First-Time Gun Owner? Here are the Safety Essentials

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Written by Travis Noonan

We’ve covered topics like personal defense in the past and naturally, that includes firearm ownership and use. While no prepper wants to take a life, the possibility of having to use lethal force in self-defense is something any prepper should prepare for. Making that decision and being on the right side of the law (and your own conscience) means being a safe, well-trained gun owner. If you’re purchasing a firearm for the first time, mastering the safety essentials is critical.

First, we’ll review the four rules of safely handling a gun. Then we’ll review safekeeping and training your family and friends. Lastly, we’ll go over the proper PPE (personal protective equipment) that should be worn while training to shoot. Lastly, we’ll review the risks of using certain types of firearms and munitions in an enclosed, urban space (your apartment).

The Four Rules of Gun Safety

Before you touch a firearm for the first time, you should know these rules and commit them to memory. They are to be followed without exception – no matter the firearm or circumstance. Follow these rules each and every time you hold a gun, and you’re already on the road to be a responsible gun owner:

1. Treat all guns as if they are always loaded.

There are no exceptions to this rule, ever. You should follow this rule for one inarguable reason above all else: It causes no harm nor inconvenience to treat a gun as if it’s loaded, even if you just checked its chamber and magazine. You risk collateral damage, friendly fire, jail time, and serious injury or death if you don’t. In 2013, 505 people were killed unintentionally with a firearm.

The reason for nearly all 505 deaths can be attributed to an accidental or negligent discharge, or “ND”. This occurs when a chambered round is fired unintentionally. A negligent discharge is a chargeable offense under federal law. Had all 505 involved gun owners and shooters followed this rule, that number may be much lower.

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

Pretty straightforward. If you’re treating a gun as if it’s loaded at all times, you’re right to assume that it has the potential – and realistic likelihood – to destroy whatever it’s pointed at, be it people or property. This builds on rule #1 and should be followed for the same reason: It causes no harm nor inconvenience to play it safe. The consequences of not doing so could be lifelong.

3. Keep your finger off the trigger until you’re ready to fire.

Watch any responsible gun owner with a weapon drawn, and you’ll notice their trigger finger remains outside the trigger well until they’re ready to take a shot. Virtually every negligent discharge can be attributed to a trigger finger being on “the button” when no round was intended to be fired.

4. Know your target beyond doubt and know what’s behind it.

For the gun-owning prepper who may have to exercise his or her right to self-defense, rule #4 may have the greatest potential for unintended consequences. The deaths described in rule #1 that were not caused by a negligent discharge can be attributed to a shooter firing without knowing his or her target, or what was behind it.

What could happen if you don’t follow these rules:

In 2014, Albuquerque police were responding to a possible burglary occurring at a multi-story apartment complex. Upon entering the complex through an exterior window, the lead officer’s Glock handgun accidentally discharged by way of the trigger being negligently pressed upon entry. The round in the chamber fired through the officer’s holster and the apartment floor, destroying the ceiling and infrastructure in the apartment below. Fragments from the bullet struck the neck of the resident in that collateral apartment. The innocent bystander, thankfully, survived.

The person responsible for this ND was a highly trained law enforcement officer with hours of range time, equipped with a handgun with three built-in safeties. All it takes is one mishap, one failure to follow any of these four rules, to cause potential criminal negligence or loss of innocent life.

Safely Storing Your Firearms

For the average American, proper gun storage is relatively simple: Buy a proper gun safe, lock up your firearms, and ensure no one else who isn’t trained and trusted has the key or combo. But as a well-minded prepper with the intent of protecting yourself and your property, you need to maintain easy access to those firearms. We’re not advocating keeping a loaded revolver under your pillow – many states have enacted laws prohibiting “unsafe storage” of firearms in this manner, and you will be charged or imprisoned if someone else negligently discharges your weapon. In 2018 alone, 73 children were killed by the accidental discharge of an unsecured firearm. You do not want your family members becoming a contribution to these statistics.

That doesn’t mean your weapons cannot be made readily accessible. In fact, a plethora of quick-access lockboxes and portable safes have made the balance of access and safe-keeping a simple process. Storage units like the Vaultek VT20i Biometric Handgun Safe use your fingerprint (or a PIN number) as a digital key. Gun cases like this can be stored under your bed, in a nightstand or desk, readily accessible when needed. Just press your finger to the scanner and the lid automatically opens. Your handgun can be stored loaded and chambered with no risk to others.

