Alright, so now we know what the parts are and what they do.  If you ever plan on picking a gun up, however, you need to know how to handle it safely.  Did you catch that last word?  SAFELY.  Gun people love this word with all of their big, sweet hearts.  And with good reason.  Gun safety is a big part of the culture and etiquette of shooting, and it’s also just good, practical common sense to use care and caution when handling something that is potentially dangerous. Let’s be clear on that last point. Firearms are potentially dangerous, not automatically dangerous.    The gun isn’t going to just jump up and shoot you in the hand if you try to pick it up.  Guns are like cars; they’re just machines that do what you tell them to do.  (SkyNet, notwithstanding).  If you are mindful and cautious, you will have no problem shooting and handling a gun safely.  The NRA has three basic rules, which I like and everyone else seems to like, so we can start there.

One: always keep the gun pointed in a safe direction.  At first, I thought this meant always keep it pointed down, but sometimes down isn’t the safest direction.  What if you are upstairs and there are people on the floor below you?  You need to be alert and aware of where other people are around you, all the time.  I hope it goes without saying, but it’s also just terribly inconsiderate to ever point a gun at anyone, even if you both know it’s not loaded.  And in my house, anything that looks like a gun gets treated like a gun, including replica guns or training guns.  When you’re trying to form good habits, why not reinforce them by practicing whenever you can?

Which leads us to rule number two:  keep your finger off the trigger until you are ready to fire the gun.  And I mean, ready, ready.  Like, gun pointed at the target, sights lined up, stance and posture correct, ready to pull the trigger, ready.  I know you’re thinking, “DUH” right now, and I don’t blame you, but it’s actually harder than it sounds to not put your finger on the trigger when you pick up a gun.  They are designed to be ergonomic, like a cordless drill.  When you first pick a gun up, your index finger tends to automatically find that trigger.  Again, this is where being mindful and aware comes into play.  You are trying to form safe habits, so remind yourself every time you pick up a gun, “Finger off the trigger”.

Additionally, if you are in the habit of practicing these first two safety rules, when an unexpected situation arises, you are much less likely to injure yourself or someone around you.  Guns jam from time to time.  I tend to do this thing when I am excited to shoot where I don’t push the rounds all the way into position in the magazine.  Good news– this does not make the gun explode in my hand in a giant fireball of death, maiming myself and all around me.  It just prevents the rounds from feeding properly which causes the gun to jam.  In these situations, it’s very important to keep the gun pointed in a safe direction, and your finger off the trigger while you diagnose the problem and clear the malfunction.

Isn’t safety swell?

Last, but not least, we have rule number three: keep the gun unloaded until you’re ready to use it.  I found this one to be particularly important at the range.  As in, when you are getting ready to go to the range, make sure your gun is unloaded, without a magazine in the well and the slide is locked back so you, or anyone else, can verify visually that it is unloaded.  The cartridges don’t go into the magazine, and the magazine doesn’t go in the gun until you are out on the range, because that’s when you are really ready to use the gun.  I was very confused about this whole ritual at first, but now it makes sense to me.  It’s a good way to make sure everyone knows that everyone else is being safe.  And it reinforces safe habits.  In my experience, people will hand you a gun only after they have released the magazine, inspected it to confirm that it is empty, and locked the slide back to confirm that there isn’t a live round in the chamber.  When I hand the gun back, I do the same.  It might seem foolish and redundant, but why not?  Wouldn’t you rather be safely redundant, than carelessly injured?

The key here, and one of my favorite things about shooting, is mindfulness.  I know it sounds really new-agey, and I’m sure there are people in the gun community who wouldn’t get down with my phrasing, but I think we can all agree that gun use should be a whole mind, whole body experience.  You can’t zone out when you are firing a gun.  You can’t be thinking about whether or not you TiVoed Biggest Loser or how your butt looks in the jeans your wearing.  You can’t slouch or try to look cool.  You have to stand up straight, lean forward, keep your arms out straight, tense some muscles, relax others, notice your breathing and concentrate entirely on what you are doing.  You don’t have to be Steven Seagal or Chris Costa to have a good time at the gun range.  An open mind, willingness to learn, and a commitment to staying focused in the moment are really the best things you can bring to the range. The nice thing is, if you’re keeping your mind in the game and practicing safe habits, chances are, your accuracy will improve as well.

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