Thursday, July 10, 2008

Firearm recommendations for home defense, Part 3

In the first part of this series, we looked at why a 20ga. pump-action shotgun was a particularly suitable home defense weapon for a novice. In the second part, we looked at the potential threat, and how to handle it. In this final article, we'll look at a number of issues: firearm safety, storage, legal issues, and training.

(Before we continue, this series began with a look at why relying on calling 911 when trouble strikes wasn't a good idea. A news story yesterday confirms this yet again. Go read - and learn!)


The late, great Col. Jeff Cooper reduced the principles of firearms safety to four rules:

1. All firearms are always loaded.

2. Never point the muzzle of a firearm at anything you are not willing to destroy.

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

4. Be sure of your target and what is beyond it.

These rules are all you'll ever need to avoid injuring someone through a negligent discharge of your weapon - if you follow them. Let's examine each in turn.

1. All firearms are always loaded.

This means that you treat every single firearm as if it's loaded, unless and until you've personally inspected it, removed the magazine (if one is present), inspected the chamber(s), and verified visually and physically that it's unloaded. If the weapon should leave your possession or control for even a moment after you've done this, you assume it's loaded again, and you repeat your verification. You never, ever take someone else's word that a weapon is unloaded - you check yourself. Always.

2. Never point the muzzle of a firearm at anything you are not willing to destroy.

This means precisely what it says. Even if you know beyond a shadow of doubt that a weapon is unloaded, you still don't point it at anyone else, even while casually moving around a room with it. Gun shops and gun shows are a pain in the posterior in this respect - far too many people handle guns casually and carelessly, 'sweeping' those around them with the muzzle. I've corrected many who do so in my presence, only to get the indignant reply, "But it's not loaded!" Buddy, I don't care! You never point a gun at something or someone you're not willing to destroy. Ever. That's the way it is. If you don't get that, put down the gun and never pick up another one.

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

Another simple rule. Generally speaking, except in the case of a defective or badly-designed weapon (of which there are very few out there), a gun won't go bang! until someone puts his finger on the trigger and pulls it. If you "keep your booger-hook off the bang-switch", the gun won't fire. Simple, isn't it? - yet we read newspaper reports almost every day about a gun that "fired accidentally" or "just went off". Bull! It went off because someone put his or her finger on the trigger!

This rule also helps you to be safe in a dangerous situation, because it links up with Rule 2. If you find yourself in a situation where you have to point your gun at someone, because he's a threat to you, you generally have the legal right to shoot at that point - otherwise you wouldn't be pointing a gun at him, would you? That being so, I train people to place their finger on the trigger as the sights come onto their target, and remove their finger from the trigger as the sights come off the target. In other words, your sights should never be on a target unless you have the right to shoot it: and your trigger finger should be off the trigger until the same set of circumstances apply. Sights on target, finger on trigger: sights off target, finger off trigger. Always. It's a good routine to follow.

4. Be sure of your target and what is beyond it.

Again, simple, but tragically often honored in the breach rather than the observance. Consider the many cases (like this one) where a family member kills another. Those "accidents" weren't accidents at all - they were criminal negligence! Rule 2 tells us that we should never point a firearm at anything (or anyone) we aren't willing to destroy. That means, if we can't identify our target, we don't know whether we're willing to destroy it (or him, or her): so we don't point our gun at anything until we're sure. Simple, isn't it? - yet far too many people ignore it.

The same goes for the second half of this rule. Your weapon may send its projectile(s) through a legitimate target, and endanger those beyond: or your shot may miss, with similar results. You should know what's behind your target and in your line of fire. In a defensive situation, there may be no choice but to shoot, to stop Joe Scumbag's attack: and under those circumstances, you may have no choice but to accept the risk to those behind or around him. However, that's where your training comes in - you have trained and practised regularly, haven't you? - so that your shots will hit him, where they belong.

Those are the Four Rules. They work together, and if you observe them faithfully, you won't endanger others with your weapon-handling. Learn them off-by-heart, remind yourself of them frequently, and don't hang out with others who disregard them. You'll live a lot longer that way.


Storage of your weapon is also part of gun safety. There are five aspects to this.

