Is it time to revisit the “4 Rules Of Firearms Safety?”

In listening to the conversations about what happened with Alec Baldwin, I’m reminded of a conversation I had with Larry Yatch and Beau Doboszynski 7 years ago at the Sealed Mindset stress shooting lab.

They had something on the wall in each of their ranges…it was something along the lines of this:
Firearms Safety Rules:
1. Point the muzzle where you want to point it. Don’t point the muzzle where you don’t want to point it.
2. Finger on the trigger when you want to shoot. Nothing in/over the trigger guard when you don’t want to shoot.
3. Safety off when you want to shoot. Safety on when you don’t want to shoot.

I asked if it was just marketing…a way to make their own version of Cooper’s 4 Universal Firearms Safety Rules.

It wasn’t.

They saw a disconnect in the fact that you can’t obey the 4 rules and do dry fire, use a barrel bushing wrench, holster your pistol, or do force on force.

In addition, the “rules” didn’t apply to paintball, nerf, airsoft, CO2, or other training platforms.

They wanted as much Ideally, you’d have one set of rules to use in training and real life…when using live ammo, less lethal ammo, and inert training platforms.

Just in case you’re not familiar or don’t remember,  Colonel Cooper’s 4 Rules of Firearms Safety (also called the 4 Universal Rules of Firearms Safety) are:

1.  All guns are always loaded.  Even if they’re not, treat them as if they are.
2.  Never let the muzzle cover anything you don’t want to destroy.
3.  Keep your finger off the trigger until your sights are on target.
4.  Identify your target and what’s beyond it.

The NRA modified them to the following 3:

1.  Always keep the gun pointed in a safe direction.
2.  Always keep your finger off of the trigger until you’re ready to shoot.
3.  Always keep the gun unloaded until it’s ready to use.

Both of them have some serious issues.

When you bake incongruence into a “rule” and make it so that it’s impossible to follow, how do you know when to follow it and when not to?

Simply put, we don’t want a Banana Republic of gun safety laws…we want consistent laws that we can apply in training, hunting, real world carry, in combat, with non-guns, AND that we can even teach our kids to use with their toy guns.

If you’ve got one set of rules for training and one set of rules for self-defense, how does your brain know what carries over and what is different?

Now I’ve got to apologize.  This article is going to diverge for a minute away from “the rules” because, ironically, they they had nothing to do with what happened on the set of “Rust.”  We’ll come back to “the rules” in a minute.

In the case of what happened with Alec, people are saying all sorts of things in relation to “the rules” that are red herring arguments…they’re decoys from the real issue.

The reality is that in filming, reality based training, dry fire, holstering, and basic care and maintenance, we violate one or more of “the rules.”  We do it

All.

The.

Time.

The problem with the Rust shooting wasn’t that the rules of firearms safety were violated…that is guaranteed during filming.

The problem is that the 4 rules were violated with a firearm that was loaded with live ammo.

Well-established, tested, and proven safety procedures were not used.

Proper procedures would have ASSUMED that a live round may be ignorantly introduced…KNOWING that triggers would be pressed while guns were pointed at people.  And those procedures would have figured out how to avoid a tragedy.

On a film set with non-gun people, you simply can’t ASSUME that no live rounds will be introduced.  Especially, in this case, where the cast & crew were supposedly using the firearm off-set for target practice.  Safety systems, procedures, and checks have to take the lowest-common-denominator person into account.

Those systems are not elusive.

One resource that would have made this a non-issue is cylinder shims made by Simunitions.  They go into revolver cylinders so that blanks can be used, but live ammo can not be chambered.  Simple.  Cheap.  Easy.

If you want more information or training on structuring safe reality based training or the use of firearms in filming, Ken Murray’s Reality Based Training Association is a resource I recommend.  This weekend, we were talking about hosting a safety-officer training for the filming industry to keep this from happening again, but…frankly…we’re not sure if there is enough demand among the filming industry.  Right now, there’s outrage, but I haven’t seen a demand for rational, proven solutions.  And that’s sad.

The Creeping Danger Of Confirmation Bias

One issue that creeps in on movie sets and reality based training is bias.

If you have a set of safety procedures and you’re in a hurry to blast through them and check all of the boxes, the tendency is to look for reasons to confirm that everything is ok, check the box and move on.  That’s when “accidents” happen.

