There are some general principles of gun safety that people seem to broadly agree on. The NRA, for example, (in NRA Guide to the Basics of Personal Protection in the HOme, page 3ff) lists the three basic rules
- Always keep the gun pointed in a safe direction
- Always keep your finger off the trigger until ready to shoot
- Always keep the firearm unloaded until ready to use
AACFI gives (in Everything You Need To Know About (Legally) Carrying A Handgun In Minnesota, page 163ff) a list more in accordance with what I learned
- Always treat every firearm as though it’s loaded
- Always keep every firearm pointed in a safe direction
- Keep your finger outside the trigger guard until you’re ready to shoot
(I think the NRA omission of any rule about treating the firearm as loaded is a colossal error). However, either set breaks down if looked at closely, or at least requires careful interpretation.
For example, does a gun lying open on the table need to be pointed in a safe direction? What about a gun in a case? What about a gun in a safe? Or a gun in a holster on your body? What if the holster holds the gun pointing straight up into your armpit (the classic Berns-Martin shoulder rig)? Or straight down at your balls (Thunderwear)? What about when you’re about to shoot an attacker; is that a “safe direction”?
Sometimes people restate that rule as “Never point a gun at anything you’re not willing to shoot” (or “destroy”). I like that a little better; the AACFI rule came out the way it did, I believe, because of a dislike for the double negative construction (which I admit is a problem especially for a short slogan to be taught to a wide range of people). It definitely solves the problem of pointing the gun at the attacker, at least.
Nearly everybody treats guns in safes as “not guns” (don’t worry about where they point). Nearly as many treat guns in cases that way. Guns on tables with the action open are generally treated that way too. People will walk downrange in front of their own guns, if they’re in that condition.
I don’t know anybody who worries about where their carry gun points while holstered, either (though the male Thunderwear users I know talk about being very careful when practicing holstering).
A lot of people, though, except gun dealers, don’t like a gun lying on a table pointing at anybody. (Gun dealers have to get used to it, I’m afraid.)
This creates interesting problems when uncasing your gun. If you don’t remember and can’t tell its orientation in the case, you may unfasten the case and instantly create a safety violation.
A lot of confusion comes from confusing needs on the range from needs in carry for self-defense. On the range it’s a very good idea to not load the gun until just before shooting; when carrying for self-defense, that’s not really an option. One workaround I’ve seen is that a gun being carried (or stored at home) for self-defense is considered “ready to use” so that (by the NRA rule) it’s okay to load it. The AACFI list doesn’t have this problem, but you could argue that not loading guns before you need them is important enough that it should be listed at that level.
A remarkable proportion of the gun community, and the accumulated wisdom and habit of that community, doesn’t consider carry. For example, it’s a major standing rule that you cannot bring a loaded gun to an NRA gun course, and many gun shops and ranges have signs posted warning you that all guns must be unloaded and cased. Carry simply wasn’t on the radar (and police simply ignored the signs).
I wonder if this is much different in states that have had shall-issue carry laws longer than us?
Think how it looks to outsiders. We’re opposed to laws limiting carry in schools and courthouses, but many ranges, stores, and gun classes have restrictive rules.
There are, of course, concerns with courses for beginners. By definition, they don’t have the experience and habits to avoid mistakes, so you want extra layers of protection between them and BANG.
In the past, a lot of people carrying just calmly ignored such rules, counting on concealment. I don’t like that as a solution, and it doesn’t address the political problem at all. And my libertarian side says people have the right to set some rules for what people do on their property, even if I don’t like their choices.
I was told recently by an NRA training counselor that the rule is to prevent things like a disaster where a student brought in a fully-auto weapon (that he owned legally with class-III license), and the instructor shot up the room with it (through not noticing it was loaded). Problem with this is exactly the problem with all the rest of the gun-control rules: the rule already existed, and didn’t prevent the problem. The number of safety violations committed here is huge, of course. Following the safety rules really would have prevented this problem. And nobody was actually shot, so the “safe direction” rule would seem to have been followed, if only by good fortune. (Actually, this event sounds like an urban legend, as do most things passed on orally, so I’m looking for some documentation.)
There are also cases like dry-firing, and especially use of dummy ammunition, snap-caps, and the like. The rule to exclude all other ammunition from the area where this is being done is not crazy — though I never do that at home. I just check what I’m actually using very carefully. But a classroom with multiple students is a much more complex and dynamic environment.
We need to be careful to not compromise safety while advancing gun rights, and to not compromise gun rights when thinking about safety.