Prior to loading the magazine into the rifle, the top round is on the right. After the top round was loaded into the rifle, the new top round in the magazine is on the left. Photos R.K. Miller
Realistic targets develop not only shooting skills, but mindset as well. Photo Dave Spaulding
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In one form or another, the Universal Gunhandling Safety Rules have been around for some time. These are primarily firearms rules geared toward law enforcement professionals and thoughtful shooters.
For both the operator and the training-officer perspective, I want to respectfully suggest another application of rules that s more focused on the bring the streets to the range philosophy shared by many firearms instructors. Within this context, I believe there s value to be found in wording the rules slightly differently.
So, here are my suggestions. I ll start off with the original phrase for each rule, and then move into my thoughts.
Rule 1: All Guns Are Always Loaded
This is sound advice. We all know, tragically, that good police officers are no longer with us due to a failure to adhere to this rule. There are too many training deaths in which officers assumed a weapon was unloaded without making sure. This is an issue that proactive firearms and tactics instructors should address constantly. Too many names on the marble walls of the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in Washington, D.C., bear testament to this fact.
For the purposes of this article, however, I suggest we look at this first rule again. Let s take it a step further and focus on making sure as trainers that each time our students step into a real-world environment, they do so with the certainty that their firearms are properly loaded. Officers going out on the streets at the start of their shifts, narcs getting ready to boot a door on a search warrant, SWAT cops about to make entry on a hostage rescue no matter what type of duty, they must know their firearms are loaded to capacity with the proper ammo. Most importantly, they must know a round is in the chamber.
How do we do this? With firearms that use double-stack magazines such as the M-16, I suggest starting the loading process by first inspecting the top of the magazine. Is it constructed so that you can see the top round and that the one below is also visible at an offset to the left or right?
If so, here s a technique that will work for you: Check the top round s position (right or left), load the magazine into the firearm, let the bolt go forward (with your finger off the trigger and the weapon pointed in a safe direction, of course). Then remove the magazine and check the top round. If the former top round was oriented to the left side of the mag and the new top round is on the right, the weapon is properly loaded with a round chambered. (If you re having a How do I know moment? check out the two photos above.)
This mag-check technique simplifies the process of assuring you re in compliance with Rule 1. It also saves us from having to manipulate the bolt or slide to make sure a round is in the chamber.
If the magazine-check technique isn t appropriate for your firearm, consider a safe brass-check procedure. What constitutes such a method? To use a generic explanation, the officer moves the firearm s bolt or slide to the rear just enough to see the glint of the chambered live round s brass through the ejection port. Depending upon the type of firearm you use, the process may vary. If you don t know how to do it properly, check with your agency s firearms instructional staff for the proper technique. If you re part of the staff, I suggest you agree on a preferred technique with your peers and then teach it consistently to all officers at your agency.
Before you start a brass check, make sure your finger is off the trigger, that no part of your hand is close to the muzzle and that the gun is pointed in a safe direction. It might even be a good idea to practice this technique first with an empty gun or dummy rounds before using a loaded firearm.
Regardless of the technique you choose, consider building into your weapons-handling routine a safe method of confirming your firearm is properly loaded. Practice it before going into any tactical environment, whether you re just driving out of the station lot or preparing to go through the door on a high-risk entry. Don t assume your gun is loaded!
To sum it up, there s a saying in our business you may have heard before. It refers to pressing the trigger and then realizing as the hammer falls that your gun is unloaded: Duh stands for dead. Making sure of your weapon s condition will prevent a duh moment at a critical time in your life.
With that, here s my suggestion for revising Rule 1: Never assume a weapon s condition. Before going on duty, make sure yours is loaded and ready for the fight.
Rule 2: Never Let the Muzzle Cover Anything You Aren t Willing to Destroy
I suggest that as trainers, we should consider another wording: Never allow the muzzle to cover anything that you don t intend to use lethal force against. I respectfully propose that this is a more appropriate phrase for modern law enforcement in our country, the most litigious society in the world.
Either way you word it, it s often referred to as the Laser Rule. Hopefully, we all accept this commandment in one form or another. My concern and hence the new wording arises from its application to the numerous situations in which cops challenge a subject who isn t immediately identified as a lethal threat.
In its prime essence, law enforcement firearms training is geared towards one purpose: teaching officers to use objectively reasonable lethal force against a threat. Having said this, here s a relevant question: When officers are at the ready facing targets during weapons training, where are their guns pointed just prior to the fire command? Most likely the officers muzzles are aimed somewhere on the target, which, we should remember, represents a human being.
Next question: If we haven t received the command to fire, aren t we violating Rule 2 when we do this?
