The fourth rule of gun safety is often stated as “know your target and what is beyond it.” Simple enough, but people often focus on the latter half – what’s beyond your target. It is important to know your backstop, but we shouldn’t neglect the most important part of this rule: know your target.
To me, that’s the fourth rule of gun safety is really about target identification first. Every year, there are three or four or more tragic stories where a homeowner shot their spouse or child because they thought the spouse or child was a home invader. All of this is because someone failed to know their target. Target ID is a critical step in the shooting cycle and the self defense process.
Target ID is important regardless of whether you’re a cop, an armed citizen, or in the military. The critical decision of “does this person need a bullet” isn’t one that should be shortcut or shortchanged, because if we get that wrong in any context we could end up taking someone’s life who didn’t need to die. That’s why the fourth rule of gun safety is so important – target ID saves lives.
It is important to be aware of your backstop as well. Once you’ve identified your target and it’s something that needs bullets, are you in an environment where a poorly placed shot could have a negative outcome for a bystander? That’s something you have to bear in mind, coupled with your marksmanship ability. Fortunately with modern defensive ammo, there is little risk of over penetration, and the best backstop is the bad guy, but that doesn’t obviate our need to be sure of our background and surroundings.
The fourth rule of gun safety often gets lost among the other three more commonly quoted rules. You could make an argument that it’s the most important. Like I said above: target identification saves lives.