Cautionary Tale

One of the most important aspects to preparing oneself to use a defensive firearm in an encounter is regular practice.

It is often not practical to practice certain elements of defensive handgun use at the range.  Many ranges won’t permit presenting from concealment prior to shooting, moving and shooting etc.  Ammo is expensive so having the gun go “bang” every time you practice sight alignment, breath control and trigger control can be cost prohibitive; but lots of practice is essential to burning the requisite motions into “muscle memory” and refining technique.

As a result, in my role as a firearms instructor I’ve often advised students to practice at home with an unloaded gun.  Practicing the drawstroke from concealment, movement while drawing to gain space from an assailant, drawing while seeking cover or concealment, dry firing to practice sight alignment, trigger control etc.  All these are legitimate training evolutions that can be safely and effectively performed at home…if done correctly.

When not done correctly, however, the results can be disastrous.

A combat veteran of three tours in Iraq accidentally killed his 9-month-old daughter earlier this year when he was practicing drawing his loaded handgun in their home.

The story is a little contradictory, as later on it says he was “dry firing” by drawing and aiming at candles on the wall.  Based on the story, it sounds like he wasn’t dry firing, but was just playing around drawing his loaded firearm and pointing it at the wall.

The story doesn’t indicate if the child was in the same room or a different room and was hit through a wall, but it doesn’t matter either way.  This was a tragedy to be sure and my sympathies go out to the family and even to the person who so negligently killed their own child…as a father myself, I can’t begin to imagine how devastating that must be…but the tragedy was completely preventable. 

I think this would be a good opportunity to review the rules of gun safety as they pertain to practicing outside of a range environment.

The NRA rules for gun safety are:

1.  Always keep the muzzle pointed in a safe direction.

2.  Always keep your finger off the trigger until you are ready to fire.

3.  Always keep the gun unloaded until ready to use.

Some prefer Jeff Cooper’s 4 rules, but I disagree.  Any set of rules where the very first one is demonstrably false is not a valid rule set.  If rule number 1 MUST be broken sometimes (cleaning/maintenance, dry fire practice, etc) it is necessarily implied that all of the rules may be broken from time to time.   You can fix rule one by saying “Always treat guns as if they are loaded unless you have personally and immediately verified otherwise”, but that doesn’t make for a very clean, concise bullet point so I just stick with the NRA rules.

I do like Jeff Cooper’s rule number 4, however, and it is imminently applicable here:

4.  Always be sure of your target and what is beyond it.

The NRA argues that this is covered by rule 1, keeping the muzzle pointed in a safe direction, but what is a safe direction when you’re not on the range?

And that’s one of the keys to safe dry fire practice in the home.  You can’t just look at the wall you’re pointing at and decide that’s a “safe direction”.  What’s on the other side of that wall?  What’s on the other side of two or three walls?  Is that TRULY a “safe direction”?

So, here are my detailed rules for dry fire practice in the home:

– Choose a location in your home that provides the safest area for your practice.

This location needs to have a safe “target area” for you to point at.  I like to use corners as my target area because in a standard frame constructed house, the corners are typically formed from a relatively solid arrangement of 2×4 studs.  If you can aim so that your sight line goes through two or three corners, that’s even better.  Your sight line should not be in direct line with nearby neighbor’s houses and the best bet is to have a solid backstop at some point.

I have a large brick fireplace in the family room.  I practice in the living room, standing in a location where I can aim at a corner, but still pointing it at the fireplace.  If the unthinkable occurs and I have a negligent discharge, the bullet will have to travel through the studs in the corner, another wall and will end up hitting the bricks of the fireplace.

Needless to say, choosing an aim point in direct line with your $2000 60 inch plasma TV probably isn’t the wisest choice.  Won’t kill anyone should the worst happen, but may be hazardous to your bank account and marital stability.

Once you’ve chosen your location, always use the same location and get into a regimented habit of preparation.

– Always ensure that the gun you are practicing with is unloaded and that there is no ammunition in the room you are practicing in. 

I keep ammo in an ammo locker.  Before practicing, I lock the loaded magazines and the single round from the chamber in the locker with the rest of my ammo.  I always check that the gun is unloaded at least three times:  Once immediately after unloading and locking the ammo up.  Once after I enter the room for practice, and once immediately prior to beginning the first practice drill.  That’s the minimum.  I generally check several other random times whenever the mood strikes me.

