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Guide for Safe and Responsible Gun Ownership

Whether you’ve owned firearms for many years, or you recently bought your first gun and you’re new to gun ownership, there are some rules that we should all be following. Having put some thought over all aspects of responsible gun ownership, reflecting on my journey into this world, and considering the lessons I’ve learned from countless others, I’ve boiled the concept of responsible gun ownership down to what can arguably be identified as six essential rules we should all be following. By following these points, we can all help ensure we’re responsible gun owners, that we’re safe and competent with our firearms, and we can show and teach others by positive example. Certainly, there could be many things discussed regarding this topic, but the following are what I would consider the critical top six rules. 

Rule #1) Seek Firearms Training

I do want to stress one point though: over-cleaning can be just as bad as not cleaning at all.  I am by no means telling you that you need to clean your gun every time you shoot it (you might, but read on to understand).  Cleaning too often – or with an overly aggressive method – can prematurely wear parts out, affect accuracy, damage the finish of your gun, and in some cases, cause rusting and pitting.  The key is finding a balance between too much and too little, and that is entirely going to be based on the types of firearms you are shooting, the environment you shoot in, gear you introduce that might affect how dirty the gun runs (like a suppressor), and the types of lubrication you use.

In my career, I have been fortunate enough to work on some of the hardest-used guns that exist.  Few places on the planet, including all but the most entrenched military units, will come as close to the limits of a gun as a machine gun rental range.  Guns are run from open to close, become heated far above their normal temperature ranges, and are only given breaks when they are too hot to touch or are not working.   These extreme conditions have led to my understanding of what constitutes requiring cleaning versus just a little dirty. 

1) Treat every firearm as if it is loaded.

I personally say “all guns are loaded all the time.” This mindset is critical because if we treat every firearm as if it’s loaded, we maintain the respect for what they can do, or what can happen if we’re being lax and assume a gun is unloaded.

2) Never point a gun at anything you’re not willing to destroy.

This rule should speak for itself, but this rule gets violated, often by accident, especially with handguns or shorter firearms. When I teach this, I tell people to think of your gun emitting a laser beam out of it, almost like a light saber, and that laser will destroy anything it crosses or touches. Without training, or with a relaxed mindset, it’s easy for this rule to get violated, but we must always keep in mind where are firearm is pointing, and again, “all guns are loaded.” 

3) Keep your finger off the trigger until you are ready to fire.

When I instruct, I like to say “to take a gun, make a gun”. In essence, by making a “finger gun” shape with your hand when you acquire the firearm then you’ve already got your finger off of the trigger and away from the trigger guard. In conjunction with this rule, I like to add, “keep your finger off the trigger until you’ve identified your target and have made the decision to shoot.” This enhancement stresses the idea that we may not always be shooting just paper targets on the flat range. Whether it’s hunting, a self-defense situation, or other dynamic situations, we want to fully identify our target and ensure we’ve made the decision to shoot before we bring our finger into the trigger guard and onto the trigger.

4) Be sure of your target, and what is beyond.

Of course, depending on the firearm, caliber, barrel length, and other factors, the bullets we fire from our gun can travel quite a distance and through many things. It’s not enough to identify the target and make the decision to shoot; we must also take into account what’s behind our target in the very likely event that our rounds are going through it. I like to also add, “be sure of not only what is beyond your intended target, but what is to the right, the left, and in front of the target”. Again, in dynamic situations, the situation or environment can change in an instant. Where a clear shot was safe and possible moments ago, we might have something or someone walk in the line of fire from the side or elsewhere. Ensuring we know exactly where our bullets are impacting even after they’ve hit our target is essential. 

Calling back to “Seek Training,” the goal here is to not only know these firearms safety rules, but to live them. It’s not enough to be able to recite them from memory; we must be actively living these rules and following them always. For new gun owners, the first step would be signing up for a basic firearms course; most ranges or gun clubs will offer a number of training courses from basic/intro courses to more advanced offerings. Even for those of us who’ve been doing this a while, and even have professional training or work experience with firearms, I encourage everyone to continue to train and knock the rust off to stay sharp. We should always be students for life, and even in basic courses I walk away a little sharper having learned or heard something I’ve never been taught or seen before. We all stand to gain from seeking competent training and doing it as regularly as our time and budget allows.

