Reexamining Cooper's Four Rules of Gun Safety - Part I
by Kirk Lawson

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[Colonel Jeff Cooper]

Colonel Jeff Cooper was a highly influential figure in the firearms combat community. He is credited for creating what is generally known as the "modern technique" of handgun fighting. Among his many important contributions are stance, grip, mind set, "conditions of readiness" for the 1911 handgun, the "color code" system of alertness and awareness, and his Four Rules of Gun Safety.

In this series we'll look at his Four Rules of Gun Safety and how they relate to us today.

While Cooper is credited with the creation of the rules, I've found that they predate the gentleman by a fair amount. I have located variations of the rules going back at least to the U.S. Civil War. Nevertheless, the rules as he stated them have become synonymous with "gun safety" for, literally, generations of Americans.

I teach the Four Rules. I teach them to my children and in firearms classes. The rules are designed so that each of them overlaps and creates a buffer for the others. If one rule is "broken" but the others are maintained, then injury or worse is avoided. But I've found that people who aren't immersed in the firearms community often have misunderstandings or misconceptions about what the rules actually are, what they mean, and how they are applied. Even people who have had "some" training often miss some subtleties and ramifications.

The first of Cooper's rules is, "All guns are always loaded. Even if they are not, treat them as if they are." The idea here seems clear. The gun is loaded so don't point it at your buddy and pull the trigger. Even if you think they gun is unloaded, still, don't point it at your buddy and pull the trigger. This is the number one rule.

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[Is this gun loaded?]

But there can be problems with it. I recall listening to one woman who had only ever been told the first sentence of this rule: "All guns are always loaded." Because she was unfamiliar with firearms this caused her unnecessary fear. This mystic object was always ready to kill someone! Eventually, she learned the second half, "even if they are not, treat them as if they are." Treat the gun with respect. It is not a toy.

Still, following this rule blindly can negatively impact training. "How so," you ask? Do you ever do "dry fire" practice, or practice your draw stroke? Yes, you have personally verified that the gun is not loaded and removed all ammunition from the room. OK. Then you practice drawing your gun and pull the trigger, almost certainly in a place and at a "target" which you wouldn't do if the gun were truly loaded. You, literally, just broke the cardinal, number one, rule. You did not treat the gun as if it were loaded because, well, it was not. And, in fact, in order to do this practice, you must break the rule.

It has been suggested that this makes us seem like hypocrites, or at least engaging in cognitive dissonance, to those outside the firearms community. I'm not sure I buy that, but I understand the idea.

So let me propose a new rule, to replace Cooper's number one: Always treat every gun as if it is loaded until you have personally verified for yourself that it is not.

This is what I now teach my children and students. Don't quote Cooper's rule number 1 any more. Use this one instead. Yeah, I know it has more words. It is also more accurate, makes more sense, and isn't contradictory.