To begin, let me tell you why you need to read this article and absorb what I have to say. In just my small town, and just this week, I was involved in the care of three gunshot victims. Two of them died. One of those I took in a body bag to a morgue, the other I pronounced dead at the scene (let the coroner take care of that clean-up) and tried my damnedest to console a wife-to-be as she asked me “Why?” The third survived, but with a grievous and life-changing injury.
Here’s the worst part: all three of these were preventable.
In every case, I can pinpoint exactly where gun safety broke down. Then due to one circumstance or another, the firearm performed exactly as it was designed to – sear breaks, firing pin crushes primer, gunpowder burns, pressure builds, and projectile flies. I don’t want any of you to have to bear the things I have this week, so I present my ABCs of gun safety.
*DISCLAIMER*: I am not a firearms instructor, expert witness, or any other authority on guns. I am, however, an EMT, a lifelong gun enthusiast, and a man of integrity. I do not intend to publish anything that I know to be misleading, harmful, or untrue. Feel free to call me out if you believe I’ve failed with this. I don’t think I have, and I don’t think you will either.
The ABCs are something any medically minded person can recognize immediately. The acronym, fully ABCD, stands for: Airway Breathing Circulation Disability.
These are the steps of resuscitation and are listed in order of importance, beginning with airway. Without an airway, you can’t breathe (really bad). If you don’t breathe, your heart can’t circulate oxygenated blood (extra bad). Without oxygenated blood your brain and heart will die (insanely bad). Finally, If there’s some significant disability, you might be pumping your oxygenated blood all over the world (super bad). Realistically you need to have all four to sustain life, but you especially need an airway first or you’ll quickly lose the rest. Then you need breathing, then circulation, then [lack of] disability, in that order, to have life.
Gun safety, in my opinion, is similar. There are basics that you must have in order for any other efforts to be effective. Every gun manual with every gun I’ve ever purchased favors the “ten commandments of gun safety.” I’ll explain in another article why I despise this analogy, and why I believe it may have killed three people last week. For now, I’ll give you my version of gun safety, and if followed it may not only save your life or a loved one’s but could have saved the lives of three other good Americans.
Airway. Treat every gun like it is loaded. Sounds simple enough, but this is incredibly important. It is the lynchpin of all other gun safety, and despite its simplicity must not be taken lightly. Let’s dissect this more to find out why. The word treat, as opposed to handle, or load, or use, implies that all weapons (not just the ones we’re going to handle, or load, or use) must be dealt with the same way: safely. It also implies that safety is all of our responsibility. Your wife’s gun, that antique in the picture frame at your buddy’s house, the guy down line on the range, the gun you or a shopkeep is inspecting at the gun show, must all be treated like they are loaded. The consequences of not doing so are dire.
The word “every” is covered somewhat already, but I mean EVERY gun. It also implies an aspect of constant vigilance. Once a gun is cleared, you do not get to stop treating it safely. Vice versa if you clear a weapon and hand it to someone else, you wouldn’t let them point it at your eyeball to inspect the barrel. Treat EVERY gun, all the time, like it’s loaded. I insist on using the word “like” instead of “as if” because people tend to treat loaded weapons differently (usually more safely), and this isn’t a fantasy world we live in. I don’t want anyone “pfft, as if it’s loade**BANG!**” Treat that weapon like it’s loaded, even if you know it’s not. Where we tend to forget this rule is with loaded weapons, an everyday carry for example. However, safety especially applies to loaded weapons. If you install aftermarket sites, be sure they are installed correctly and use high-quality products such as survival mag. Do not get complacent. Treat it like it is loaded BECAUSE IT IS.
Take it out of your holster carefully and clear it safely, THEN take your pants/holster/coat off. The word “loaded” portends to a weapon that is ready to fire i.e. it will discharge if you allow it to. That’s what is designed to do, go bang! “So when the safety is on, since what it’s designed to do is keep that firearm from discharging, it’s safe, right?” WRONG. Every firearm is simply a mechanical device and can fail which can lead to discharge. Ammo could fail, and no bang happen, but why take the chance? Every gun can fire, intentionally or not if conditions that are not obvious to an external observer are met. If these impossible-to-know conditions are met, the gun is deadly if used incorrectly. Therefore, treat every gun like it is loaded. Do this, and you have your airway. Other gun safety can now follow.
Breathing. Never point a gun at something you don’t intend to kill. This too is very important, sometimes even listed as first by some authorities. Reminder, though, this step is useless if you don’t treat your gun like it’s loaded. This rule can essentially be boiled down to relentless muzzle control, and can only be accomplished with diligence. Areas that are often overlooked are donning and doffing of clothing and holsters, cleaning, storage, and handling indoors. This rule also reminds us that guns are lethal, and I insist that you treat every part of a person as vital. I guarantee that I could kill you if you don’t receive immediate and definitive care after I shoot you in the foot and knick the tibial artery (perhaps with spall or jacket fragments). Given that most gun ranges are away from people by design, any injury from a firearm can be lethal and is unacceptable.
