Firearms Training and Gun Safety: What is Actually Taught?

Although gun rights and gun control advocates are typically like oil and water, one area of common ground between the two sides is on the issue of “gun safety.” Realistically, who other than criminals is against gun safety?

The National Rifle Association’s position as the leading gun safety and education organization in the United States is unquestioned, and the National Shooting Sports Foundation, representing the firearms industry, also actively promotes safety through various initiatives like Project Childsafe and by partnering with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

And the gun control movement has significantly rebranded itself into a gun safety movement, as in Everytown for Gun Safety.

Everyone is for gun safety!

A recent article published in the journal Injury Prevention addresses this potential common ground by looking at what was taught in 20 non-randomly selected “basic handgun safety classes” in 7 northeastern states from 2014-2016. Only one instructor who was contacted declined to have one of the researchers observe and audit their course.

The average class was 6 hours long (median = 5), with 11 students (median = 8), and cost $130 (median = $100).

Although they don’t say how many of the courses were NRA Basic Pistol courses, half of the courses observed had “NRA” as part of the course title and 11/20 included “Basic Pistol” in the title. Other titles included “Handgun Safety,” “Basic Handgun Safety,” “Introduction to Firearms,” and “Home Safety.”

The authors further distinguished between 3 more restrictive states with required basic firearms training requirements (Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island) and 4 more permissive states without such requirements (Maine, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Vermont).

After attending training and consulting with three (unnamed) “expert instructors,” the authors — public health scholars led by the well-known David Hemenway of Harvard School of Public Health — constructed a 70+ item auditing form to see whether various gun safety topics were covered in each class.

The table with all the findings is below (click on it for a larger view).

From David Hemenway, et al., “Firearms Training: What is Actually Taught?” Injury Prevention (Online first, 2017). doi:10.1136/injuryprev-2017-042535

Only two items were taught in 100% of the courses:

  1. Always point the muzzle in the safest direction
  2. Keep your finger off the trigger until ready to shoot

Those rules of gun safety will sound very familiar to most with even a passive familiarity with gun culture.

A number of other items were taught in 90% or more of classes, such as loading and unloading, being sure of your target and what lies beyond it, and knowing that even if the magazine is out of the gun there could be a round in the chamber.

Of note is the fact that in many cases, safety topics were covered more frequently in states without training requirements than states with training requirements (though the differences were not typically statistically significant).

The safety topics with the biggest differences between classes in restrictive and permissive states were:

  1. State disqualifications for possession of firearms: 82% vs. 38%
  2. Use of trigger locks: 83% vs. 38%
  3. Recommending storing guns locked when not in use: 92% vs. 38%
  4. Recommending storing ammunition separately: 92% vs. 25%
  5. Recommending hiding guns: 0% vs. 38%

There were a couple of interesting differences in terms of self-defense (although, again, not statistically significant given the small sample size, but instructive nonetheless).

  1. Additional options for self-defense (e.g., alarms, mace): 40% total, but 25% in restrictive state  classes, 63% in permissive state classes.
  2. Recommend using gun only as last resort: 45% total, but 33% in restrictive state classes, 63% in permissive state classes.

These are commonly discussed in the parts of gun culture I visit most often.

All in all, the distinction between restrictive and permissive states with respect to what is going on with firearms safety in training classes seems unhelpful — at least when looking at classes in the same region of the country.

It strikes me that the issue of suicide prevention is an area of tremendous common ground between safety advocates on both sides of the gun rights debate. Two-thirds of deaths involving firearms annually in the US are suicides not homicides. While criminals who use guns are most often outside gun culture, those who use firearms to commit suicide are often within gun culture. For example, many people I have met in the course of my journey in gun culture were friends or fans of Bob Owens of and deeply shaken when he committed suicide

The authors’ audit found that very few of the classes addressed the issue of suicide (about 1 in 10). For example, only 15% of the gun safety classes gave statistics on suicide (25% in restrictive states, 0% in permissive states). More could certainly be done here, but I cannot help but note that many public health scholars themselves do a terrible job of providing statistics on suicide, too often conflating them with other deaths involving firearms.

The article concludes by noting a successful case of collaboration, in which one of the co-authors of this paper, Catherine Barber, created “Firearm Suicide Prevention: A Brief Module for Utah Concealed Carry Classes” which is now part of Utah’s concealed carry curriculum.

Of course, at the end of the day someone who commits suicide by firearm is as dead as someone who commits suicide by any other means. But those in gun culture might join efforts like these and ones promoted by the National Shooting Sports Foundation out of particular concern for fellow gun owners, even if not motivated by concern for human beings in general.

It should be recognized in concluding that beyond this common ground a significant difference between the two sides continues to be whether training should be legally required to include these 70+ aspects of firearms safety, or if the work should be seen as suggestive of best practices to be voluntarily adopted or adapted.

Those in the gun training industry frequently call for more and better training; they just don’t believe it should be state mandated. In that sense, activists on the two sides are still a long way apart.


  1. I suspect firearms instructors do not want the state to mandate a curriculum in many states out of fear the training will be politically motivated rather than motivated by real gun safety, given the constant tug of war between gun control and gun rights. Recent examples of shaky science examined on this web site are good examples of “gee, what could possibly go wrong?” That said, the topics in Hemenway et al’s list looked reasonable if they could be presented fairly.

    That worry about politics in the curriculum is similar to the situation we are currently seeing in New Mexico, where the State Public Education Dept. messed with national science standards (NexGen), removing references to climate change and the age of the earth, for two examples, and inserting slavish devotion to the national labs and other partisan issues (which I personally found offensive as a nat lab scientist). The draft science standards in NM led to a veritable shitstorm of protest from national lab scientists, teachers, and academic scientists in our universities. PED beat a hasty retreat.

    So this is all good but as the saying goes, “it depends”. I have one war story relevant to one topic, “build delay in gun access when sleeping”. A few weeks after a Univ. of Rochester classmate of mine (who I knew as an acquaintance since we had both started out as biology majors taking the same curriculum) was murdered in a botched home burglary a few blocks from my off-campus apartment, I was awakened by the shaken hollering of my girlfriend. I woke up to realize that I had the Ithaca Mod. 37 locked and loaded and was pointing it down the hall. Trouble was, I was not awake yet. The problem? A bit of wind had blown the screen door open and I was on subconscious hair trigger alert. Thankfully I did not blow a hole through the front door. Or anything else.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Following on to Khal’s comment, does the study note if the curriculum in the “training required states” is dictated in whole or part by the state? That could account for some differences in what is taught, as some of the topics “carry only one gauge of ammunition” is more of a hunting safety tip, not particularly a “basic firearm safety” tip. Similarly, some of the information on use of force details and such is self-defense class info, not “basic firearm safety” info.

    Seems like the classes in the “training required” states push actual carry more, but the states that make carry easier are more proactive about the realities of carry and the “non-gun” alternatives Hemenway mentions..

    I do note Hemenway wants his conclusions taught. The “Statistics” list is basically a list of his own studies on why gun ownership is bad. “On invader homicide” indeed.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. It is interesting that two items that were taught in all the firearm training courses were to always point the muzzle in a safe direction and to keep your finger off the trigger until you are ready to shoot. I agree that those should be taught in the courses. I also think that it would be nice to put in a segment on suicide prevention.


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