1. Guns and ammunition.

There are those who say that all weapons should be stored unloaded, with the ammunition in a separate place, so that the two never come together unless and until you're ready to shoot. Folks, from a defensive perspective, this is utter folly! If you ever need your gun in a hurry to stop an intruder, it's no good asking him nicely, "Please, Mr. Scumbag, will you wait while I unlock and retrieve my gun, then unlock and retrieve my ammunition, then load the gun? I'll be ready for you in five minutes, I promise!" If you think Joe Scumbag is going to give you that amount of time, friend, then I have a bridge in Brooklyn I'd like to sell you. Cash only, please, and in small bills.

I have no problem storing the bulk of my ammunition supplies separately from my guns: indeed, it's necessary, since I don't have room in my gun safe for both weapons and ammo. I have a special storage container for ammunition in another room (also locked, of course). However, the firearms I'm most likely to need for defense are always loaded, and a couple will have spare magazines loaded as well. My shotgun will have four rounds in the magazine, ready to be loaded by cycling the action, plus a web belt with more ammo, that I can clip around my waist at a moment's notice and be ready to go. I suggest you do likewise.

2. Storage and locking devices.

First, trigger locks. If you have nothing else, these may - I emphasize may - have their place: but I don't like them, for three reasons. First, they're often fiddly little things that are tricky to take off in a hurry. Some are better than others in that regard. Second, they're mechanical devices: and, like anything mechanical, they can jam. I've had it happen with a couple of them. If they jam at the wrong moment, when you really, really need to have your gun operational, what good is it to you? Third, they can be removed by anyone with interest, initiative and a few tools. I've seen children figure out how to remove a trigger lock, even without keys, given half an hour to tinker with it. So, in general, I don't trust trigger locks, I won't use them, and I recommend to my students that they don't use them.

That means you'll need a secure storage device for your weapon. Putting it under the pillow, or in a drawer or cupboard, or "hiding" it in a place that "only you know", isn't secure storage. Again, I've seen kids find their parents' "concealed" weapons with frightening ease. You read about the resulting tragedies all the time. Also, thieves know all the likely hiding-places. They've learned them from experience!

There are three options that will safeguard your firearm(s) against inquisitive children or casual theft. All should be mounted in closets, or in areas where they're not immediately visible to the casual eye.

The first is a weapon lock-box or sleeve that bolts or screws on to furniture, or to studs in the wall. This is one example, from Mossberg: a locking box, mounted on the wall, that secures your shotgun in an inoperable state, even if it's left with ammunition in the magazine.

Other manufacturers offer similar products. I tend not to like or trust them, because a strong man might be able to rip them off their mountings and take the weapon away. If you're present at the time, and haven't been able to unlock it before he does so, he might just beat your head level with your shoulders, using his new gun as a club! This is known in the trade as Not. A. Good. Idea.

Then there are light metal "security cabinets". For example, here's an 8-long-gun cabinet from Stack-On:

This model retails at Wal-Mart for under a hundred dollars at the time of writing. There are many similar products, some holding up to 14 long guns. They can be screwed or bolted to the floors and walls of your home, preferably inside a closet where they aren't immediately visible. They offer reasonably good protection against a casual thief, although they can be broken open in five to ten minutes, given the right tools.

Finally, there are so-called "gun safes". These are actually labeled "residential security containers" or RSC's by the security industry. They're not as strong as a real safe, the sort a bank or business would use: but they do a reasonably good job. As an example, here's one from the Winchester line:

A few weeks ago I saw one of these, a green 25-long-gun-capacity RSC, selling at Sam's Club for about $700-$800 delivered. There are many other brands available, in varying capacities, at prices ranging from the high hundreds to the mid thousands of dollars.

RSC's aren't cheap, but compared to the value of what they protect, they offer good value for money. Many are rated to offer varying degrees of fire protection to their contents, as well as security against theft. They usually come with either a key-and-combination lock, or an electronic keypad. I recommend the former - electronic locks can be bypassed by those who know how, and if the batteries run down at the wrong moment, you might find yourself in a world of hurt! If you own more than three or four firearms, plus your other domestic valuables (e.g. a laptop computer, a camera, a treasured heirloom item of jewelry, etc.), I consider a RSC to be a necessary and worthwhile investment. Again, bolt it to the floor and/or walls, to make it harder for a determined thief to remove it.