The last point I have on this topic is to vet the training company and/or instructor. A basic Google search can tell you a lot. Check to (A) if they have a website; (B) if they have reviews and if so who is doing the reviews; (C) is the company/instructor teaching quality information in a safe environment; and (D) is it not worth your time and money? For newer gun owners, it may seem daunting to try and research different courses or instructors, but generally you won’t go wrong at least signing up for some basic courses from your local gun range or club. As you start to get interested in more dynamic training, the vetting process becomes more important as some training out there can cover a lot of expenses, from round count, travel, and course fees. In addition, some of the training can get unsafe without qualified instructors.

Also in your research, just keep an objective eye. It’s not the hardest thing in the world to become an NRA-certified instructor, and anybody can run a blog website or make a YouTube channel. You can find a lot of quality information from qualified and experienced people on forums, YouTube, blogs, and podcasts, but there is also a lot of misinformation out there. I encourage people to shop around for information and compare different sources -who is saying this? Why are they saying this? Who are they? What’s their background? If we ask some basic questions about the information we’re receiving, and we stay objective, we can really do ourselves a favor by separating good information from poor-quality information or recommendations.

Rule # 2 Practice Often

Safely, competently, and effectively handling and using our firearms is unfortunately what we call a “perishable skill.” If we don’t train and practice regularly, we start to atrophy a great deal when it comes to our effectiveness. Ideally, you’re attending different classes or courses on a regular basis, or at least as often as time and finances will allow. Hopefully you’re going to the range as often as you can to practice with your firearms, and to fortify and practice the things you’ve been learning in the classes you’ve taken. We all have many things competing for our time and dollars every month, and ammunition is not exactly inexpensive these days. That said, we should be making the effort to enroll in classes and go to the gun range as often as we can. The good news it there are things we can do for little to no expense.

These days we do have a lot of great dry-fire training equipment, where (ensuring the firearm is unloaded with no live ammunition present), we can practice everything from marksmanship, trigger presses, holster work, and reloads. Purchasing dummy rounds is a sound investment for practicing reloads and malfunction drills in the convenience of your home. The best part about all of it is that we can fortify our skillsets and keep things sharp, but we don’t have to expend any gas money to get to the range and actually fire any ammunition. Another suggestion I have that helps reduce the training costs, yet keeps us practicing is investing in .22 caliber firearms. Many companies make .22lr versions or conversion kits for their most popular firearms. Even if you don’t have a .22 firearm that’s similar to your carry or defensive guns, it still allows you to practice the fundamentals of marksmanship, safe and competent use of the firearm, and do so for less than the cost of center-fire ammunition. 

My last advice here would be to find a local gun range or club that facilitates your needs, and then become a member. Much like a gym membership, this will allow you to use the facilities and you can shoot for free as often as you want. It will help reduce the cost of range fees, and if you go even 2-3 times a month, most membership fees will pay for themselves. I would also recommend investing in quality ear and eye protection. We never want to shoot without it, and our hearing and vision only lasts as long as we can protect it. I would recommend looking at various types and kinds of ear and eye protection and then purchase the quality gear that is comfortable for you. I would only shoot with ballistic-rated eye protection, as sometimes projectiles or shrapnel can come back – especially on steel targets at close range – and if anything did happen with the ammunition or the gun we’re shooting then we will see the value of quality, ballistic-rated eye protection. 

Rule # 3 Responsible Gun Storage

It’s important that we keep our firearms secure at all times. If it’s not on our body or within immediate arms reach of us, we should have our firearms locked up to deny unintended access. There are many ways to achieve this successfully, even on a budget. The highest level of security would be a traditional gun safe (pictured below), which of course are expensive and heavy, but they not only deny unintended access to your firearms, but many of them do have a certain level of fire or flood protection. The next level down would be a gun locker, which is exactly that – a stamped steel container that denies unintended access but offers no fire protection and can be potentially carried out of your house by burglars if it’s not bolted to the studs. These gun lockers are very affordable though, and if affixed to the studs in a closet or other such location, they will effectively prevent unintended access. 

I would discourage the use of a traditional gun cabinet -we all know or have seen these, my grandpa had one, which had a lockable set of doors with a giant set of glass windows where he could proudly display his long guns in the living room for all to see. These types of gun cabinets should not be used, as the glass can obviously be smashed and the guns can be easily taken. For pistols, we have many options these days that offer a small lockable box and technology that allows us to input a code, use a finger print, or other method of opening that allows us to keep the pistol secure, yet quickly accessible for authorized users for immediate use. 

