that gun goes bang.

Dry practice is very similar to a function check as far as the fourth rule is concerned. Some folks use reduced size dry practice targets to aim at. Other folks will use stacks of books or body armor as targets when dry practicing. There are even some that will aim at characters on a TV show or a movie playing on their flat screen TV. Assuming the other three rules are in practice then the gun will not go bang. Once again, the bullet stop is an additional safety touch that’s not a bad idea, but it’s up to the individual who will be held responsible and accountable for a negligent discharge.

With all that said, the fourth rule isn’t as simple as being sure of your target and what lies beyond. Like all the other rules, it’s very context dependent. But unlike the other rules, it takes everything from our abilities, our equipment, the scenario, and the surrounding environment. Bottom line, don’t press that trigger if you aren’t certain and confident what will follow and willing to deal with the aftermath.

If I were to write my own version of the fourth rule of safe gun handling, I would write it like this: Only press the trigger when you are certain and confident of what will follow after it’s pressed.

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