The use of a gun lock-box, or gun cabinet, or RSC, won't just keep your firearm(s) safe from inquisitive children. I can only speak personally on this subject, and I know there are those who disagree with me: but I firmly believe that it's our moral responsibility, as gun owners, to ensure that thieves have as difficult a time as possible stealing our weapons. I hate the thought that my firearms might be used to rob, or wound, or kill other innocent people because I failed to safeguard them against theft. For that reason, I own a RSC and a gun cabinet, and any firearm not under my immediate control is locked in one or the other. My ammunition, too, is secured in a steel cabinet, with locking handles, and a padlock affixed for additional security. Sure, a determined thief with the right equipment can still get into them and steal my guns and ammunition: but I've done the best I can, in my residential environment, to safeguard them against theft. I can have a clear conscience about it. I hope and trust that you, dear reader, will do likewise.

3. Children and firearms.

If you have children in your home, they will, repeat, will be interested in your firearms. Childrens' curiosity is legendary - as is their naughtiness! They will take it as a personal challenge to try to get at anything you tell them they can't - unless you take proactive measures.

I highly recommend Kathy's comments about this over at The Cornered Cat. See her section on Kids And Guns for some excellent reading. She says all that needs to be said there, so I won't repeat the effort here. Mandatory reading for parents!

4. Visitors and firearms.

If you have visitors to your home, you need to make sure you know how knowledgeable they are about firearms. If there's the slightest doubt that they don't take gun safety seriously, your weapons should be securely locked away from their idle curiosity. This goes double if they have children who haven't been raised to understand firearms safety (as I'm sure yours have).

5. Firearms storage and preparedness for action.

So your weapons are secured in a storage container or lock box. What if you need one in a hurry - if, for example, someone's trying to break into your home?

Because I've worked around criminals, and know the dangers, I'm armed almost all the time. A handgun is always on my person or near to hand. If you choose to do the same, I applaud your choice, and trust that you'll get the appropriate training to be able to use it well. However, many people are uncomfortable with this. They don't want a gun on or near them, just available "in case". This isn't ideal: but if that's where you're at, let's consider your options.

You need to retain the ability to get into your gun lock box, or security cabinet, or RSC, at short notice. That means you need to keep a key on your person at all times, at the very least. It's a matter of twenty to thirty seconds to run to your gun storage device, unlock it, take out your gun, work the action, and be ready to defend yourself. However, if you have children in the house, remember that you can't leave the key to your gun storage device on your keyring. If you leave it lying around, your kids will, repeat, will get their hands on it, and they'll have your gun cabinet open before long. Don't take that chance. Hang it around your neck on a cord or chain, or put it in a wallet or purse that stays on your person (not in your handbag).

Of course, if you're in a higher-risk environment for crime, a gun that's locked away may take too long to get out. Under those circumstances, you need a gun under your immediate supervision and control, ready to respond to an emergency. A shotgun - or any long gun - isn't the answer here: it's simply too big and bulky and inconvenient to carry around. Under such circumstances, a handgun on your person is the way to go.

When you go to bed at night, you obviously need to have your weapon(s) available in case of need. Again, if children are present, this limits your options, and you'll have to decide what's best in your situation. I don't have that problem, so a loaded weapon is readily to hand near my bed when I'm asleep. If I hear an intruder, or an alarm rouses me, I can be ready for action in a matter of seconds. I feel safer that way.


You should understand the laws pertaining to the area where you live. In large parts of the country, it's entirely legal to use lethal force in self-defense: but in others, there's actually a legal duty to retreat from an attacker. If you shoot him, you may find yourself facing charges. It's your responsibility to know what's legal in your area, and what's not, and to conduct yourself accordingly.

Furthermore, make sure that your conduct is beyond question. If you've had to shoot an intruder, call for assistance at once, and ask for an ambulance to be sent - not just the police. Don't go around boasting to your friends, "Yeah, I whacked the cockroach!" Lawyers for the person you shot - or his surviving family - just love hearing that. They can use it to sue you, alleging that you shot the "victim" with malice aforethought, and you might end up spending a whole lot of money defending yourself - or in damages.

This should be addressed by further training. Massad Ayoob and his Lethal Force Institute (see the next section) do an absolutely superb job in this area. If I could wave a magic wand and require every gun-owner in the USA to attend just one course, it would be Ayoob's LFI-1, which covers legal and related issues in depth. I highly recommend that you take it if at all possible. If you can't (or even if you can!), he has a DVD on "Judicious Use Of Deadly Force" which covers the area quite well. I regard it as indispensable, and I strongly recommend you buy it. It's available from a number of sources: here is one.


