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Basic Principle: YOU are responsible for ANY gun in your possession. Possession, defined by law, means holding or controlling. If someone is going through the trunk of their car, and hands you a gun to hold for the briefest of moments, you are suddenly responsible for that weapon. You are responsible for making sure the gun is held safely and pointing safely, and YOU ARE RESPONSIBLE for ANY discharge of that weapon. If someone is hurt due to your momentary negligence, you are responsible, whether you dropped the gun, didn't know it was loaded, or accidentally pointed it in an unsafe direction. The person most likely to be injured in an accidental discharge is yourself or a friend. So follow the rules.

These are commonly accepted among gun instructors, and have been published many times before. They are in the public domain and are collected here for your convenience.

1. ALWAYS CHECK THE GUN to see if it is loaded. Even if you just saw someone else check the gun, even if you know it is unloaded, ALWAYS visually inspect the gun before handling it further. This means opening it up to check any places where a live round might be hiding. Do this WHENEVER you acquire the gun--someone reaches under the counter in a gun store to show you a weapon--check it. You hand someone an unloaded gun to hold while you shift some ammo cases. When they hand it back--check it. It should be a routine matter of habit, anytime you pick up a gun or someone hands you one.

COROLLARY: Never accept into your possession a gun that you do not know how to check! Ask someone to show you how to check the gun first. Don't fiddle with it thinking you'll figure it out.

2. ALWAYS treat the gun as if it were loaded anyway. The following rules thus apply to any gun, loaded or not.

3. ALWAYS keep the gun pointed in a safe direction. If you are at a range, keep it pointed downrange. When reloading, be aware of where the weapon is pointing. It should be pointing at the target, or into the ground. If your weapon is holstered, your holster should direct the muzzle downward at a relatively acute angle, not poking out from under your arm to endanger everyone standing behind you. If you are hunting, keep your rifles pointing skyward if slung, or into the ground if carried, not aimed at your friend-in-front-of-you's butt. Don't lean on a rifle. Don't cowboy-twirl your single-action revolvers. Etcetera.

When cleaning or repairing a gun this might not be possible--it's difficult, for instance, to keep the gun safely pointed while looking down the barrel. When you clean, either the action of the gun is open, or the gun is disassembled. Be cautious, and use common sense.

4. Unless your gun is ON THE TARGET, keep your FINGER OFF THE TRIGGER. Simple: on target equals on trigger, off target equals off trigger. Easy to say, but the trigger is a natural place to rest a finger when holding a gun. Don't do it! Keep your trigger finger straight, resting against the side of the trigger guard. The only time the finger comes to the trigger is when the gun has been brought to bear on the target you intend to shoot.

Once you know this rule, you can watch nearly any gun-handling TV show or movie to see how commonly it is violated. If you are a TV cop approaching a possibly lethal situation, your gun should be at ready, pointed in a safe direction, finger OFF the trigger. Carrying the gun, examining the gun, drawing the gun from a holster--whatever. Finger off the trigger until the gun is on the target.

5. The oft-repeated, NEVER point your gun at anything you are not prepared to shoot. This doesn't mean that if you have pointed a gun at something that you are obliged to pull the trigger. It DOES mean that anything you point your gun at could possibly take a bullet, whether you intend it to or not. It also means you NEVER brandish your gun or threaten anyone with it unless you are in an immediate life or death situation and you are prepared to use it. It means that it doesn't matter if the gun is loaded or not--handle it as if it were.

This rule, again, is ridiculously ignored in movies. People are always gesturing to each other with their guns. Watch the arc that the muzzle covers when they do this. People who cross your body while waving their guns around are not your friends.

6. Be sure of your target and what is beyond it. This means NEVER point or fire at anything that (1) you cannot clearly and unambiguously identify as a target, and (2) that would pose a danger to anyone were your bullet to stray, richochet, or overpenetrate. It means always knowing where your bullet has the potential to go. Never point the gun or pull the trigger at a close-range target without a backstop that will STOP your fire. Dry firing? The gun is unloaded, eh? SEE RULE #2. Only fire against a backstop. There are too many corollarys to this rule to list, especially when it comes to open-range target plinking, long-distance shooting, and self-defense situations. Using safety ammo is supposed to reduce overpenetration of the target, but it won't keep you from hitting a bystander if you miss. Be sure of your target.

7. Store and transport your guns safely. There is no strong concensus as to what constitutes safe storage and transportation, so it's up to your discretion. Some people keep all their guns in a fireproof basement gun vault with their ammunition stored separately, other people keep their handgun loaded and on their person at all times. Investigate the options, and exercise your common sense. You should know that if a child ever acquires a firearm due to your negligence, you could be federally liable. Be aware that your vehicle typically stands a much greater chance of being burglarized than your home. Factory ammunition doesn't constitute a fire hazard, but be careful where you store it. Investigate the options, make a formal determination about how your weapons will be safely stored and transported, and then stick to it.

A couple common rules of thumb are: never be separated from a loaded weapon--if the gun is away from your person, in your car, at home alone, etc, it should be unloaded. And never depend on hiding a weapon to keep it from a child.

8. Shoot with eye and ear protection. Simple, eh? Obviously in some cases (self-defense, hunting) you may not be able to, but you'll be better off when you do.

9. The common-sense rule of threat avoidance: never do anything when you are armed that you wouldn't do if you weren't--i.e. intervening in a robbery, going outside your house to investigate noises, going to tell your drunken neighbor to shut up, etc. Think about leaving the gun behind. If you wouldn't do it without a gun--DON'T DO IT. Call the police, swallow your pride, take the loss--whatever. Don't carry a gun into a potential conflict where you feel you might need it. Avoid the situation. Simple advice, but sometimes difficult to follow. Don't be macho, be smart.

10. The tenth and final rule--never hand a gun to anyone that doesn't understand and abide by these rules. Once they are holding the gun, it is their, not your, responsibility to handle it safely, but you have your conscience to live with.

These are just the basics. If you do things like hand loading, hunting, skeet shooting, practical shooting, or open range plinking there will be a pile of other safety considerations. You should know federal laws, and the laws in your state. Keep these rules in mind, and you may well live to be a happy handler of many guns.

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