Author: Luther Cutts, Head Instructor (NSCA Level 3), Competitor
The topic of muzzle control is something that comes up frequently – I believe that everyone knows that it is a fundamental element in firearms safety, and few would argue that pointing a firearm in an unsafe direction is a good idea. There does not, however, seem to be a bright-line distinction between what is acceptable and unacceptable gun handling in some commonly encountered circumstances.
For instance, with some individuals, there is a reduced expectation of stringent muzzle control when the firearm is unloaded, while with others, muzzle discipline is the number one rule that must never, under any circumstances, be infringed upon.
Firearms Safety Fundamentals
The Canadian Firearms Safety Course, which is the training required before anyone can apply for a federal Firearms License, has a strong emphasis on the need for vigilant muzzle discipline. Those who have taken the course might recall the two acronyms ACTS and PROVE:
- In the Vital Four ACTS of Firearms Safety, the “C” stands for “Control the Muzzle at all times”
- The second acronym, PROVE, has as its first point “Point the firearm in the safest available direction.”
- In the delivery of the course, the students are advised that if they point the firearm at anyone, including themselves, during the course, they will immediately fail. In a firearms safety course, muzzle discipline is paramount.
- Furthermore, most firearms manuals that include a list of safety points will list keeping the firearm pointed in a safe direction as the first point for the firearm owner to be aware of.
- Another safety point in almost every discussion of firearms safety is words to the effect of, “Treat every firearm as though it was loaded.” It does not say, “Treat every firearm as though it was loaded until you prove it to be unloaded.” This point tells firearms owners and handlers to treat every firearm as though it is loaded, even when it is known/believed to be unloaded.
- The individual handling the firearm is 100% responsible for where the firearm is pointed, 100% of the time.
Some firearms ranges and disciplines also stipulate muzzle discipline as a critical aspect of firearms safety. The NSCA, for instance, prohibits any gun rack on a cart or vehicle on one of their courses to have firearms oriented horizontally. Another rule which is less common, but is nevertheless seen from time to time, is the rule that in the event of a negligent discharge, the round should either discharged into the air in a nearly vertical direction, or, if the muzzles are pointed down, that it should strike the ground within one or two metres of the gun. The idea here is to prevent a negligent discharge from travelling horizontally, where the greatest chances for harm exist.
Before going on, it might be a good idea to distinguish between a negligent discharge and an accidental discharge. Both fall within the ‘unintentional discharge’ category, but they differ in their origins and degree of preventability. In firearms handling, an accidental discharge occurs when the firearm either breaks or malfunctions and the firearm discharges despite the best safety actions of the gun handler. Accidental discharges are exceedingly rare, but they can occur. A negligent discharge, on the other hand, is an unintentional discharge that comes about as a result of a mistake or oversight on the part of the individual handling the firearm. Negligent discharges are avoidable through diligent adherence to and observance of safety protocols. Almost every firearms owner had experienced an intentional discharge – indeed, it has been said that there are only two kinds of firearms owners – those who have had an unintentional discharge and those that will have one.
What makes a negligent discharge a relatively minor event, or a life-changing or even life-ended event, is simply where the muzzle is pointed at the time the firearm discharges.
The Cold Realities
In my RCMP career, I investigated several negligent discharges that resulted in a fatality. None were criminal in nature, but they occurred because someone was lax in their attention to firearms safety in general and to muzzle discipline in particular. One does not need to attend many accidental shootings for the consequences of lax handling practices to leave an indelible stain on one’s soul.
The people involved in these sorts of incidents are not stupid, thoughtless or careless people – they are folks just like you or I, and like most of the people we all know. They are people who have made assumptions that were sadly proven incorrect. The same words are uttered time and again – “the gun was empty, …”; “I’m sure I checked it, …”, “I was sure I unloaded it, …”.
They were normal people who let their guard down, just for a second….
A Close Call
Several years ago, a co-worker asked me to introduce her son to skeet. We met at the De Winton ranges and another friend of mine asked to join us. The lesson went off without a hitch, and as we were wrapping things up, I was standing beside my truck, talking with the young fellow, while my friend was on the other side of his truck, talking with the mom.
Rather than spend the $10 on snap-caps, my friend instead had always, up to that point, used two empty hulls to lower his hammers when putting his gun away. He withdrew two empty hulls from his vest, put them into his gun, closed the gun (while it was pointing right at the mom, a few feet away) and turned to the side to lower the hammers. My command of the language is not sufficient to describe the flood of emotions when, instead of a “click”, his shotgun roared to life and blew a bunch of gravel into the air. Both people were stunned – neither knew what to say or to do. I hurried around the truck, took custody of the shotgun and removed the remaining live round from the chamber. He realized, instantly, how close he had come to killing someone.