I can't emphasize too strongly that you cannot get adequate firearms training by reading a book (or this blog), or the firearm manual, or by practising on your own. You need instruction from somebody competent to provide it. Any and all of the suggestions, advice and ideas I've offered here should be reinforced by such training. Without it, they won't suffice. Ask your gunshop about local ranges and instructors.

At the very least, I recommend the DVD "Stressfire Series Part II - Shotgun", by Massad Ayoob. It's available from a number of sources - here is one. It's an excellent training resource to review in your own home, and use as guidance for your practice sessions. Similar DVD's are available from Gunsite, Thunder Ranch and other training establishments I mention (and link to) below. If you can't attend their courses, buy their DVD's and review them frequently. It might save your life!

An excellent starting point for training is the National Rifle Association's curriculum. They offer beginners' courses in most disciplines, including the shotgun. I highly recommend them as a basic entry-level introduction to the field. Many shooting ranges around the country offer their courses, and you can contact them to find out where the closest ones to you are located.

However, I must caution that the NRA's courses are basic training, and not necessarily oriented to the defensive use of a weapon, which is what we're discussing here. That sort of training is more specialized.

There are a number of instructors and institutions offering basic and advanced training in the use of firearms for self-defense, including the shotgun. Obviously I don't know all of them, but I know some from personal experience, and others I know of by word of mouth from experienced shooters and law enforcement personnel whom I trust. I heartily and unreservedly recommend any and all of the following. Click on any link for more information. They're listed in alphabetical order for convenience.

Louis Awerbuck (Yavapai Firearms Academy), offering courses countrywide.

Massad Ayoob (Massad Ayoob Group), offering courses countrywide.

Randy Cain (Cumberland Tactics), offering courses countrywide.

Chapman Academy, Columbia, Missouri.

Firearms Academy of Seattle, Washington.

Gunsite, Prescott, Arizona.

Bill Jeans (Morrigan Consulting), offering courses countrywide.

Rangemaster, Memphis, Tennessee.

Shootrite Firearms Academy, Langston, Alabama.

Thunder Ranch, Lakeview, Oregon.

There are many, many more trainers and schools out there who may be as good: but if I don't know enough about them, I can't personally recommend them. I guarantee that those listed above are worth attending. Their training will help you stay alive when you need it most. They're not cheap - but what's your life worth? As for others, if you want to find a good trainer or school nearer to you, I suggest you contact one or more of those I've listed, and ask whether they can recommend anyone in your area. I'll trust their recommendations above just about anyone else's.

There are also, sadly, some trainers that I can't recommend. Every profession has its bad apples. I'd therefore suggest sticking to those who are recommended by trustworthy people (including any individual or school named above). When in doubt, ask questions of "those who know", and be guided by their advice.

You'll find that shooting is a "fun sport" in every sense of the word. It's addictive, entertaining and instructive - and shooters as a group are, in my experience, amongst the nicest people you'll ever meet. I hope you'll expand your interest beyond defensive shooting, and try a bit of clay-pigeon shooting, as well as experiment with other types of firearms.

You can also use Airsoft firearms and/or BB guns as a cheaper way of getting practice. There are Airsoft replicas of pump-action shotguns (see here, for example), and BB guns too (like this one). The former can be used indoors, and the latter in many gardens, if local ordinances permit. However, you should observe the Four Rules with them at all times. It's too easy to say, "Well, an Airsoft is only a toy, so I don't need to apply the Four Rules to it." Guess what? If you pick up your shotgun in an absent-minded moment, you might handle it as if it were your Airsoft training tool - only it isn't. It's a lethal instrument. Get in the habit of applying the Four Rules at all times, with any weapon, real or toy. You'll stay safe that way - and others will be safer around you.

I hope this series has helped you to understand the basics of home defense with a firearm. If you have further questions, please e-mail me, and I'll do my best to respond (although this may not be immediate, depending on how busy I am).

Good luck, and stay safe!



Sevesteen said...

There are a number of lockboxes with either digital or simplex locks available. I've got a Brinks brand, around $20 from Walmart mounted to studs on the bedroom wall. There is a shelf above with hooks to hang robes over it. In the rare cases we have guests with children, this lets us keep a gun somewhat secure but also somewhat accessible.

It isn't our primary storage, and it isn't going to stop a dedicated thief, but for what it is intended I'm happy with it.

MadRocketScientist said...

I have one of these mounted in a closet. Very Nice.

phlegmfatale said...

Excellent series of posts, Peter. Thank you very much.