Quick-access locking cases can even be installed underneath a desk or in a hallway, providing the same capabilities. The RPNB Mounted Firearm Case uses the same biometric finger scanner, number pad or a simple key lock.

Training Family and Friends

No individual should be allowed to handle any of your firearms unless properly trained on the weapon’s functions and the four rules of gun safety. To properly instruct another individual on how to safely handle your firearm for the first time, follow these steps:

1. Explain the four rules of gun safety and why they’re important. Explain to the individual that he or she needs to follow all four rules the moment they receive the weapon.

2. Explain the weapon in detail. Identify and explain the purpose and functions of the magazine, trigger, slide or charging handle, hammer, barrel, sights, safety, and grip(s).

3. Show them how to check the magazine and chamber to clear the weapon of ammunition, and how to operate the safety (if applicable). Perform these clearing steps with instruction before handing it over.

4. Make the individual clear the weapon by checking the magazine, chamber, and safety while oriented in a safe direction. This allows you to confirm he or she has a basic understanding of its functions.

5. Closely observe the individual as they inspect the weapon to ensure they follow rules #1, #2, and #3: Assume the weapon is loaded, even though it was cleared. Never point the weapon at something they don’t intend to destroy. Keep the finger off the trigger unless ready to fire.

6. If practicing firing for the first time, ensure the individual is confident in using and aiming the weapon, then reiterate rule #4: Know your target and what’s behind it beyond doubt.

Reacting to Unsafe Behavior

For a new shooter handling a firearm with no experience, the process can be stressful and confusing. Even with a clear understanding of the firearm’s basic function, that individual may forget to follow the rules of gun safety while handling the weapon for the first time. If you observe the individual pointing the firearm in an unsafe direction or placing their finger on the trigger at any point, immediately and calmly remove the weapon from their possession. Explain what they did wrong, confirm they understand the four rules of gun safety, explain why their actions are dangerous, and conduct remedial training before trying again.

Training to Shoot: Safety Equipment Essentials

The only way to truly practice gun safety is to work with live ammunition in a safe setting, putting your firearm through its paces. If the time ever arises wherein you, as a prepper, need to defend yourself or your home with lethal force, you will need to react quickly and confidently. Assessing your target, exercising the four rules, and taking a shot to eliminate a threat under such stress requires muscle memory and repetitive training. There are no shortcuts.

But to train and shoot well, you also need to protect yourself. That means investing in the right personal protection equipment. A set of appropriately rated earmuffs and shooting glasses are essential for protecting your eyes and ears at the range. Even in a controlled environment like a gun range, the risks of a ricochet, a wayward shell casing hitting your eye, and hearing loss from gunfire are very real.

Hearing Protection

If you’re a first-time shooter or you’re training a family member or friend, it’s recommended you work with active hearing protection: Electronic shooting muffs (like Walker’s Razor Compact muffs) filter out harmful noise while allowing for regular conversations at a safe volume. This provides important situational awareness and it allows for safe, clear instruction to be conducted on the firing line.

According to official guidelines created by the National Shooting Sports Foundation, earmuffs should also be worn with earplugs. A simple pair of disposable foam plugs is best for comfort.

Ballistic Eye Protection

Appropriate eye pro should always be worn while shooting. Blowback and gunshot residue can irritate the eyes, spent shell casings can pose a risk to the shooter’s face, and for new shooters, ballistic lenses provide an added sense of security. Ballistic eye protection must be ANSI certified for high-velocity impacts (marked with a “Z87.1” or “Z87+” rating) or ideally, certified for ballistic protection by military standards, like the Wiley-X Sabers, which are issued to new service members (marked “MIL-PRF-32432”).

Optional: Shooting Gloves

While eye pro and ear pro are a necessity for range time – most ranges require both be worn for liability insurance – gloves are entirely optional. They may help provide an added layer of protection for new shooters who are practicing proper handgun grip. Pistols, especially compacts and subcompacts, present a minor risk of “slide bite”.

Slide bite occurs when the shooter’s hand is too high on the backstrap (backside of the pistol grip), allowing the webbing of the hand to rest directly underneath the slide and hammer. When the weapon is fired, the slide ejects backward violently and re-cocks the hammer, which may cause minor cuts and pinching.  

