Controlling exactly where your firearm is pointed at all times is a rule that typically ranks as number one or two on most gun safety lists. It’s an important practice for obvious reasons and it should absolutely never be underestimated.
The rules around safety in this area would read as ‘Always keep the muzzle pointed in a safe direction’ or ‘Never let the muzzle cover anything that you are not willing to destroy’. It seems to be a simple enough concept, but it’s the type of thing that can easily be forgotten or that can fall victim to laziness or lapses in judgement. No matter why or how you hold a firearm, the practice of strict muzzle discipline and control is vital. This applies not only to how you carry the gun, but would also include how you load and unload, draw, store, hand to another person or set down on a bench or tailgate etc. – essentially, how you handle the gun overall. Muzzle discipline is ultimately intended to minimize the potential damage caused by an unintentional discharge of the firearm. That reference to ‘unintentional’ is an important one that we’ll address more fully below.
How Accidents Happen
Basically, these shooting incidents occur when someone carelessly points their gun at a person or object without meaning to do so. This is very common with new or inexperienced shooters and can also include crossing their own bodies as they unholster or handle the gun in a dangerous manner. Often referred to as a muzzle sweep, it is a fairly common issue where there are a number of people in the immediate vicinity, such as a busy range or a hunting party. We’ve all seen depictions of this in movies and television, where the rookie shooter hits their target and then excitedly wheels around to face those who were standing behind them. Everyone of course jumps back and it makes for a comedic moment, but unfortunately this is exactly the type of thing that can prove deadly in the real world.
This is where it’s important to make a distinction between what is accidental vs. what is negligent. While both types of discharges are technically unintentional, they differ in how they happen and how preventable they may have been. Truly accidental discharges are much more rare and would typically be due to a malfunction or mechanical failure. A negligent discharge is a result of a mistake on the part of the person handling the firearm, which could likely have been avoided if safety protocols were more strictly observed.
What further complicates matters is a disregard for the other top (and interrelated) rules around safe gun handling. Aside from muzzle control, there’s a good reason why we a) Treat every firearm as if it were loaded and b) Keep your finger off the trigger until ready to shoot. Without stating any specific statistics here, there are many incidents annually where an unintentional discharge occurs with a person who was absolutely positive that their gun was unloaded. They are always shocked that the gun ‘went off’ and that they were sure that they had checked it. Unfortunately, this happens a lot and can have devastating results.
We understand that consistently keeping your muzzle pointed in a safe direction is a fundamental practice and that it will help to eliminate most all firearms accidents. Even if a number of other safety elements get missed, they won’t be as much of an issue if the gun is never directed toward anything that isn’t a target. Pretty straight forward.
A few other things to consider…
A ‘safe direction’ for muzzle orientation would also include avoiding the potential for ricochets and accounting for the fact that bullets can travel through walls, ceilings and floors.
Keep firearms unloaded until ready to shoot. With some exceptions, a loaded weapon has no place in your home, hunting cabin or vehicle.
Do not use your gun’s ‘safety’ being on as an excuse for poor muzzle discipline. It is a mechanical device which can fail like any other and it should not be relied on as an absolute safety measure. The switch may also be mistakenly ‘on’ as opposed to ‘off’ and there is always the potential that it may shift due to the gun being dropped or jarred somehow.
Pay special attention to the muzzle direction when loading and unloading your guns. Make use of shooting range unloading stations or bullet traps, or you might consider some form of ballistic containment pad for home use. Be sure to keep guns pointed into the dirt where possible and be aware of keeping the muzzle pointed downrange when racking or dry firing.
Clearly there will be different carry and movement methods for tactical work, personal defense, hunting and competitive shooting. Depending on the type/format of the firearm, the shooter will need to be well-versed on the muzzle orientation and transitioning from one position to another. It’s also important to remember that, because of the shorter barrel, the degree to which a handgun is pointed will produce a greater degree of angle downrange.
Again, even if you are 100% certain that a gun is unloaded, be sure to keep it pointed in a safe direction when it is set down anywhere. This would include leaning it against another object (not the best plan), putting it down onto a flat surface or loading/unloading into a case.
Aside from clear muzzle control when handing a firearm to another person (ie. don’t point it at them), be sure to take the additional steps of opening the action, keeping it open and visually checking the chamber and magazine.
Even for those who are VERY careful with where they point their firearms, there’s no accounting for slips, falls and a potential unintentional discharge. It’s always a good practice to keep guns unloaded when crossing over fences (or hand them over with a partner), if you’re traveling on loose footing or difficult terrain, climbing into a tree stand or any other awkward situation.
Don’t ever hesitate to let another shooter know if they’re not exercising good muzzle control. Some may get defensive or make excuses, but there’s too much at stake not to speak up.
Firearm safety is everyone’s responsibility, and a big part of that is ensuring that fundamental and consistent firearm handling procedures are always in-play.
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