The location of the bullet mark made the story of the unintentional discharge easy to mentally reconstruct. The bays at this shooting range are about 3.5-feet wide with dividers extending back from the shooting bench approximately one yard. The solid, metallic portion of the divider rises from the floor to just about waist high with the transparent, bullet-resistant plexi-glass completing the dividers from waist level up to the ceiling. What the mark in the divider said is that a shooter took half a step back from the shooting bench, turned a loaded handgun sideways so the barrel was pointed at the five shooting bays to the left and touched the trigger.
If someone had been standing to the left of this shooter, he or she would have received a nasty shock, but remained unharmed thanks to the bullet-resistant divider. As I looked at the mark a little longer, it was hard not to think about the fact that most of the places I go to shoot don't have the expensive, bullet-resistant dividers. In fact, the outdoor ranges I go to only have a bit of mesh strung up between each bay to deflect ejected cases. If the same sideways discharge had occurred on one of those ranges, the results could have been much worse.
As I moved away from the damaged shooting bay to set up for the day, I kept thinking about what I’d seen. What did this barrier-scarring shooter do incorrectly? Quite frankly, everything. Safe gun handling practices have been codified in a variety of ways, but the NRA boils it down to three common sense practices:
1. ALWAYS keep the gun pointed in a safe direction.
2. ALWAYS keep your finger off the trigger until ready to shoot.
3. ALWAYS keep the gun unloaded until ready to use.
In this particular instance, the shooter violated all three rules at the same time. The gun was not pointed in a safe direction, a finger was on the trigger and the gun was loaded when it was not ready to use. It’s interesting to note that if this person had obeyed just one of the three rules, the incident would not have happened in the first place. If all the shooters on the line are following all three rules, then the range is going to remain safe. In addition to proper training and basic safety practices, here are a few other safety tips to keep in mind when shooting on the range:
Practice Situational Awareness
Situational awareness is a principle most often discussed in the context of self-defense. Simply stated, it's the practice of paying attention to the space and people around you in order to identify a threat in time to avoid it. Whether a bullet is launched in your direction by a mugger in a dark alley or a green-bean novice who doesn't understand safe gun handling practices, the results will be the same. Being aware of the people and situation around you does not require a deep-seated sense of paranoia or any rude behavior on your part. Just look around as you're working and watch what’s going on. No one will guard your safety as closely as you will. If awareness of your surroundings makes sense in a situation where one person might be armed, then it should also seem like a good idea when you know everyone in the room has a loaded firearm.
Move Away, Talk to the Manager
Not long ago I was seated at a bench testing a new gun for a review. When I turned in my seat to access some ammunition, I noticed a pump-action shotgun leveled at my head. A young man was standing about three yards away at the equipment rack talking to his friends about the shotgun he was holding at his hip with the action closed and the muzzle leveled at yours truly. It may come as no surprise that I started thinking about how I should react when faced with an unsafe situation at the range.
Although there may be a temptation to get angry at or to start talking to the person holding the gun, the very first action to take is to move, quickly, out of the line of fire. Standing up from the chair I took a big step to the left so the shotgun was no longer pointed directly at me. I got out of the way first, and then worried about what to do next. From this safe standing position, I could see his finger was off the trigger, but it was impossible to determine the state of the chamber or the safety. What to do next?
In this case, I just looked intently at the young man for a moment. He looked at me, looked at the shotgun, realized where the gun was pointed, and corrected the muzzle angle. The total time from my noticing the gun to having the problem resolved was less than 10 seconds. By the look on his face, I could see the young man realized he had made a dangerous rookie mistake. Since he did not make any other dangerous moves the rest of his shooting session, I left it at that. But what if a friendly nod or wave does not do the trick? If someone has your hair on end with lack of muzzle control, then step off of the line and seek out the range master or a member of the staff. A bit of friendly advice about gun safety will usually go down more smoothly when dished up by the folks that run the range instead of another customer.
We live in a society that promotes "multitasking." Although this principle of tackling two or more tasks at once may save time in the work place, it can be exceptionally dangerous in situations that involve powerful moving objects. Just ask the insurance adjusters sorting out the cases of teenagers who were sending text messages while driving.
Once a gun is in hand, all other thoughts, priorities and distractions should be put on hold until the shooting session is over. The shooter's focus should be on the gun and what is being done with it. The mind, hands and muzzle should all be pointed in the same direction.
Handle Mechanical Failures Safely
This is a question I just have to ask because it's a behavior I've seen performed before my very eyes, and it just doesn't make much sense to me. When people choose to look down the barrel, what exactly is it they're hoping to see? There is absolutely no good reason to point a gun at any part of your body, let alone your head. If there is a reason to suspect a barrel blockage or mechanical failure, then stop shooting the gun and put it back in the case until you can take fix it at home or give it to a gunsmith. If the need to know what is lurking inside a gun barrel simply cannot wait, then please field strip the firearm and examine the barrel separately from the firing mechanism.
Don't Be a Blockhead
I was at an outdoor range and in the process of trying to figure out how to operate a tricky blackpowder pistol I had never worked with before. I was having strange mechanical problems that I would later learn could be instantly resolved by swapping out the percussion caps for a different brand. But at that time, I was getting frustrated with malfunctioning equipment, my time at the range was running out, and my not-so-great mood was amplified by a distinct need for some dinner.
I felt a gentle tap on my shoulder. One of the range masters let me know that, while I had not violated the safe shooting angle of the pistol bay I occupied, he had noticed I was starting to turn a little sideways on the shooting line while working on the pistol. He thought I should know.
This was one of those pivotal moments when I wanted to unleash my inner Blockhead and let it run the show. I wanted to argue that I had not violated the rules. I wasn't behaving dangerously, and why was he giving me a hard time anyway? Instead, I took a deep breath, swallowed my pride, and thanked him. I took a moment to look at my shooting arrangement and physical positioning in relation to the shooting bay. He was right. I had not crossed the line but I was moving toward it with haste. I put the pistol down, reorganized the tools I was working with, and gave my seat a solid twist in the correct direction. I made a conscious effort not to turn sideways for the rest of my time there.