Instead of inserting two empty hulls, he had instead loaded two live rounds into the chambers of the shotgun. A mistake you would never make? Perhaps. My friend had been shooting for more than five decades when this incident happened – he has loaded a shotgun thousands of times, and I would like to think that he should have known the difference between live rounds and empty hulls. For whatever reason, on that day, he was unable to distinguish one from the other.
That day, my friend made several significant errors, and came very close to killing the woman he had been speaking to, in the parking lot of a gun range. What saved her, and ultimately him as well, was his awareness of muzzle discipline. Despite a litany of errors, he prevented a fatal shooting by following rule number one – point the firearm in a safe direction. Mom had no idea what was going on – she is not a gun person, and she had confidence in the fact that the guy handling the gun was competent.
Having known my friend for many years, I am supremely confident that he would never have knowingly loaded his firearm and handled it in such a careless manner. His sloppiness was, in my estimation, as result of his belief that the gun was unloaded, and therefore, the burden upon him to be perfectly safe had somehow been diminished. It had not been eliminated, as was evidenced by his turning to a safe direction before pulling the trigger, but reduced, and that change in expectations very nearly resulted in a fatal shooting. It would likely have been deemed “accidental”, but in reality, it would have been a negligent discharge.
Differences without Distinction
I cannot explain what the process is that allows the belief that, because the firearm is unloaded, it is safe, and that safety protocols either don’t matter or somehow matter less.
Muzzle awareness and muzzle discipline are terms we use to describe the level of awareness the gun handler has regarding where the firearm is pointed. If someone is serious about firearms safety, and I suspect we all are, then there are specific things we can do when handling our shotguns at the range or in the field.
For break-action firearms, it is generally accepted that carrying the unloaded shotgun with the action open, and the muzzles forward, either over the forearm or over the shoulder, is safe. The gun handler has good muzzle awareness, as the muzzles are in front of them and within their field of view. Carrying the open, unloaded shotgun with the muzzles to the rear is less desirable, simply because the individual handling the firearm does not have the muzzles in their field of view.
For single barrel shotguns (most often autoloading and pump action) the firearm is likely best carried in the vertical, or near vertical position, with the muzzle point up. If the firearm is to be brought down from the vertical orientation, it must be pointed in a safe direction at all times.
The test for the appropriateness of the method of carry is simple – how bad will it be if my firearm were to inadvertently discharge? If the round is discharged vertically, or in another safe direction, then all we need to do is apologize for making a lot of noise. When it is unintentionally discharged in an unsafe direction, ….
When we become lax with respect to where our firearms are pointed, we are flirting with a danger that I believe many people cannot fully comprehend. Shootings are life-changing events – people who have been shot and survived often have life-long consequences as a result. They limp, have reduced use of an arm, leg, foot or hand, or have lost the use of an eye. Those who have shot someone else are never the same.
The most dangerous firearm, in the context of an accidental/negligent/unintentional shooting incident, is the one that the handler believes to be unloaded but is in fact loaded. The best defence to this incredibly dangerous circumstance is simply muzzle discipline. In the majority the shooting incidents that I have investigated, the individual handling the firearm was shocked and surprised that the firearm discharged – they had been satisfied that the firearm was not loaded, and they had treated the firearm as though it could not have discharged – sometimes, a fatally incorrect assumption. Here is where the dichotomy of treating a loaded firearm differently than an unloaded one can have tragic consequences.
If we accept that it is likely that we are going to encounter situations in which individuals are not demonstrating strong muzzle awareness, what is the best way to deal with those individuals? Even in a law enforcement capacity, one quickly learns that even with legal authority, sometimes a softer approach will yield better results.
Nobody likes to be embarrassed or humiliated, and rarely does aggressively confronting someone produce the desired long-term effect. If someone is handling their firearm in a manner that has the potential to be unsafe, gently reminding them in a polite and respectful fashion is much preferred to creating a scene and hard feelings. Everyone on the gun range wants compliance with safe gun handling practice, and it is best to encourage people to comply, rather than point out to the world that they are somehow deficient in their gun handling.
I prefer an incremental approach – I will quietly and in private, if possible, ask the person to change that aspect of their gun handling. In most cases, that is more than enough, and the problem is solved. If the problem persists, I am a bit louder and perhaps I don’t take put as much effort into keeping the matter between the individual and me. If that does not resolve the unsafe behaviour, then something a bit more drastic is called for, and someone is leaving – the individual if they refuse to act in accordance with generally-accepted safety protocols, or me. I have zero tolerance for unsafe firearm handling.
You will need to decide for yourself what you are willing to tolerate – what risks you are willing to accept, and how you are going to deal with anyone – a friend or colleague, or a stranger – who is not handling their firearm safely.
Firearm safety is everyone’s responsibility, and we all need to ensure that everyone around us with a firearm is acting in a safe manner. Tolerance of unsafe gun handling practices is what leads to incidents.