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The Seven Rules of Firearms Safety

Origins, Evolution and Intent

In 1969 – every week – a non-intentional (not criminal or suicide) death or injury with firearms occurred; one in four of those was in the home.

“More New Zealand hunters are getting killed in firearms accidents these years than ever before, and in fact, our annual death rate per head of population is almost equal to that of the United States.” (Forester & Illingworth, 1967)

Since then, though, firearm accidents have steadily declined with notable reductions in the early 1970s and the late 1990s – why was that?

“Two trends are discernible when the historical series of casualties is plotted against calendar years: there is a plateau generally from 1935 to approximately 1972. The advent of NZMSC (NZ Mountain Safety Council) firearm safety programmes could be argued to have begun to take effect from the late 1970s, when compulsory testing took effect after its introduction three years earlier. A decline in casualties, coinciding with the aftermath of the introduction of shooter licensing in 1984 lead (sic) to a lower plateau post-1988, indicative of a lower casualty rate. This appears to be ongoing to the present.” (Forsyth & Weatherston, 2016)

As one of the Mountain Safety Council firearms instructors, I get to present and talk about the ‘Seven Rules of Firearms Safety’ a lot. As a consultant, with a background in operations management, I think about process and procedure a lot. As a person, I think about how we think a lot. Combine all these, and you get an interest in a deeper understanding of where cultural safety mechanisms and ‘common sense’ come from.

The seven rules of firearms safety are a set of guidelines contained in the New Zealand Arms Code. This code of practice is a guidance document, formed around the Arms Act. The Arms Act is the law, and the Arms Code is how we put it into practice.

Every time I present the seven rules, another little insight is gained and becomes incorporated into future presentations. I hope, by putting some of these thoughts and ideas down into text, we can develop a greater understanding of the core of firearms safety in New Zealand. They say knowledge is power; if so, then understanding a history of knowledge is a worthy endeavour.

The seven rules are a combination and evolution of basic firearms safety principles passed down from shooter to shooter. Rather than having a specific origin, the rules have developed and refined into what we know them as today.

So, let’s have a look at the origins of these rules, their place in the New Zealand firearm owners’ psyche and then, go deeper into each rule and uncover not only the statement itself but the more in-depth concepts and ideas that each carries.

A Father’s Advice

In 1902, Mark Hanbury Beaufoy, an English politician and avid game bird shooter, put together a series of verses given to his son, along with the boy’s first firearm (a 28-gauge shotgun). The verses are one of the best known and most often referenced examples of firearms safety practices.

While the entire poem, called A Fathers Advice, is well worth reading and considering, the last lines bring to the forefront the core – the intent – behind all firearms safety.

“All the pheasants ever bred 

Won’t repay for one man dead.” (Beaufoy, 1902)

Beaufoy was primarily a game bird hunter, but the message is clear: no animal … no trophy is worth the death of a friend, family member or fellow human being.

Our more modern version: “No meat is better than no mate.”

The Four Basic Rules

You can’t talk for long about the origin of gun safety rules without the ‘Four Basic Rules of Firearms Safety’ coming up. If you spend any time on US-based firearms websites, you’ll have seen them.

Much like the seven rules in NZ, it’s these that are a homogenisation of many thoughts and ideas, but one of the key proponents in the development and popularisation of them was a Lt. Col. Jeff Cooper.

The US four basic rules are:

1. All guns are always loaded. Even if they’re not, treat them as if they are.

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

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

4. Identify your target and what’s behind it. Never shoot at anything that you’ve not positively identified.

We can see how the concepts intertwine with our own seven rules, and despite number three (finger/trigger) not being one of our seven, it’s one that’s still clearly communicated.

New Zealand Origins

In Rex Forester and Neil Illingworth’s 1967 book Hunting in New Zealand, the authors present the rules they were taught while working for the forest service:

“We should never enter camp with a loaded firearm.

We should never fire at any target we could not clearly see.

We should never carry a loaded firearm when walking behind another hunter.”

(Forester & Illingworth, 1967, p. 121)

Bush Lore by Tony Nolan has an extensive list (19) of safety rules covering off all we would expect and adds in many common sense situations we’d come across during a hunting trip. Number one gets right to the point:

“Never point a firearm, loaded or unloaded, at anything or anyone you do not intend to kill.” (Nolan, 1961)

Common themes are target identification and understanding and managing the
state of your firearm.

The Mountain Safety Council

In 1965, The New Zealand Mountain Safety Council (MSC) formed. This council consisted of members of a multitude of outdoors and government organisations charged with providing instruction, both in print and in person, for those wanting to head outdoors.

In 1968, the MSC published the second version of their manual Firearms and Hunting which included the beginnings of the seven rules we’d recognise today – there were five, and they were:

1. Check that firearm.

2. Load magazine only when hunting ground is reached.

3. Use half-open bolt or action when in a state of semi-readiness.

4. Identify your target.

5. Consider your firing zone.

(Logan & Harris, 1968)

Though not included explicitly in the rules, the next series of paragraphs also talked about safe storage at home. We’ll go into more details regarding each rule later. For the moment, we’re going to look at the development and refinement of the seven rules.

Even in early versions, we can already see the key message that continues to form the basis of firearms safety – namely – understanding and managing the state of your firearm. If it doesn’t need to be loaded, it shouldn’t be loaded.

Changing Time, Equipment and Best Practices

The Manual was revised and reprinted in 1971, then rewritten and published as the New Zealand Firearms Handbook in 1985. By the 2009 version, the seven rules were getting close to what we’d recognise them as today. Changes included:

‘Check that firearm’ had formed into ‘Treat every firearm as though it is loaded’.

• ‘Always point firearms in a safe direction’ had been added.

• ‘Load magazine only when hunting ground is reached’ had become ‘Load a firearm only when you are ready to fire’.