Here s an alternative: Train officers to slightly offset their weapons to the left, right or down from the target. This guarantees an unintentional discharge won t strike a subject they confront.
I can imagine some of your reactions, but please take a moment to consider it further. We can still react quickly to a developing lethal threat when we re slightly offset, but once we press that trigger intentionally or unintentionally we can t recall the bullet. If it strikes a no shoot human being, how do we defend our actions in criminal and civil court? Even worse, where do we stand morally and ethically as law enforcement professionals who used lethal force without justification, taking a person s life as a result?
It s happened. You know it has. It ll continue to happen unless we improve our mindset and training in the context of Rule 2. So, here s my suggestion again: Never allow the muzzle to cover anything you don t intend to use lethal force against.
Rule 3: Keep Your Finger Off the Trigger Until Your Sights Are on the Target
I propose that we now consider training instead with the phrase, Keep your finger off the trigger and out of the trigger guard until you make the conscious decision to use lethal force. This is more specific to what is sometimes called a master grip philosophy for trigger-finger placement. For those who aren t familiar with the studies of weapons handling in this context, here s a brief review.
Studies have shown that an officer with a finger on the trigger may be subject to an involuntary muscle-contraction incident. This can then result in the weapon discharging
if the officer s finger was on the trigger or at least in the trigger guard. The event may be attributed to one or more of the following:
The startle effect. Example: A loud noise suddenly occurs close to an officer, and the startled officer s reaction includes pulling the trigger.
Postural disturbance. This is basically a loss-of-balance effect. If an officer loses their balance, the natural reflexive action is to grab for an object to help stop the fall. If they have their finger on the trigger, this could lead to the officer firing the weapon.
Sympathetic grip. Also known as interlimb response or overflow effect, this describes how using the muscles of one hand to close on an object may cause a corresponding involuntary muscle contraction by the opposite hand. Example: An officer tries to control a suspect with one hand while holding a firearm with the finger on the trigger in the other. If the suspect tries to break free and the officer responds with an immediate increase in hand pressure, the officer s gun hand may mirror that action with a similar contraction. If the finger is on the trigger, this translates into a possible firearm discharge. As stress levels increase, the potential for a sympathetic grip discharge of a firearm correspondingly increase.
Another issue: trigger search. Officers have either knowingly or unknowingly moved their trigger finger from the indexed position alongside the gun (i.e., from the master grip) to the trigger even though the placement of the finger on the trigger (or in the trigger guard) is not justified. There are stories of officers stating that they wanted to make sure it [the trigger] was there. A firearms trainer should address the fallacy of such a statement the moment it s uttered.
Let s also clarify the phrase conscious decision. You could find yourself in a split-second scenario in which, for example, you turn a corner in a building search and see a suspect with their weapon pointed at you. You see the immediate threat and you instantly know you must respond or die. You ve made a decision as you fire to stop the suspect.
Or, imagine a prolonged confrontation in which you observe an armed suspect. You are behind cover and at some distance. The suspect doesn t comply with repeated commands to drop the weapon. If you re proactive in your tactical thinking, you ve formed the decision that if the suspect makes an aggressive move, you will use lethal force to stop the threat.
So once again, here s Rule 3: Keep your finger off the trigger and out of the trigger guard until you make the conscious decision to use lethal force.
Rule 4: Be Sure of Your Target & Beyond
This is great advice for any cop, and I don t even want to tamper with it. While the criminal element has no such restrictions, we know that we do.
What I do want to talk about in this context are the targets used for your agency s firearms training. Do your agency s courses of fire include realistic targets that depict lethal threats? Or are you just shooting at silhouette targets or, worse yet, bulls-eye targets?
I believe we should use targets that add when appropriate a great degree of realism to develop not only the officers shooting skills but also their mindset. Specifically, are they just punching holes in paper, or are you preparing them for the demands of decision making and accurate shots in a lethal-force encounter? To my way of thinking, training in which the target includes a suspect s face and a representation of a lethal weapon is more true to what we encounter on the streets.
To bump it up a notch, I would even suggest placing other targets with faces but no guns visible to the left and right of the shooters targets. This simulates a real environment with no-shoots mixed in with the lethal threats, allowing us to mentally build a combat visualization that a suspect pointing a gun at us poses an immediate threat to our lives. Use of these targets promotes a better assessment and justification process, and, as an added bonus, can prove more legally defensible in court.
We could talk about this a lot more, but the editors want me to wrap it up. If you don t buy the logic I ve presented, we will agree to disagree. But I sure hope I ve made you think about this topic, and that you ll dedicate your firearms training and weapons-handling practice toward use on the streets as well the range, and make it as safe as you possibly can. It s your responsibility as a law enforcement professional.