Not This Again! (A Handy Reminder)

We shouldn’t have to run this, but…people forget. Or were never taught. Here’s a handy reminder. Let’s all maintain the same number of holes in our body nature originally intended. -Madduo

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Not This Again!
Tamara Keel

I was going to write about fun gun nerdy stuff this month, but it got shoved to the back of my word processor. Why? Because in the space of a couple of days, on two separate gun-related Facebook groups to which I belong, someone circulated emergency room photos in which some unfortunate had blown a bloody starfish out of the backside of their own hand with their pistol.

This is caused by something very near the top of my pet peeve list. Go to a place where a lot of handguns are looked at, like SHOT Show, NRA Annual Meeting, or your local gun show or, heck, just the neighborhood gun store. Stand there for five or ten minutes. I absolutely guarantee you will see someone pick up a (putatively) unloaded pistol in their strong hand and turn it sideways for inspection.

Grunts: putatively.

And sure as God made little green apples, when they do this they either cradle the muzzle in the palm of their offside paw or rest it on the tip of their offside index finger (often accompanied by a finger heading for the trigger like the swallows returning to Capistrano). Should you express concern at this habit, nine times out of ten you will be treated to the retort, “Well it’s not loaded!”

Weapon handling. You’re doing it wrong.

I’m not going to use the term “muscle memory” because it annoys me; muscles don’t have memories. But habitual gestures come from someplace, and those neural pathways get strengthened by repetition. It’s why basketball players do free throws ’til their arms ache and golfers practice their swing.

The first time you chewed a fingernail or twirled a lock of your hair around your finger or cracked your knuckles, it was a distinctly voluntary motion. The eleven thousandth time, it was so subconscious you probably didn’t realize you were doing it.

As firearms trainer Chuck Haggard is fond of pointing out, the problem with developing two separate habits of gun-handling motions, one for “loaded guns” and one for “unloaded guns”, is that in a moment of stress or inattention, it’s entirely too easy to fall into the wrong habit for the situation at hand. This can have tragic consequences.

What goes in….
…must come out.

Bad habits can be terribly hard to unlearn. There was a video circulating in the media not too many years ago where a law enforcement officer shot himself in the leg while holstering his duty gun. A drawstring toggle from his winter coat got inside the holster and, subsequently, inside his trigger guard. When he felt resistance while putting the gun away (without visually inspecting the holster mouth) the subsequent pushing and tugging sent a bullet through his leg on the way to the floor.

But that’s not the notable part for our purposes here today. The notable part is that this incident happened in a gun shop. And the reason his gun was out of the holster in the gun shop was that he wanted to compare its size to one of the display guns. The display gun in question had been handed to him by the counter clerk as though it were a can of soup and not a deadly weapon (because “unloaded”, amirite?).

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Roll this around in your head for a minute: The clerk handed him the “unloaded” display gun, and he immediately cradled the muzzle in his left hand inches from the scar where he had previously shot himself doing more or less just that. How many times does one have to shoot oneself to kick this horrible bad habit? More than once, apparently.

The LEO took the display gun from the clerk and plopped its muzzle end into his left hand while he examined the pistol. This is the important part, here: The about-to-happen accident wasn’t the first time the guy in question had shot himself. Apparently, a decade-and-a-half earlier, he’d put a round through his offside paw with his duty gun.

Roll this around in your head for a minute: The clerk handed him the “unloaded” display gun, and he immediately cradled the muzzle in his left hand inches from the scar where he had previously shot himself doing more or less just that. How many times does one have to shoot oneself to kick this horrible bad habit? More than once, apparently.

I’ve been made fun of for this by co-workers in gun stores before, but if you ask me, a gun (whether it’s a handgun or a long gun) needs to be in one of three states:

1. Aimed consciously and deliberately at a target.
2. Held in one of the many muzzle-aversion “ready” positions, whether it’s high port or sul or indoor low ready or whatever.
3. Holstered, cased, slung, boxed, in the safe, lying on the table, sitting in a showcase, or otherwise not in somebody’s paws.

The idea that one can just start not worrying about muzzle direction because a gun is “unloaded” is something I’d make vanish if I could wave a magic wand. It’s one of those things that’s easy to enforce with blue guns, SIRT laser trainers, sims guns, airsoft pistols, and other gunlike trainers.

A sight like this should make you borderline apoplectic.

Simply get in the habit – building those neural pathways, remember? – that wherever you’re pointing the muzzle of the gun-shaped thing in your hand is because that’s where you mean to be pointing, not because it’s just some accidentally-ingrained habitual tic.

The hand you save may be your own. And I won’t have to see emergency room photos of your bloody paw scrolling across my social media timeline.

-Tamara Keel

Follow MadDuoCo on Instagram, @madduoco. It’s the official storefront for the Mad Duo and Breach-Bang-Clear; vetrepreneurs, adventurpreneurs, capitalists who believe in American Exceptionalism. 