It’s like when you pull up to an intersection and look both ways expecting NOT to see a car…it’s those times when people tend to do a rolling stop, hit the accelerator AS THEY’RE LOOKING, and then slam on the brakes when they see that they’re about to pull out in front of a car…if they see it at all.

Supposedly, there was a cart with cleared prop guns on it.  The assistant director grabbed one, handed it to Alec, and told him it was good to go.  It’s entirely possible that his bias caused him to see that the gun was clear when it was not.  It’s also entirely possible that he just assumed and never checked.  It’s natural (but unhealthy) to think, “the last 99 times I’ve picked up a gun off of this cart, it’s been unloaded.  That means it will be this time too.”

That kind of bias can cause tragic outcomes.  There’s no place for it in a RBT or filming environment.

If, on the other hand, you have a set of safety procedures and you use them to look for all of the things that might kill you, it is a bias that everything is NOT ok and you’re much, much more likely to identify safety violations and you’re LESS likely to miss safety violations.

Back to the Sealed Mindset rules…they incorporated the big 4, but they also incorporated thinking and intentionality.  And they provided a set of rules that could be followed with live ammo, less lethal, guns that had been rendered temporarily inert, and completely inert platforms.

In the years since, I have covered the 4 rules and the NRA 3 (because I need to) but then I cover the Big 2 (When using a firearm with a manual safety, I combine trigger finger and safety)

Beau (Defensive Mindset Training) has modified the original Sealed Mindset rules slightly to:
Muzzle Awareness:
Point it where you want it.
Don’t point it where you don’t want it.
(This is about developing intentionality. I want you to WANT to point the firearm where it goes. Loss of intention leads to flagging. I’ve had students fall down in drills and yet maintain muzzle awareness.)

Trigger Finger Awareness:
Finger on the trigger when sights aligned.
Finger off the trigger when sights not aligned.
Two ways to align sights:
Front-Rear-Eye
Body positions or retention
(This is stimulus and response. Which means it requires no cognition to accomplish.)

Safety Selector Awareness:
Muzzle towards target/threat, weapon on fire.
Muzzle not towards target or threat, weapon on safe.
(Same. Stimulus and response. Prevent the “Crap-Click-Bang”)

And you can simplify those to 3 simple words:  Muzzle, Finger, Safety.

Why do I bring this up?

Because every time someone says Alec Baldwin violated one of the rules of firearms safety, the first thought that goes through my head is, “Everyone does…they’re impossible to follow without a laundry list of sub-rules and exceptions.”

Here’s how this applies to you as someone who’s a shooter and not a member of the filming industry.

When we train, we don’t want it to be accidental.

We want as much fidelity with real world shooting scenarios as possible while maintaining high safety standards.

The better our training matches reality, the less lag we’ll have when lives are on the line.

At the same time, we absolutely MUST be sticklers about safety so that we don’t have tragic training outcomes.

If we repeat rules over-and-over out-loud and in our heads, but also violate one or more of those rules on a consistent basis, how do we control which behaviors become automatic and which do not?

As a dad, one of the big things for me has been to make gun handling rules that my boys can use for every real gun, cap gun, nerf gun and stick they pretend is a gun.  The 4 rules don’t do that.  The 2 rules do.

There’s a very good chance that you know someone who is either a new or inexperienced shooter.

And I’ve got some free training for you and/or them today…

A few years ago, Beau recorded a series of firearms fundamentals videos for new shooters.  We called it Gundamentals.

If you’re a new or inexperienced gun owner, I encourage you to sign up for it today (it’s free) by clicking >HERE<

If you know anyone who’s a new or inexperienced gun owner, I want to encourage you to copy and paste the link to this page into an email, text, or social media message to them.

Questions or comments on “Rust,” reality based training, or “the rules?”  Fire away by commenting below.

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6 Comments

  • sunbear

    Reply Reply October 28, 2021

    I’m not one to throw stones but Mr. Baldwin should have taken a few minutes out of his efforts to condemn firearms and the second amendment spending them learning a little about firearms safety since he would be handling guns. Very simple rules might have prevented this tragedy. 1. Treat all firearms as if they were loaded 2. Always point a firearm in a safe direction. There are others of course that follow but those two should be the starting point. I wasn’t there but I wonder why a person in charge of the armory was neglecting her duties? Why the loaded gun? Was she present? If not why were the weapons not secured? I guess the investigation will shine some light. A very sad occurrence, my prayers go out for all involved.