• ‘Use half-open bolt or action when in a state of semi-readiness’ had been deleted.

• ‘Identify your target’ had remained.

• ‘Consider your firing zone’ became ‘Check your firing zone’.

• ‘Store firearms and ammunition safely’ and ‘Alcohol impairs judgement’ got added to the end.

During that licencing period, many applicants were expected to be able to remember and write down the seven rules verbatim. But, much like memorising times tables, this tested memory skills, not necessarily comprehension of the intent and meaning.

In the current (2013) Arms Code, further refinement occurred, and we end up with the concise seven we know today:

1. Treat every firearm as loaded.

2. Always point firearms in a safe direction.

3. Load a firearm only when ready to fire.

4. Identify your target beyond all doubt.

5. Check your firing zone.

6. Store firearms and ammunition safely.

7. Avoid both alcohol and drugs when handling firearms.

(New Zealand Police, 2013)

Going Deeper

Many would suggest the seven rules are simple enough to understand, and on the surface, they are. If no one goes any more in-depth than a superficial understanding and comprehension of them, they’re still in good stead to be a safe firearms handler. However, many people seem to pick and choose which rules to follow and which to break – often using one rule to justify their actions while willingly violating another. A classic – and dangerous one – is someone willing to flag (point the firearm at) themselves or someone else and excuse it with a statement along the lines of, “But it’s not loaded”.

If we look at this situation, the person isn’t just breaking one (Always point your firearm in a safe direction) but two (Always treat a firearm as loaded) of the seven rules. Yes, we all likely ‘know’ it’s unloaded, but that still doesn’t excuse you pointing a firearm at yourself or someone else.

It’s when multiple rules get broken that we have incidents, either in the form of negligent discharge or a failure to identify.

Here’s the thing though … with the seven rules, if you break one rule, but follow the others, you’re still covered from having a mishap. How is that?

Why ARE There Seven Rules?

It’d be easy to suggest we have just one rule: Take all precautions with firearms so as not to shoot someone accidentally.

On the surface, that should be enough to prevent all the accidents occurring. But it’s an oversimplification of what can sometimes be a complex issue and doesn’t provide any guidance regarding day-to-day handling and use.

The seven rules, when viewed in their entirety, provide a condensed structure for safe handling and ownership of a firearm. From your state of mind, before you even pick up a gun, through to where you store it and what to do with it when you have it in your hands, the rules give us guidance to what we should be doing.

The seven rules give us redundancy. Break one, and you still have a high level of protection over having an incident.

Looking at the first two rules – we see this in action.

• Flag someone, but the gun is unloaded – you realise, profusely apologise and point the gun back in a safe direction.

• Unknowingly leave a firearm loaded but treat it as loaded and don’t point it at anyone – you realise and bring the firearm back to a known, unloaded state.

• Negligently discharge a loaded firearm during handling, but it goes off in a safe direction; everyone’s yelling at you, but no one was hurt.

Whenever we hear or read about an incident with firearms handling that has resulted in injury to people, either themselves or others, we can trace this back to one, and likely multiple rules being broken.

The rule that can be broken by itself and still have fatal and devastating consequences is, of course, failure to identify beyond all doubt. However, load only when ready to fire can help in slowing the identification process down, which we’ll talk about later.

Changes

The one consistent is change, and we still see refinement and change, even in the seven rules. Recently, the licencing process was improved upon – adding a significant practical component to the testing and training that a new firearms licence applicant goes through. The introduction of the ‘state of readiness’ has refined and defined what it means to have a loaded firearm. With it comes new terminology that’ll potentially end up incorporated into our seven rules.

This change takes time. Multiple stakeholders, including government bodies, means nothing happens fast. Gun law is currently in flux, and once that’s settled, we’re going to see new versions of the Arms Code, and with that, potentially an update to the seven rules of firearms safety as well. But as Mark Hanbury Beaufoy’s poem from over 100 years ago shows – the key messages will always remain the same.

Over the next couple of articles, I’m going to dig down deeper into each of the seven rules of firearms safety as they stand today; I’ll be going beyond the obvious words into the further layers of meaning and advice that each one contains. First up will be ‘Treat every firearm as loaded’ – key advice for all firearms handlers and anyone around them.

Kerry Adams is the head bloke at thebloke.co.nz and also runs gunsafe.co.nz – a new website dedicated to firearms safety and management.

Works Cited:

Beaufoy, M. H. (1902). A Father’s Advice; Forester, R., & Illingworth, N. (1967). Hunting In New Zealand. Reed; Forsyth, C., & Weatherston, C. (2016). An Analyis of Trends in Firearms Casualties; Harris, L. H. (2015). The New Zealand Firearms Handbook. New Zealand Mountain Safety Council; Logan, P. C., & Harris, L. H. (1968). Firearms and Hunting (Manual No. 2). A. H. & A. W. Reed; New Zealand Police. (2013). Arms Code. Wellington; Nolan, T. (1961). Bush Lore. Whitcombe and Tombs Ltd.

A Father’s Advice by Mark Hanbury Beaufoy, 1854-1922

If a sportsman true you’d be

Listen carefully to me …

Never, never let your gun

Pointed be at anyone.

That it may unloaded be

Matters not the least to me.

When a hedge or fence you cross

Though of time it cause a loss

From your gun the cartridge take

For the greater safety’s sake.

If ’twixt you and neighbouring gun

Bird shall fly or beast may run

Let this maxim ere be thine:

“Follow not across the line.”

Stops and beaters oft unseen

Lurk behind some leafy screen.

Calm and steady always be:

“Never shoot where you can’t see.”

You may kill or you may miss

But at all times think this:

“All the pheasants ever bred

Won’t repay for one man dead.”

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