Always check both the magazine and the chamber.  This is especially important if you have a gun with a magazine disconnect safety, and that’s the reason I won’t own a carry gun with one.  If the gun has a magazine disconnect safety, you can’t dry fire it without magazine inserted.  It is MUCH safer to dry fire a gun that allows you to do so with the component that holds the ammunition removed.  I think magazine disconnect safeties are a solution in search of a problem and cause more safety issues than they solve.  The only true safety is the one between your ears.  Relying on mechanical do-dads to do your thinking for you is a recipe for disaster…but I digress.  If you have a gun with a magazine disconnect safety, every place where I say “make sure the magazine is removed”, change to “remove the magazine and make sure there are no rounds in it.”

When ensuring that the gun is unloaded, don’t just look, actually stick your finger into the magazine well and chamber.  This physical act will slow you down and help prevent “perception errors”.  Just glancing at the bottom of the grip to see if there’s a magazine there can be deceiving.  We often see what we expect to see rather than what’s really there.  If you expect to see an empty magazine well, there’s a good chance that that’s what you’ll see, whether it’s true or not.  Physically stick your finger in there just to make sure.  The same goes when checking the chamber.  Lock the slide back and physically stick your fingertip into the chamber.  Don’t just look.

– Always be sure you know where everyone (including the furry members of the family) in the house are located while you are practicing. 

If you are home alone with the kids, that’s not a good time to practice.  Kids tend to wander, even when told to stay put.  You don’t want them wandering into an area that is in the line that you’ve chosen as “safe” for dry fire practice.  If your kids are at home, they need to be under adult supervision so that they stay in a safe part of the house.

Be sure you tell the other people that are home that you are going to be practicing, tell them where the unsafe area is and get their agreement that they will stay away from that part of the house until you give them the “all clear”.

Have the other people in the house verify that the gun is unloaded.  This both serves to satisfy them that you are being safe as well as providing you with independent verification that your gun is unloaded.

Finally, if you have pets, secure them so that they can’t wander into the “hot zone” where you’ll be pointing your gun.

– Enter your practice area.  Prepare in whatever way you want.  You can post a target at your aim point, set up something to simulate cover or concealment, set up anything you need to facilitate your practice, but before beginning your first drill, check again to ensure that there is no live ammo in the room with you and re-verify that the gun you are using is unloaded.

– After finishing your practice, you’re finished.  Don’t decide to try it “just one more time” after you’ve decided you’re done and have started putting things away or have left your practice room.  That break in routine can lead to deadly mistakes.  Always have a defined starting routine and finishing routine and don’t vary from them.  That will help you get in the proper mindset and will prevent you from doing something silly like, say, reloading and holstering your gun, and then absent-mindedly deciding “I’ll just try my draw from concealment one more time before I stop…”

-Finally, after you are finished and the gun is locked up or reloaded and snugly in your carry holster, let everyone in the house know that the firing line is cold and it’s safe to go downrange…er…wander the house at will.

Practicing at home is not only permissible, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s a requirement for proficiency, but it must be approached with all the seriousness and gravity that one would approach any potentially deadly task.  With the proper precautions and care, it is a safe and effective means of gaining proficiency, but treating the use of any potentially hazardous tool in a nonchalant, lackadaisical manner can end in disaster.

Practice, practice practice…but lets be safe out there.

Crossposted on The Sentinel

4 thoughts on “Cautionary Tale

  1. I think that Cooper's rule #1 was intended as a mnemonic device to reinforce behavior; it's obvious to all that it's not literally true. For myself, I use a rule of my own to reinforce the same mindset: A gun is not a toy, don't play with it! That's the one that should be drilled into the memories of children, as it is literally true, unlike Cooper's #1.

  2. I do similar things. However, instead of putting my finger into the mag well, I start by cycling the gun several times, during which only one round should have come out. Then I lock the slide, stare down the well, and then look at the back of the barrel while counting to five. While I can be a bit OCD about the extra steps I take, that beats a negligent discharge that I can never take back.

  3. Very good post! Extremely good advice, both in regards to the importance of this type of practice, and the safe way to perform the drills.

  4. Excellent!

    Like Laughingdog, I cycle the gun several times as well.

    "Your sight line should not be in direct line with nearby neighbor's houses and the best bet is to have a solid backstop at some point." – Yes. Mine is in the basement where the round would have to travel through 8" of concrete before going through 50' of dirt.

    "I generally check several other random times whenever the mood strikes me." – Yes. Some folks tend to only check once, or even not check a checked gun themselves when handed one. When in doubt, check and recheck.

    "When ensuring that the gun is unloaded, don't just look, actually stick your finger into the magazine well and chamber." – Yes. This is what Lee Paige did not do, and instead dropped the slide on a full magazine after he had cleared his gun. A bullet in the leg will always be his reminder.

    Really good post.

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