By the data, we know that many criminals get their guns by stealing them from law-abiding gun owners because they were not secured, or not secured well-enough. A big factor involved here is guns being stolen out of cars. We should NEVER store guns in our cars overnight, or have a “truck gun” that just lives in the vehicle. Cars are easily broken into, and if they don’t steal the entire car, they will rifle through it and find your pistol in the glove box, or that rifle under the back seat. Career criminals and gangs don’t obtain the vast majority of their guns from walking into a gun shop and going through a background check they won’t pass – they get them from us if we’re not doing our part to keep them secured. Beyond the expense of the gun and our property being stolen, there is a moral/ethical component here that matters: the last thing you want is for your gun to be stolen, then used in an armed robbery, or be used for something heinous. 

Whether it’s preventing our guns from getting in the hands of the criminal element, or ensuring our guns are locked up to prevent unintended access in our homes, we must be doing our part to ensure our guns are locked up if we’re not immediately in control of them. I know many of us have children, and that can and should be its own article, but for now the point remains -we must keep our firearms from unintended access. 

Rule #4 You Are An Ambassador and Representative for the 2nd Amendment Community

Like it or not, if people know you have guns, you are immediately seen as a part of the gun-owning community, and the 2nd Amendment community at large. For some people you may know, you might be the only person they know who owns a gun. Your words, your actions, and everything you do will reflect upon all of us. It only takes one negative encounter or impression to paint all of us in the same brush, so we must do everything we can to be safe, responsible, and competent at all times. This includes abstaining from alcoholic beverages while carrying, handling, or using firearms, and overall living these rules so that observers walk away with the knowledge that you are safe and responsible.

Part of this obligation, as you start learning more, taking courses, and practicing often, is to help educate others who ask for your help. Maybe you were the first of your friends or family who decided to get a gun, and you’ve sought competent training, you practice often, and are a responsible gun owner. Through setting that positive impression and example, you may be surprised how many people you know may approach you privately about getting a gun and needing someone to point them in the right direction. It falls on us to walk them through the purchase, to teach them in a safe and positive environment, and to help them sign up for courses, start practicing, and teach them what we know. Because we’re living by these rules, we can show them different gun safes or lockers, and work with them on everything from their stance and grip to how they’re storing their guns in the home. Everyone has to start somewhere, and I encourage you to be that person who they can rely upon for outstanding guidance and help. 

We are all in this together as responsible gun owners, from the person who owns just one gun for self-protection, to the Cowboy Action shooters, to the long-range community; no matter why we’re here or what we do with our 2nd Amendment, we’re all in this together. When it comes to certain pieces of legislation, or certain bans, or something happening in a different state -we should not tune out and be indifferent if it doesn’t affect us or the types of guns we own. We should care and do what we can to help, as they may not be trying to ban anything you own today, but they could be coming for it tomorrow. Some believe that owning a gun is, by nature, a political act. While there may be some compelling points to that argument, I will say that we must think about our responsible gun ownership and how we exercise our rights. We should be conscious of how that translates to the officials we elect into office, and how we vote. At minimum, there should be a heightened level of awareness for what’s happening with the legislation and officials of our state and beyond, and some thought should be put into who we’re putting into office and their views on firearms. As law-abiding gun owners, it is our responsibility to know our local, county, state, and federal laws and how they pertain to us in any given situation. We don’t have to go to law school or become attorneys, but we should be aware of the laws we are subject to, and understand them.

Lastly, I argue that we should all be open, honest, and transparent about what “is and isn’t.” As you learn more, understand more, and know about certain guns, their capabilities, and what is true and what isn’t you should be willing to share that information. You will likely have personal friends or family asking you questions regarding firearms. Certain politicians or influential people may make certain statements about types of guns, or the process of even buying a gun, and when this happens, those unsure what to believe ask us if these statements are true. We should not downplay the effectiveness of the AR15, for example, when questioned about it. If we try to say “oh, it’s just a .22 rifle, it just looks scary but it’s really nothing” then we’re not doing anyone any favors. The rifle happens to be extremely effective as a personal defense weapon, there’s a reason our military still uses it, and law enforcement across the board have one generally riding around in every patrol car, and it is in fact the most popular and common rifle in our country. To try and downplay it as “just a .22 rifle” is a falsehood. Instead, I argue we should be open and honest about things when asked, and I insist we double down with it: “no, it’s not just a .22 rifle, and it does very well for many things, including personal defense -so why shouldn’t we have them?” Honesty is always the best policy. 

