There are a number of gun safety rules you can follow that will all but eliminate the possibility of anyone getting hurt when hunting, shooting or otherwise handling firearms. Of course, freak malfunctions can occur, and crazy circumstances like accidentally dropping a gun can still happen, but those are exceedingly rare.

The most common gun safety rules that all experienced shooters know are often called The Four Rules, and we’ll go over them first before diving into other rules and best practices. It’s important to note that the four rules can sound somewhat redundant. That’s intentional — you generally have to break more than one of these rules at the same time in order for something terrible to happen. That’s not to say it’s ever okay to break one. It isn’t, but even the most vigilant and well-trained individuals suffer from lack of focus when they’re fatigued, excited or distracted, and it only takes one split-second slip-up to ruin your life or someone else’s. The built-in redundancy helps prevent tragedies. Drill these gun safety rules into your head and into the head of anyone you are teaching to shoot.

The Four Gun Safety Rules

1. All guns are always loaded

In reality, we know sometimes that a particular gun is not loaded. That’s not the point. The point is that every time you touch a gun, you treat that gun as if it is loaded until you have verified and reverified, visually and physically, that it is empty.

If you need the gun to be unloaded for cleaning, putting it away, transporting it or other reasons, unload it, then verify visually by looking at the magazine and the chamber and ensuring there are no rounds in either. Then verify physically by touching the empty chamber with your finger if possible.

If someone hands you a gun and tells you it’s unloaded, triple check it anyway.

Countless people have been killed by “empty guns” that weren’t actually empty at all. If you get yourself into the mindset that any gun you are handling is loaded, you won’t do stupid things with it that could have you paying a horrible price.

2. Never let the muzzle cover anything you are not willing to destroy

Not for a second. Do not let the muzzle of your handgun sweep over your leg for just a second while you draw or reholster. Do not let the muzzle of your shotgun point at the clubhouse for a split second while you carry it from one 5-stand to the next. Do not grab the rifle the guy behind the gun counter handed you and shoulder it in the store without asking him what his preferred safe direction is.

Outside of cleaning (in which case, see rules 1 and 3 first), never, ever, ever let the gun point at anything you’re not willing to destroy, even for a moment.

3. Keep your finger off the trigger until your sights are on the target

Your finger should not enter the trigger guard until the muzzle is pointing at whatever it is you intend to shoot.

4. Be sure of your target and what’s beyond it

Nearly every year, some deer hunter or turkey hunter shoots at a blur of motion in the bushes and kills a fellow hunter because he failed to be sure of what was making the movement.

Whether you’re hunting or shooting, you must clearly identify what you are shooting at and think about what’s behind it. Is that buck skylined on a ridge? If you fire at him and the bullet passes through or misses, it can travel for literally miles — where will it eventually land? What or who is beyond the ridge that you can’t see? Never take a shot at any target unless you know the bullet or shot pellets will fall in a safe area.

Gun Safety Rules For The Range And At Home

There are other gun safety rules and best practices to follow for the sake of safety at the range and at home.

5. Keep the safety on, but don’t trust it

If your gun has a safety, it should be left on until you plan to use the gun. Many shooters train themselves to snick the safety off as part of their draw or mount, while others leave the safety on until the gun is on target and ready to shoot.

In either case, safeties are mechanical devices that can fail. They are a backup safety measure and should never take the place of following The Four Rules.

6. Keep your guns secured

If you are going to carry concealed, be sure your handgun is under your control at all times. This is particularly relevant to women who opt to carry a handgun in their purse. If you purse-carry, you no longer have the luxury of leaving the purse under your desk at the office while you go to a meeting, on the back of your chair at a restaurant where you can’t see it, or on your friend’s living room floor while you drink coffee in her kitchen and her kids play elsewhere in the house. It must remain in your direct possession at all times.

Similarly, if you keep loaded firearms in your home, they must be secured from the reach of unauthorized individuals, including young children. Invest in a gun safe, trigger locks or other mechanisms to ensure a gun never falls under the control of someone who should not have access to it.

7. Be lead aware

While you’re at the range, it’s prudent to avoid transferring lead from your hands to your mouth or other areas. Don’t eat or smoke at the range, try not to touch your face, and wash your hands with cold water before going to the bathroom. When you get home from shooting, drop your range clothes into the washing machine and take a cool shower if you’re able. Hot water opens your pores, and you don’t want them open until you’ve rinsed the lead off. Thus, cool water is better for hand washing and showering.

8. Protect your eyes and ears

Do you know how many hunters and shooters in their 60s need hearing aids? Dang near all of them. Don’t shoot without protecting your eyes and your hearing. Just don’t.

9. Know your gun and keep it in good working order

Understand the mechanical workings of your gun, and keep it maintained. Be sure you’re using the proper ammunition and that the barrel of the gun hasn’t been obstructed in any way (this is particularly relevant to hunters who might stumble or drop their gun and allow dirt, snow or mud to get into the barrel).

10. Don’t do stupid stuff

Don’t handle a gun if you’ve been drinking alcohol. Don’t twirl a loaded gun around your finger like you’re Doc Holliday. Don’t pull your pistol out of its holster and hand it to your buddy without clearing it. Don’t hand your 110-pound girlfriend a Desert Eagle when she’s never shot a handgun before. Don’t hunt or shoot with people who don’t take safety rules seriously or who get offended when you call them out on a safety violation.

Above all, don’t forget that guns are not toys. They are not to be feared, but they are to be treated with care and respect.