CFSC supports firearms training for all gun users at all levels of skill.
There is every reason to believe that firearms training makes people safer. 30% of people in the U.S. own a gun. Another 36% can see themselves owing a gun in the future. Although 70% of gun owners say they have “taken a safety course,” there is little data about what that means, and some experts feel that many available courses are not as thorough as they should be. Plus, 70% is not 100%, which would be a good goal.
Here are some topics we believe everyone who uses a firearm should be familiar with. This is especially intended as a guide for new firearms owners, but it may not be exhaustive or comprehensive. When in doubt, always talk to a qualified firearms instructor.
Essential skills for new firearms owners
Even before loading a new gun for the first time, there are a few things to know. It’s a good idea to perform these steps with an experienced partner or trainer.
- Have I had enough training to handle my firearm and shoot independently? The most important component of firearms safety is knowledge. The starting point is to get you ready to practice shooting and gun handling competently without supervision. You should start with training and qualified supervision—which is widely available. One of the first concepts typically introduced in any firearms course are the 4 Fundamental Rules of Firearms Safety:
- ALWAYS keep the muzzle pointed in a safe direction.
- ALWAYS keep your finger off the trigger and outside the trigger guard until your sights are on target and you are ready to shoot.
- ALWAYS treat a firearm as if it is loaded.
- ALWAYS be sure of your target and what lies beyond and between.
- Do I have the right gun for me? Frankly, many new gun owners make their purchase (or come into possession of a firearm) without enough information about their individual needs and preferences. If you can, it’s smart to compare shooting different gun models in the category you’re interested in (rent or borrow), before buying.
- Do I know how to operate my gun? The owner’s manual is the official source of information about your gun. Details in it are crucial for safe operation. If you do not have the manual for the exact model you have, it’s almost certainly available from the manufacturer. Or ask for help from an expert (such as a gunsmith or instructor).
- Is my gun correctly assembled and unloaded? You should be able to unbox a new firearm while keeping the muzzle pointed in a safe direction. You should be able to inspect the action and firing chamber and demonstrate that it is empty. You should be able to insert and remove an empty magazine (if relevant), or open and close the action, cylinder, or bolt with no ammunition in the gun. You should be able to identify and operate all controls (e.g., slide lock, safety, de-cocking lever, takedown controls, magazine release, cylinder catch, sight adjustment, etc.) before putting live ammunition in it.
- Do I know how to disassemble the gun for cleaning or storage? You should know and perform the process for disassembly for user maintenance. Cleaning and maintenance are necessary for safe operation, and the process can be different for each gun. Doing this before shooting is a good way to learn how the gun works.
- What cautions and warnings apply to this particular gun? All firearms have specific procedures that must be followed to prevent damage to the gun and risk to the user (and bystanders). The owner’s manual will list actions that must ALWAYS or NEVER be taken. You have to know these!
- How do I handle mechanical malfunctions? Firearm malfunctions are an expected part of shooting. They range from trivial to extremely dangerous. Managing malfunctions is an important part of training. Basic clearance drills should be learned before practicing independently.
- How do I handle cartridge malfunctions? Billions of cartridges are manufactured each year with very high-quality controls. But even commercial ammo has occasional defects. Rarely, these can create dangerous conditions inside the gun. For your safety and that of bystanders, you must know how to recognize and respond to the common ones.
- What is my plan for storage? You must have a gun storage plan before you have a gun to store. Guns must be stored so they are not accessible to unauthorized persons.
- Do I understand the basic principles of marksmanship? It’s not uncommon for new shooters to arrive at the range without a good understanding of how to grip, aim and fire a gun in a way that would allow them to hit a target consistently. Introductory training should cover the fundamentals of stance, grip, hold, breath control, sight picture, sight alignment, trigger press and follow through.
Owning a gun makes you legally accountable for many things non-gun owners do not have to consider. You are required to obey a large number of Federal, State and Local laws, some of which differ greatly from place to place. Violating any of these—knowingly or not—can bring serious penalties.
- Purchase, transfer and possession. Who is prohibited from possessing a firearm? What are the rules for borrowing, lending, buying selling, gifting? What about minors?
- Storage, transportation and carry. What are the rules for carrying a firearm outside the home? In a car? On public transportation? What does “concealed” mean? What if your firearm is stolen or misused by another person?
- Restricted weapons. Some firearm configurations (size, capacity, functions, silencers, ammunition, etc.) are governed by specific laws.
- Self defense. The laws about personal defense in the home and elsewhere are extremely complex.
- Hunting. This is a highly regulated activity with a great deal to know about before participating.
Practice at home
You may want to practice (empty) gun handling at home. This is valuable and can be done safely after you have achieved a basic level of competence. However, you must not handle a gun for any reason until you 100% know the procedures for safely clearing it. This rule cannot be overstated. You should have specific instruction in “dry-fire” practice before you ever consider doing it.
- Handling a loaded weapon anywhere outside a training environment should be considered a more advanced skill.
- Read the owner’s manual
- Know how to demonstrate that your gun is unloaded (firing chamber, magazine, action, cylinder, whatever you’ve got).
- Make it an automatic, ingrained reflex to check that the gun is unloaded every time you touch it. (Elves put bullets into empty guns when they are unattended…) Many negligent discharges have occurred because this single, critical step was skipped.
You may have looked into the process for obtaining a Concealed Handgun Permit (CCW, CCP, etc.). In some jurisdictions, the qualifications for this license are very basic. In the view of CFSC, justifiable use of lethal force demands a high level of education, training, and practice, and it should be considered an advanced skill, which cannot be attained in a basic training class.
To learn more, check out available online resources or find a range or firearm instructor near you.
- The “Where to Shoot” national directory, hosted by the National Shooting Sports Foundation, is a good place to start. Please note that some ranges or sites for instruction may not be listed.
- Also check out our Colorado map of locations willing to consider temporary firearm storage, as many also offer training.
- There are many sources for learning about firearms laws. A starting point is the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF): https://www.atf.gov/firearms/state-laws-and-published-ordinances-firearms-34th-edition. Your local police or sheriff’s department may be able to answer some questions. For definitive information, it is mandatory to consult a qualified attorney.
The CFSC does not officially endorse any organizations or locations providing training or information.