Assume that if you connect, you will kill. A second aspect of this rule is to imagine a laser that stretches from your muzzle to infinity. Another way to state this is a gun is always “pointing” somewhere, even if you don’t point it. Walls do not stop bullets well. It’s hard to imagine that you can kill a building, but whatever building you’re in most likely won’t kill that bullet. Do not have your muzzle aimed at the room your kids are in while you’re cleaning. Don’t hang a gun on a rack in an apartment pointed at the adjacent one. Don’t rest a gun in the basement pointed at your upstairs roommate’s bed. Unless you actually intend to kill them. Never point a gun at something you don’t intend to kill. Do this, and you have an airway and breathing, but you’re still dead without circulation.
Circulation. Keep your safety on until you intend to kill. From the previous two rules, we accept that all guns are loaded and that if pointed at the right place can (and do) kill. Sometimes, though, we want or need some gunpowder to burn. Here’s a shocker: an AR-15 and a handgun are equally deadly. The finger behind the trigger is *typically* what decides how deadly any gun is. I harken back to the scene in Blackhawk Down that made us all want to be a badass.
As theatrical as it was, I believe there is some merit in there. 99.999% of the time, a finger decides when a gun goes boom. Until you’re ready to kill something, keep your finger OFF the trigger and the safety ON. I list your finger before your safety because of the current trend towards external safety-less handguns. In this case, your finger is the safety. Keep the safety on by keeping your finger off and over the trigger guard, AND also keep your safety on if applicable. Make every trigger pull an intentional decision. In a murder trial your peers likely won’t favor an argument of “the gun just went off in my hand” or “I didn’t know what I was doing.” Would you buy that defense?
This rule is not the first rule because it is a measure that can fail. We must thusly assume it will. Practice good trigger discipline, and you’re almost home. Keep your safety on until you intend to kill. You’re almost alive, but you have to keep it all going by preventing disability.
Disability. Use common sense. Just like disability in the medical sense, this rule is a catch-all and actually made of numerous different rules. ALL of them are equally important. ALL of them are pointless if you don’t treat a gun like it’s loaded, then point it at something you don’t intend to kill, and have your finger on the kill switch. First of all, THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS AN ACCIDENTAL DISCHARGE. Until you show me a gun that sat in saltwater, cocked, until the sear rusted and eventually released the hammer and discharged, you will not ever show me a gun that went off “accidentally.” There is always input from a human. Even if it was accidental input, if the gun discharges and you did not intend for it to, then that is negligent. ALCOHOL AND GUNS NEVER MIX. End of story.
Lock the guns somehow before drinking, never consume alcohol while using guns, and never handle guns while using alcohol. Don’t go somewhere there is obviously alcohol, and leave somewhere if the two end up in the same place. EDUCATE CHILDREN ON PROPER SAFETY, EARLY. Every part of proper child safety in guns is your own efforts! Keep it locked and away from children. Unload arms and store ammo separately if appropriate; for long guns that aren’t defensive, I see no reason you shouldn’t already be doing this. Teach them that the safe is off-limits, and how to be safe with any gun if it presents itself. USE YOUR BRAIN. If something seems dangerous, don’t do it.
DON’T MAKE COMPROMISES. Gun safety keeps you safe, don’t give that up for any reason. Don’t make a square peg fit into a round hole. If something breaks, have it fixed by a competent gunsmith before using it again. Double-check everything. Make your arm and ammo selection the result of a reasoned effort. Buy a gun that fits and excels at its intended use. Do the same with ammunition. WEAR A HOLSTER. Fingers are good at pressing triggers and sending firing pins… but so are other things. Loops of clothing, pencils, gravity (well, inertia, actually)… all of these can lead to a negligent discharge. Use common sense. I can’t stress this enough.
In my personal experiences, I can show exactly where a breakdown of gun safety occurred that led to serious injury or death. I can do the same with most accidents that occur nowadays. Please, so that you never have to feel for your friend’s fading pulse, follow these or other gun safety rules. The ABCs are the best for me, and I think most people, but maybe not for you. Whichever gun safety you prefer do not take it lightly. Firearms are an immense responsibility, and to not take safety seriously is flirting with death. Finally, firearms are a cornerstone of a free people. Unfortunately, the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.
This first appeared in The Havok Journal on March 6, 2019.
As the Voice of the Veteran Community, The Havok Journal seeks to publish a variety of perspectives on a number of sensitive subjects. Unless specifically noted otherwise, nothing we publish is an official point of view of The Havok Journal or any part of the U.S. government.