Rule #5 Buy Quality Equipment

We’ve already talked about investing in quality ear and eye protection, which should be one of the very first things you buy. But in terms of the guns we buy, the magazines, holsters, slings, battle belt, or anything else we are buying, especially if it is, or is for, a self-defense firearm such as a concealed carry belt, we should be going for the best-quality equipment. “You get what you pay for” generally applies very accurately to guns and gun-related products and equipment. The same research rules apply with looking into investing in certain guns or products; do your research, check out reviews, see if you can get hands-on with the item. If possible then try it out before you buy. Many gun ranges have a fleet of rental guns that you can rent and shoot on their range. If you’re looking to buy a gun and you’ve done your homework and you have a pool of 3-4 different handguns you’ve narrowed it down to, try to find a range that has all or most of them for rent so you can see how they each shoot for you before you buy. Often times the range staff or armorer at the location will be able to tell you how they all hold up over thousands of rounds and lots of use – just try to get as much valuable information as possible before you buy.

It’s better to do research, narrow down your choices, and select a quality piece of equipment (even if it is expensive), then to go for the lower-cost items that only last a while, or don’t hold up. As an example, I’ve seen people go through multiple different low-quality optics for their rifle before they finally gave up and just bought the higher-quality optic they should have bought in the first place. In the end, it would have reduced the cost by half had they spent a little more time saving so they could finally invest in the quality piece of equipment that will last them a lifetime of use. 

In certain rare cases, some lower-quality equipment can be purchased just to get you by for now, but you should be looking at upgrading as soon as possible. As an example, I had a wife and husband come into our store to buy a pistol for home defense. They had discussed the idea of buying a gun in the past but never did, but the previous night their neighbor’s house had been broken into and they decided they needed to finally get a gun – it couldn’t wait any longer. They didn’t have a lot of money saved up for this purchase, but this was a time-sensitive situation, and anything (even lower in quality) is better than no gun at all. We got them setup with a gun that would work for both of them for the moment, but with the understanding that as soon as they’re able, they may want to later come back, trade it in, and use the value to upgrade to something of a higher quality. As we were making our suggestions we were careful to ensure they still had enough to enroll in our basic pistol course, but the point remains: if you have to go with something lesser in quality for now, do it, but understand that you should be working to upgrade or replace it as soon as you can.

The last point is to “purpose-drive” the gear. It helps to start with “why.” Figure out what you need, and what you need it to do. Then we can look at different options, make a purchase, then figure out what accessories or things we’ll need for it. A common example where this goes wrong are AR15 builds -I see a lot of ARs that have conflicting equipment; the way the rifle is configured doesn’t align with the owner’s intended needs. The issue may be the quality of the optics or the equipment on the gun, how the gun is set up, or the combination of accessories don’t align with the intended purpose. To make the best-use of our dollars, it’s helpful to not only do the research and obtain quality equipment, but we must identify the purpose for the equipment, and let that drive you towards the options to look for. 

Rule #6 Maintain Your Equipment

As we train and practice often, our guns will, of course, get dirty. Some guns can go longer than others without cleaning, but at some point, everything needs maintenance. Guns get dirty or can rust, optic batteries die, things may come loose, and lubrication will need to be reapplied. We should invest in the cleaning equipment we’ll need for all of our firearms, and we should be keeping after the maintenance of our guns and other equipment. Thankfully, cleaning supplies are not terribly expensive, and they will last you a long time. Moreover, you can consult your owner’s manual or the manufacturer’s YouTube videos on how to properly take apart and clean your firearms. Most modern types of firearms don’t take too long to clean and keeping our guns maintained so that they continue to work and we can rely upon them if needed is not expensive. 

We should also ensure we only buy and use the correct type of ammunition for our guns, and that we buy quality ammunition for them. Just like everything else, there are better and lesser-quality brands or types of ammunition, and your gun may not reliably function with some of the lower-quality choices. We should ensure we’re also investing in quality magazines for our firearm, and that we’re keeping up with our weapon lights and optics. Ensure they still work and that we change the batteries as needed. 

We’ve invested our money into buying quality firearms and equipment, and we’re hopefully investing in training courses and practicing as often as we can. We may be relying upon these guns for self-defense, duty, or that prized hunt. In any case, we want to ensure our guns work when we need them to, and by doing the maintenance, we drastically increase our chances that everything will work as needed. Also, by maintaining our equipment, we have the chance to inspect everything and look for anything that’s come loose, detect any suspicious wear patterns, and identify anything that may be damaged or in need of repair. 

There are many more tips that could be added to this discussion, but these are my six main points that will help ensure that we are safe, competent, and responsible gun owners. 

About the Author

Ryan Buell currently works as the Armorer for Ready Gunner in Orem, Utah. He is an NRA-certified RSO and Instructor and has been the manager of a shotgun range and pro shop. He is a veteran of the United States Army where he served as a machine gunner and reconnaissance team leader with deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq. He is a certified EMT, part-time ski patroller, and graduate of the Virginia Military Institute.