Are Cooper’s Rules Obsolete?

Colonel Jeff Cooper was the founder of Gunsite Academy and is widely considered the father of modern weapons craft. Certainly, by any measure, he was one of the most influential industry figures of the last century, contributing a legacy of game-changing ideas, including the color-coded levels of situational awareness for combat mindset and the four fundamentals of firearms safety. These safety rules in particular are still widely recognized as the standard for all firearms-based operations and include the concepts of always treating all firearms as if they are loaded and never pointing any firearms at a person unless that person presents an actual threat.

There is a very good reason that Cooper’s safety rules have become universally adopted across the industry. Simply, they work. If you follow them religiously, you can’t have firearms accidents in training, period. However, there is a flip side to the coin. If firearms skills (including use-of-force judgment and decision-making) aren’t performed in response to human stimuli with great frequency in accordance with the principles of neurological network development, the most important aspect of the operational skill set cannot be developed. We submit that it is worth considering a reevaluation of dogmatic adherence to Cooper’s principles of firearms safety, especially in organized tactical training programs.

Let’s begin with Cooper’s first rule: all guns are always loaded. On the practical, safety side, the beautiful simplicity of this is obvious. It is true; very rarely do firearms accidents involve “loaded” guns. One simply does not pick up a loaded gun and point it at a friend, family member, pet, or valued piece of personal property. Most of these avoidable tragedies occur when the people involved (often both parties) are unaware of the actual condition of the weapon at the time of the event. Cooper’s rule precludes this. Always act as if it is loaded, and you will never make a mistake.

In actuality though, firearms are not always loaded, and the letter of this rule is frequently violated by every person who handles a firearm. Even the simple process of cleaning, reassembling, and performing a function check on a weapon necessitates fundamental violation of this rule. The fact is that guns are only loaded when there is ammunition in them and, when it is absent, they are little more than expensive hunks of metal and wood or plastic, presenting little danger to anyone as anything more than a club. In point of fact, there is nothing fundamentally unsafe about an unloaded firearm. The danger lies in uncertainty about a weapon’s condition at any given time and in failing to build associative habits that eliminate or at least greatly reduce the possibility of tragic accidents.

We feel that there are some potential issues with this first rule that manifest with negative effects regarding weapons safety during both training and operations. The first is that in some ways, this rule sets an expectation of oblivious incompetence for firearms users, implying that they cannot be expected to (and ultimately will not) be cognizant of the condition of the firearms they handle nor competent enough to check them. We submit that setting this expectation is different than designing procedures for both training and operations that take into account that people will make mistakes and equipment will malfunction.

The second potential issue with this rule is that it is fundamentally based on an untruth, which taints the credibility of the system itself. Furthermore, the rule itself must be frequently ignored by virtually all who handle firearms for purposes beyond that of a range familiarization during situations that include cleaning, assembly, and disassembly. In essence, it is the universal rule that always applies—except when it doesn’t. Stated humorously, “It works sixty percent of the time…every time.” We suggest that this rule, while certainly effective for range operations, in fact contains some fundamental flaws that may contribute to the large percentage of negligent discharges that occur during administrative weapons handling such as loading, unloading, cleaning, and maintenance.

Cooper’s second rule can be summarized by stating that the muzzle of a weapon should never cover anything that the user is not willing to kill or destroy. This is excellent advice and works very well on a firing range. Off the range, particularly in an urban environment, it is almost impossible to use a firearm (even if it is not fired) without at some point violating this rule. Where, for example, inside a multilevel apartment building, could a muzzle be pointed that does not violate this principle? Furthermore, both law enforcement and civilians who use firearms for self-defense point weapons in directions and at people that they hope not to kill or destroy (although tactically they should normally be willing to do so), and they do it all the time with great effectiveness toward deterring the need for actual application of deadly force.

We suggest that, rather than constructing a range-based safety infrastructure that does not adequately translate into the operational environment, it is ultimately more beneficial to use an infrastructure that works in all environments and to build the skill necessary to facilitate its effective use. Rather than focusing on where firearms should not be pointed, often leaving the practitioner on the street with no viable alternatives that fall within the accepted safety paradigm, we propose focusing the safety infrastructure on where firearms should in fact be pointed at any given time—and why.

In the profession of arms (or for self-defense purposes), it is a fact that firearms are carried and used for only one purpose: to point them at people. Without a person on the other end, there is no need for the use of a firearm. Therefore, a fundamental structure that precludes this from occurring in training, regardless of the actual condition of the weapon, is extremely limiting with respect to developing operational performance potential. This is particularly true with regard to human-stimulus recognition and the associated decision-making and motor-skill responses that correspond to the appropriate use-of-force. In essence, this second rule for training safety in many ways precludes effective preparation for operational safety.

If we shift gears and look at the issue purely from an operational safety perspective, one of the biggest limitations of the traditional, live-fire-based, Cooper-structured paradigm is that its structure precludes allowing the possibility of student safety failure in training. It is (and must be) the first priority of a firearms trainer to ensure the safety of students. No legitimate instructor will allow the possibility of failure when it comes to the potential for students or role-players to end up facing the business end of a loaded firearm due to a student’s failure in a challenging exercise or drill. With the exception of perhaps some special-missions-unit activities, which are far beyond the scope of most training requirements, any instructor who does so is, in our opinion, negligent.

Nevertheless, almost every “real world” application of a firearm is likely to involve multiple moving “no shoots,” at least one moving target, a moving shooter (ideally in many cases), and a dynamic backdrop and landscape behind and/or in front of the intended target. The fact is that the dynamics of the likely environment, even for a civilian self-defense firearms application, cannot adequately be simulated or prepared for in a live-fire setting. Furthermore, we submit that Cooper’s rules fall somewhat short in this regard, both as they relate to limiting training and providing real, viable alternatives during operations that fall within the scope of the defined safety infrastructure.

For the learning of complex tasks to take place, the capability for failure to occur during the learning process is critical. Without the ability to fail, mistakes cannot be made, feedback cannot occur, and therefore learning and enhancement are both precluded. When trainers construct training environments in which safety failure is a non-option, the ultimate harm manifests in operational environments that are made less safe for the shooter, any teammates, and the general public.

This reduction in operational safety occurs through a lack of preparedness for addressing the many complex and potentially deadly challenges such as muzzle position and mobility in dynamic environments. These cannot be adequately addressed by Cooper’s rule book or prepared for in a live-fire environment where failure at risk of life or limb is not acceptable. In contrast, properly constructed, sterile (of live ammunition), dry-fire environments are ideal for addressing these training challenges.

When developing modern training systems, we propose that certain aspects of both the live-fire-based training paradigm and Cooper’s traditional safety infrastructure may not be well suited to produce optimal operational results. There is no doubt that Cooper’s influence changed and advanced the firearms training industry for the better, perhaps more so than any other single human being in modern memory. He should be credited with, and honored, for this accomplishment. However, it is a mistake to allow tradition and reverence to both function as blinders and to dictate limitations on our collective ability to move the industry forward and adapt our methodology to meet the new challenges of today and of the future.  When it comes to firearms safety, Cooper’s rule book is now obsolete.

This article is adapted from our book, Building Shooters: Applying Neuroscience Research to Tactical Training System Design and Training Delivery. Both the books Building Shooters and Mentoring Shooters include our recommendations for a new model of firearms safety that better matches today’s training and operational realities.

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"Easily one of the more important books of our time when it comes to preparing police, military and armed civilians for armed lethal combat."
-Kenneth Murray
Author, Training at the Speed of Life
Co-Founder of Simunition