"I didn't know it was loaded!" are tragic words often uttered after a friend or family member has committed a gun accident. Accidents with firearms are essentially 100% avoidable. By learning and applying the basic safety rules for proper firearms handling and storage, you can avoid the pain and agony that result from a gun accident.
One of the saddest notes about school shootings is that they can be prevented—not by an act of Congress or a Supreme Court ruling, but by insuring that guns do not fall into the hands of children.
The first rule of firearm safety is as simple as it is important: Know why you have a weapon in the house, and act accordingly. That means keeping the weapon secured where no one can get at it who isn't supposed to. After all, how often are you going to hunt deer or shoot targets in your home?
Education: How to Use and NOT Use Guns
Becoming more responsible with firearms begins with education. No one should have a rifle or pistol in the house unless they have been trained in how to use it—and how not to use it.
There are approximately 30,000 firearm-related deaths in the United States each year, twice that many non-fatal gunshot wounds. A Department of Justice study found that 72% of homicide victims age 12 or older were killed with a firearm. Children are not immune from firearm-related injuries and death. A study published in the journal Pediatrics found that about 3,000 children age 14 and under are treated in emergency departments each year in the United States for gunshot wounds. One in five of these children die. Four out of five are shot by themselves, a friend, a relative, or another person known to them. Another study in the Journal of the American Medical Association looked at school-associated violent deaths and found that in 60% of firearms-related homicides or suicides by students the source of the gun was the student’s home, friend, or relative.
The Basics of Firearm Safety
Firearms education should include a number of basics:
Classes. Classes are not necessarily just for the person who will be firing the weapon. It is a good idea for anyone who may come in contact with the gun to take a safety class. Children should be taught the basics, especially if they are going to be around the weapon. They need to learn that guns are not toys, and that the damage they can cause is permanent. Many states and municipalities certify gun instructors. Your local police department may have a list. Know, too, that states with right-to-carry laws require a minimum number of hours of education before issuing a right-to-carry permit.
Storing your weapon. Keep your rifle or pistol where no one can get to it who isn't supposed to get to it. That means locking it up, and there are a number of ways to do that. Options include:
- A gun safe
- Keeping it in a locked attic or basement. It's also possible to keep it in a drawer or cabinet that can be locked.
- A trigger lock, which resembles the locks used on the dial on rotary telephones. If the weapon has a trigger lock, it can't be fired without first unlocking it.
- Locked trunk. If you have to transport the weapon, keep it in a locked trunk, and never leave it unattended or unlocked in your car.
And think long and hard about keeping a loaded weapon around the house. People are rarely hurt or killed by an "unloaded" firearm. If there is no ammunition in the gun's chamber, clip or magazine, the most that could happen by improperly handling a firearm is inadvertently dropping it on a toe.
If you must must keep a loaded gun in the house, make sure small children can't get to the loaded weapon to play with it or fire it accidentally. If you are planning the purchase of a new firearm, consider buying one with a built-in indicator that the firing chamber is loaded. This can alert you to the risk that an "unloaded" gun may discharge unexpectedly.
Ammunition. Practice as much care with your ammunition as you do with rifle or pistol. Keep bullets and magazines secured, following the same sort of procedure that you use for the weapons.
Three Fundamental Rules for Firearm Use
Although the National Rifle Association (NRA) has complete gun safety rules available for specific types of firearm use (hunting and competition, for example), the following three rules are fundamental in any situation. Whether or not you own a gun, it is important to know these rules so that you may insist that others follow them.
Always keep the gun pointed in a safe direction. This is the primary rule of gun safety. "Safe Direction" means that the gun is pointed so that even if it were to go off, it would not cause an injury. Whether you are shooting or simply handling a gun, never point it at yourself or others. Common sense will tell you which direction is the safest. Outdoors, it is generally safe to point the gun toward the ground, or, if you are on a shooting range, toward the target. Indoors, be mindful of the fact that a bullet can penetrate ceilings, floors, walls, windows, and doors.
Always keep your finger off the trigger until ready to shoot. When handling a gun, people have a natural tendency to put their finger on the trigger. Do not touch the trigger unless you are actually preparing to fire the gun.
Always keep the gun unloaded until ready to use. If you do not know how to check to see if a gun is unloaded, leave it alone. Carefully secure it, being certain to point it safely and to keep your finger off the trigger, and seek competent assistance.
Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives
Safety and Training
National Rifle Association
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Source of firearms used by students in school-associated violent deaths. JAMA . 2003; 289(13):1626-1627.
National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/ncipc/dvp/dvp.htm. Accessed March 10, 2005.
US Department of Justice. Injuries from violent crime, 1992-1998. US Department of Justice website. Available at: http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/abstract/ivc98.htm . Accessed March 10, 2005.
Eber GB, Annest JL, Mercy JA, Ryan CW. Nonfatal and fatal firearm-related injures among children aged 14 years and younger: United States, 1993-2000. Pediatrics . 2004; 113(6):1686-1692.
Beaman V, Annest JL, Mercy JA, Krewnow M-j, Pollock DA. Lethality of Firearm-Related Injuries in the United States Population. Annals of Emergency Medicine . 2000; 35(3): 258-66.
Baroni S, Richmond TS. Firearm violence in America: a growing health problem. Crit Care Nurs Clin North Am. Sep 2006;18(3):297-303
Last reviewed January 2007 by Marcin Chwistek, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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