If you’re a new shooter, we recommend sticking with fingerless gloves (the Mechanix Wear Tactical Gloves are popular) or thin, tactile gloves that provide a “second-skin” feel (the PIG Dexterity Gloves are favored by military service members and professional marksmen). These gloves will provide appropriate feedback and touch, allowing you to get familiar with the controls and trigger on your firearm. Thicker gloves may inhibit fine movements and reduce your ability to familiarize yourself with your weapon.

Close-Quarters Defense: Choosing the Right Ammunition

Remember rule #4? Always know your target and what’s behind it. Collateral damage and the risk of striking an innocent bystander in a use-of-lethal-force situation is, unfortunately, all too common. Just months ago, a family in St. Paul was subjected to unexpected gunfire in their own bathroom when a shootout in their front lawn ended with live rounds penetrating the exterior walls in their home. Luckily, no one was injured.

While police are afforded certain protections in heated situations like this, the same cannot be said for the civilian prepper. The risks increase exponentially for the apartment prepper. Your abode is likely surrounded by other occupied rentals, all of which could be at risk of collateral damage in the event you need to defend yourself with a firearm.

A wayward round that misses its target could end up in your neighbor’s living room. This is called over-penetration. Professional shooters and law enforcement have, thankfully, studied this extensively.

The Best Handgun Ammo to Reduce Over-Penetration

We’re not going to focus on caliber as much as the type of ammo you’ll choose. After all, you should train with a handgun that makes you confident enough to strike your attacker. Whether it’s the relatively small .380 or the big, powerful .45 ACP, anything big enough to stop a threat is capable of penetrating multiple layers of drywall, wood, and even brick or cinderblock.

Frangible ammunition is the key to reducing this risk, especially in close quarters. Frangible bullets are not cast from lead or copper, like many traditional handgun rounds. Instead, it’s fabricated from a hard, brittle powdered metal alloy. Shaped like a conventional bullet, it packs more than enough power to penetrate an attacker and quickly wound or kill. But upon impact with any hard or rigid surface (like wood or stone) it will shatter and disintegrate.

Frangible ammo can be “finicky”. Because it’s brittle, bullets can occasionally shatter or provide poor performance depending on the caliber or weapon. If you opt for this surefire way to reduce over-penetration, be sure to practice with plenty of rounds. You must ensure it’s reliable when it counts.

The other (much more common) choice in ammo for home defense is the good ole’ hollow-point. Hollow-point ammunition is incredibly reliable, having been developed and used by shooters and law enforcement for decades. Hollow-point bullets are designed to flatten and break apart upon impact. To achieve this, the bullet itself is typically cast from “pedals” of lead that are shaped into a cone with a hollow tip.

Upon striking a hard surface, the bullet’s pedals separate and expand. This diffuses the energy across a wide surface area, reducing the concentration of energy at the point of impact, thus greatly reducing the chance of over-penetration. This effect has a morbid advantage of creating large wound channels and extensive trauma against an attacker.

Hollow-point rounds are widely available for virtually every caliber and type of handgun you may consider training with, and it’s what we recommend for home defense situations. The popular 9mm and .40 S&W typically provide the lowest risk of collateral damage when configured as a hollow-point.

Best Rifle Ammo to Reduce Over-Penetration

The AR-15 and medium-caliber rifles have also become popular defense weapons for the average prepper. SWAT and police use AR-15 rifles for close-quarters situations because the rifle’s small, fast 5.56 NATO/.223 Remington round lacks penetrating power. It quickly becomes unstable when striking hard surfaces, often shattering or fragmenting.

With this said, rifle rounds pack a lot more velocity than handgun cartridges, thus the design and caliber become critically important. Larger calibers like .308 Winchester are simply too dangerous for home defense, and certain types of 5.56/.223 ammunition are specifically designed to penetrate hard targets (like the popular M855 steel-core penetrator).

Companies like Hornady have produced medium-caliber rifle cartridges for home defense. The FTX Critical Defense .223 round utilizes a copper shield and flat nose, encouraging expansion at low velocities and reducing the risk of over-penetration.


About the Author: Travis is a contributing writer for Apartment Prepper and military veteran. In his spare time, he runs, providing shooters with range bags, gun cases, hearing protection, and eye protection.


Image by MikeGunner from Pixabay

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One comment

  1. If you injure someone, your insurance isn’t likely to give you much support.

    United States Concealed Carry Association and US Law Shield are member benefit groups that fill that nitch.

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