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About the Author: Tamara Keel made a living slinging guns across the glass for more than 20 years, so it goes without saying she’s been muzzled more times than just about anyone we know. Tamara has been regularly published in many places such as SWAT Magazine, Concealed Carry Magazine, and is currently the Handgun Editor for the NRA’s Shooting Illustrated magazine. But it’s not just on dead trees that she writes — you can catch most of her wit on her blog. She’s into making fun of gun hipsters, shooting bowling pin matches, drinking new craft beers, and collecting old and outdated cameras. You can also catch her on Instagram @tamarakeel .

“In a perfect world, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms would be a store with a drive-through window…” Tamara Keel
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  1. Tam, I hadn’t thought about habits/muscle memory before – but that explains why the 4 rules are still important even when you’re staring at an empty chamber. Treat the gun like it’s loaded even when you know it’s not, so you’ll remember to treat loaded guns the same. (There is one necessary exception to these rules, when in the course of cleaning or other maintenance you _have_ to do something that would be stupid with a loaded gun – but even then you should stick as close to the rules as possible.)

  2. Many years ago, a lab I worked in had a safety sign, “Do Not Look in Laser with Remaining Eye”. Since the laser was off 99.99% of the time, it was easy to get in the horrible habit of looking down the optical path to align things.

    1. When I taught laser safety at a tire company, I use to tell people that and that if they want to wear an eye patch, they should wait for dress like a pirate day and carry a parrot on their shoulder instead.

  3. You mean you can’t get shot in the hand and just shake it off like in the old cowboy movies?? 🙂

    I’ve always considered what is usually listed as Rule 2 to be the most important – NEVER point any gun at anything you don’t want to destroy, or keep the muzzle pointed in a safe direction, however you want to phrase it.
    Once, my father in law got upset when he pointed an ’empty’ Glock (had just supposedly been cleared) at me when he was carelessly handling it, and I asked him politely not to do that. My very smart and usually very safe-with-firearms wife also objected to my correcting him, since it had just been ‘verified’ it was unloaded – but I told both of them I didn’t care – and reminded them of how many ’empty’ guns had ‘just gone off’. Not sure I won any popularity points with him, but again, I didn’t care then and still don’t. But many years ago I had both barrels of a 20-ga side x side go off when I closed the action while dove hunting – luckily it was pointing out into the field with no one in danger, but it certainly drove home the point about making sure all guns are pointing in a safe direction all the time.

    Furthermore, my son, who is an ER doc, sent me an X-Ray of a hand, or what was left of it, after it got in the way of a fireworks mortar tube which went off. I had to look at it a minute to figure out what the picture was. So Rule 2 applies to other situations, not just firearms (although I guess a large 8- or 10-inch fireworks mortar tube can be considered a type of firearm).

    Thanks for the post, Tam – always good to be reminded visually of what the consequences of even a momentary lack of attention can be.

  4. Excellent article, thanks.

    I’ve been to recent gun shows and LGSs where the (pick your number) rules of gun safety are studiously ignored. Makes me want to duck and cover.

  5. I even find myself doing similar things when using power tools. Keep it pointed in a safe direction, keep your finger along side the drill and off the trigger until you are ready to actually drill a hole, etc. I know, it is a silly thing, but habits once learned, are hard to break.

    1. And you are safer for handling the drill that way. It doesn’t have the ability a gun has to “reach out and touch someone”, but it can sure make a mess of a hand that gets in the way of the spinning bit.

  6. The very basics of firearms safety training here in Canada, are the acronyms A.C.T.S. and P.R.O.V.E. The training program is a federal one (as are the laws and regulations for owning, purchasing, storing or transporting firearms) and is mandatory for anyone wanting to own a firearm. Whether a long rifle, shotgun or handgun. It is drilled into every shooter until it becomes a conditioned response whenever your hands come into contact with a firearm.

    A: Always assume the weapon is loaded
    C: Control the direction of the muzzle at all times
    T: Trigger… keep your fingers off it and outside the trigger guard
    S: See that the weapon is safe.

    How do you see if the weapon is safe? You PROVE it safe.

    P: Point the muzzle in a safe direction
    R: Remove all ammunition from the weapon
    O: Observe the chamber
    V: Verify the feed path
    E: Examine the bore

  7. From a completely selfish point of view, I’m a great deal less concerned about the size of the hole they blow in their hand than I am the fact that I’m sometimes standing on the other side of that hand.

  8. I’ve always taught my students to (safely)remove any magazine and open the action of any firearm they are presented before doing anything else with them. I’ve gotten wierd looks when I do this at gun shops and have even been asked not to do it as I point the gun at the ceiling (the only safe direction at the time) and ensure the gun is clear. If I worked at a gun shop I’d never hand anyone an in-battery gun. God knows what the last customer did and we missed when it got put away. Failure to treat every gun, at all times, as loaded (when possible, obviously not when broken down, action open, etc) WILL, not MIGHT result in a nd, eventually. I’ve never, in thousands of hours of gun handling, had a nd. This is not good luck, it’s consistent safe habits.

  9. “Injuries from loaded guns usually arise from longstanding bad habits with unloaded ones“
    ~ Kathy Jackson ~