Saturday, February 9, 2013

Rules of Engagement

Col. John Dean “Jeff” Cooper was a genius. Even if you are a shooter, if you’re not the sort of shooter who dedicates himself to shooting as a martial art, you may never have heard of Col. Cooper. That’s a shame, and you ought to do something about that. But greater by far than the offense of a shooting neophyte who hasn't heard of Cooper, is the sin of the lifetime shootist or gunfighter who thinks Cooper’s genius was confined to shooting alone.

Lots of people have made a difference in how we shoot today, and, more importantly, on how we employ firearms as weapons. Jordan, Applegate, Fairbairn, Weaver and many others played their parts, Cooper’s Modern Technique owes something to all of them. But the aspect of Cooper’s genius that is often missed – that a lawyer especially appreciates – was his ability to distill the English language to concentrations of highest potency. With the possible exception of those twice delivered downhill by Moses, you would be hard pressed to find any set of laws, drafted by any legislature in the whole history of lawmaking, that accomplishes its goal as completely, in as few words, and with less susceptibility to misapplication or mischief than Cooper’s Four Rules:

1. All guns are always loaded.
2. Never let the muzzle cover anything which you are not willing to destroy.
3. Keep your finger off the trigger until your sights are on the target.
4. Always be sure of your target.

There it is, in 37 words, the perfect gun safety system. Barring spontaneous combustion, you cannot inadvertently hurt yourself, or anyone else, with your firearm unless you violate more than one of these rules at the same time. If you have foolishly put your finger on the trigger without a target in sight – and even if you pull that trigger – if you haven’t also simultaneously violated Rule 2, the only consequence will be embarrassment. If, in violation Rule 1, you have treated the weapon as empty when in fact it is loaded, unless you violate both Rules 2 and 3, no harm will ensue.

Through the years, quibblers have quibbled about the Four Rules* and come-lately gun gurus often try to make a name by “improving” them. But the genius of the Four Rules, as anyone who has ever tried to draft a law or craft a contract can tell you, is their extreme economy and their seamless interconnection.

These rules work everywhere and always. Employ these rules and no one and nothing you don’t mean to shoot will get shot. They are equally as effective at the county shooting range with your 10-year-old when he first learns to shoot a pistol** as they are when you’re stacked up with rest of your team of Tier One bad asses, ready to kick in some HVT’s door. Which is not the same thing as saying that every rule has equal application in every situation. For example, lawmen routinely draw down on suspects, allowing their muzzles to cover people they aren't at least immediately willing to destroy.*** But at such moments, even as they knowingly violate Rule 2, they had best be scrupulous in their fidelity to Rule 3.

The consequences of violating the Four Rules can be extreme. And while it’s bad enough when the one who violates the Rule suffers the consequence, I’d suggest that it is the violation of Rule 4 that has the greatest potential for tragedy. That “home invader” hammering at your door at 3 a.m. just might be a drunken cousin looking for place to sleep. You may have every reason to kill that bad guy. But being “sure of your target” means knowing in that instant and yet to a certainty where each and every bullet is going to come to rest – a fact that exists within the dynamic framework of your ability to hit the target, the ballistic realities of your target and the round you’re firing, what’s next to and behind the target, and what might pass between you and the target in the time it takes you to break the shot.

We have seen more or less wholesale violation of Rule 4 in the past few days by lawmen on the west coast. Although, admittedly, it will be a long time before all the facts are known, it seems likely they  let an understandable but unaccustomed atmosphere of fear degrade their adherence to the rule. This kind of result is not unheard of, even without the looming threat of a manifesto spewing cop killer on the loose. The police are merely men (and women, of course) and men are massively fallible creatures. But that truth will prove little comfort to the cops who took those shots and now may face career discipline, civil liability, vilification and dark nights of the soul. Less comfort, still, to the wounded and the families of the dead.

No one can doubt my allegiance to, admiration of and love for the beleaguered, endangered cop on the beat, individually and as a species. But the lesson is there for the taking this week and heaven help us – especially those of us who vindicate our responsibility for self protection by exercising our right to go armed – if we do not stop to learn it afresh.

* Rule 1 comes under fire from time to time, since it appears to be a fiction. Not every gun really is always loaded, the cavil goes. But the sense of Cooper’s rule is evident to anyone who has ever been handed an unloaded firearm by a friend, or removed one from its case, only to find out that it wasn't. Treating empty firearms like loaded ones cannot get you hurt; the same cannot be said for the inverse.

**  . . . after, of course, learning, memorizing and understanding the Four Rules.

*** This is bad practice for the non-lawman armed citizen. Your weapon ought not depart the holster unless you plan imminently to shoot someone. But that’s another post.


  1. Through the years, quibblers have quibbled about the Four Rules* and come-lately gun gurus often try to make a name by “improving” them. But the genius of the Four Rules, as anyone who has ever tried to draft a law or craft a contract can tell you, is their extreme economy and their seamless interconnection.

    Simplicity is key. A minimalistic and effective approach to Gun Safety that even the dumbest of shooters can remember if they put half a neuron to it.

    It beans me that some people will eschew the Four Rules, but freak out if they find out a pilot decides to ignore a pre-flight check or if a doctor ignores proper medical procedures. All three guides are to be followed to avoid unnecessary death and it would stand to reason that YOU should follow only 4 basic instructions to keep both yourself and others safe.

  2. Uh, I don't know that I would attempt to tie the four rules of firearms safety to the police officers that shot up the truck with the two women inside.

    What they did was criminal. They should be arrested, charged, tried, and if found guilty, appropriately sentenced.

    We're supposed to be a nation of laws. And those laws are supposed to apply to all citizens equally. When the laws are not applied equally, our constitutional republic breaks down. I submit that that is exactly what we are experiencing at the moment.