    • Ox

      Reply Reply October 28, 2021

      I definitely agree that Mr. Baldwin should have spent more time on firearms safety, but, to a certain extent, the level of his ignorance helps explain his misunderstandings about firearms.

      One of the points of the article was that the 2 rules that you mentioned would not have realistically prevented this tragedy. The reality of a movie set is that props that look like weapons get pointed at other actors and cameramen as the triggers are pressed.

      The problem was that there was a complete disregard for proven safety procedures. Live and blank ammo was comingled, firearms weren’t modified so that live ammo could not be chambered, and it appears that they had zero physical control over the firearms and weren’t performing any kind of safety checks.

  • Doug

    Reply Reply October 26, 2021

    I don’t see how the four rules don’t apply to any situation:
    1. Assume it is loaded. If you are dry-firing, assume the gun is loaded until you have verified it is not and then clean it, or insert your laser. Assume your paint-ball gun is loaded and don’t shoot it at the living room wall.
    2. Never let the muzzle cover anything you don’t want to shoot. Don’t aim your airsoft at the antique lamp in the living room. But you do want to shoot your properly geared-up friend…
    3. Keep your finger off the trigger until your sights are on target.
    4. Identify your target and what’s beyond it. Don’t shoot your grandma with a paintball as she comes up behind your friend.
    Just some thoughts… Great Blog by the way.

    • Ox

      Reply Reply October 28, 2021

      Thanks for your comment and your clarifications on the rules.

      I agree that rule 4 DOES apply to any situation…and it necessarily creates conflict with rule 2 unless people add in a degree of cognitive dissonance. As I said, do you want to shoot your holster? The floor of your car? The floor of your kitchen? Your fireplace or a brick wall in your house?

      I also agree that rule 3 DOES apply to any situation.

      Rule 2 has problems…you address part of it with the exceptions you listed.

      Rule 1 has problems because the simple fact is that all guns are not always loaded. If it is loaded, I wouldn’t run a cleaning rod down the barrel. I wouldn’t use a barrel bushing wrench on a 1911. I wouldn’t ever be able to disassemble a Glock.

      So, this begs the question as to whether this is all semantics and nitpicking or if it matters. I don’t want to nitpick and arguments over semantics may be good ways to pass the time while grabbing a beer with a friend, but usually not beneficial otherwise. The answer is complicated and inconsistent. What we want are rules, skills, and behaviors that have a high level of transferability between training and reality so that our actions can be as automatic, effortless, and desirable as possible. This matters more for some shooters than others…and it matters more when the stress level of reality is MUCH greater than the stress level of training.

  • H, Taylor

    Reply Reply October 26, 2021

    I have completed a number of firearm training courses over the years. All of these courses were taught by a professional certified firearm instructor. In every class, safe firearm use was the first and most important topic of the class. The various safety rules were drilled into every student before they were allowed to handle a firearm or go near the firing range. Muzzle awareness was a critical safety habit. Always know where the muzzle of your firearm was pointed. Never have the muzzle pointed at something you did not intend to kill. The most important safety rule was to never assume a firearm was unloaded. If anyone, including the instructor, handed a firearm to you, you must not accept the firearm unless the muzzle was pointed in a safe direction. Whoever hands a firearm to you must ensure the firearm is unloaded before releasing the firearm. When you accept the firearm, you must then confirm the firearm is unloaded by your own personal inspection. This means holding the firearm in a safe muzzle direction while opening the firearm with your finger outside the trigger well and then checking the breech to ensure there is no live ammunition in the barrel or in any other parts of the firearm including revolver cylinders or clips. If Mr. Baldwin had taken the responsibility to personally inspect the firearm upon receiving it, this tragedy would never have happened. Also, why would any live ammunition be allowed on a movie set and available to any cast member? It is ironic that an individual who is politically anti-gun would be unaware of fundamental firearm safety procedures. However, I believe most people who are anti-gun and anti-second amendment adherents have little if any knowledge of firearms or their safe use. In my opinion, Mr. Baldwin’s behavior may not have been intentional but I believe it was neglegent.

  • Darrell Holland

    Reply Reply October 26, 2021

    Morning Mike,

    A better choice might be to just ban all future movies using guns and put an end to violence altogether. If this small change saves just ONE LIFE it will be worth it.

    Ha! Just a simple thought that’s likely to surface in our future.

    Enjoyed the article, training in ALL forms requires commonsense, which is in short supply (no longer taught in schools).

    Keep up the good work,

    D

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