In the South, fall is equally as synonymous with hunting season as it is with football. As cooler temperatures roll in, avid sportsmen — and women — usher in the season by preparing their arsenal for action. It is at this point, long before the hunt ensues, that firearms safety comes into play.
Fortunately, organizations like the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources offer an abundance of expertise and education on this subject. Practicing, demonstrating, and passing on habits for properly handling firearms are top priorities for the agency. Dale Gibson, first sergeant of hunter and boater education with SCDNR, describes firearms safety as a continuum in his life of work. “Everything we do is about safe hunting — being safe before, during, and after you hunt,” he says. “Our role is to take average hunters and make them safer hunters.”
One way that SCDNR reinforces this responsibility is by preaching and teaching what is referred to as the 10 commandments of gun safety.
10 Commandments of Gun Safety
1. Watch the muzzle and keep it pointed in a safe direction at all times.
2. Treat every firearm with the respect due to a loaded gun.
3. Be sure of the target, what is in front of it, and what is beyond it.
4. Keep your finger outside the trigger guard until you’re ready to shoot.
5. Check your barrel and your ammunition.
6. Always unload your firearm when not in use.
7. Point a firearm only at something that you intend to shoot.
8. Don’t run, jump, or climb with a loaded firearm.
9. Store firearms and ammunition separately, safely, and locked.
10. Avoid alcoholic beverages before and during shooting.
These commandments are the Department’s homily to hunters. They also predicate the framework of SCDNR’s Hunter Education class: a free, instructor-led, eight-hour course that covers hunter safety and responsibility, wildlife conservation and management, familiarization with firearms and ammunition, basic hunting and shooting skills, field dressing, and hunting from elevated stands. Through this course and other educational programs offered through SCDNR, Dale says, “We take both novice and experienced hunters and turn them into safe hunters.”
For the novice crowd, taking the long-game approach to safety may start on the shorter-barreled end of the spectrum. In this case, SCDNR’s Basic Handgun Familiarization class is the perfect place to start. Participants in this intimate, instructive environment can expect to learn about safety, handling, and techniques that will set the stage for a lifetime of safe shooting. Unlike the Hunter Education and Concealed Weapon Permit courses, which both conclude with a rather intimidating four-letter word that may elicit traumatic memories of all-nighters and red pen marks, the Basic Handgun Class caters to folks with no prior firearms experience or education. Dale touts this class as a no-strings-attached, first-timer-friendly option. “You don’t have all the legal jargon and don’t have any kind of test. You’re able to shoot, but there’s no qualifier.”
Given the litany of what-ifs and wild cards that accompany any experience in the great outdoors — particularly one that involves firearms — Dale maintains, “We can’t wrap hunter’s education into one cliche.”
However, a helpful mnemonic never hurts. SCDNR’s adoption of Project ChildSafe’s “S.A.F.E.” acronym makes it easy to keep firearms safety top of mind.
Secure your firearms when not in use.
Be Aware of those around you who should not have unauthorized access to firearms.
Focus on your responsibility as a firearm owner.
Educate yourself and others about safe firearm handling and storage.
As the S.A.F.E. acronym implies, firearms safety is not just for hunters or even shooting sports enthusiasts. The same safety principles apply to gun owners whose sole intent is personal protection. Jennifer Timmons, public information and media relations officer with the Columbia Police Department, explains that CPD’s efforts to disseminate education, exposure, and training related to the safety, storage, and legal possession of firearms is a major emphasis of the department. “The main point is gun safety,” she says, adding, “We really make that plea, almost like a broken record, both in your home and also in your vehicle.”
Cpl. William Miller, CPD, explains that because South Carolina law does not require gun owners to have any formal firearms training in order to purchase a gun, some gun-owning individuals are risky due the danger posed by their lack of familiarity with firearms. In light of this, he cites education and exposure as the best strategies to prevent avoidable accidents. CPD helps to address this knowledge gap by offering firearms safety and South Carolina Concealed Weapon Permit classes, taught by a trained retired investigator and available free of charge to adults who are legally able to possess a firearm.
As with any lesson, though, the true test of knowledge acquisition rests in the student’s real-life application. In this case, that means putting proper gun safety procedures into play in the home. William urges parents to take this responsibility seriously, saying, “You’ve got to start teaching your children at a young age. It keeps that curiosity away. If you take that curiosity away, they’re much less likely to touch it because they know what it’ll do.”
He goes on to explain that proper firearms storage also prevents even the most curious children from getting their hands on a gun. When paired together, gun locks and safes form a dual-control point of entry that helps to ensure limited accessibility.
To help stimulate widespread circulation and use of gun locks, in the spring of 2022, CPD partnered with the City of Columbia, Columbia Parks and Recreation, and local nonprofit Serve and Connect to launch the “Lock It Up, Columbia” campaign, which promotes safe firearms storage practices as a priority for gun owners. CPD supports this campaign by providing free gun locks at city events and all CPD facilities. Jennifer says individuals are encouraged to “take as many as you need,” adding, “We’d rather you have too many than not enough.”
When it comes to gun storage, though, the adage “you can never be too careful” rings all too true. Just as multifactor authentication for digital passwords, profiles, and logins creates a double layer of security for personal information in online platforms, gun safes add a second layer of security for firearms in the home. William says of the necessity of proper gun storage, particularly in households with children, “We’ve all been kids and have snooped in everything that’s imaginable. They will come across it at some point in time. It needs to be locked up in some way, shape, or form. Hiding it does nothing.” He also draws attention to the reality that household gun storage habits affect not only the home’s inhabitants but also guests of every age and familiarity level with firearms. While incorporating an instructional lesson on firearms safety may not be a practical way to greet house guests, practicing deliberate storage methods is an easy way to keep everyone safe and at ease.
Jennifer echoes William’s advice to gun owners to avoid the temptation to hide firearms — with or without gun locks — under the false pretense that the “out of sight, out of mind” supposition will apply. “Don’t hide an accessible firearm — not in a safe, on top of wardrobe, or in between clothes. Don’t think a hiding spot with a weapon is going to be okay.” William is also quick to decry the use of personal vehicles as safe storage options for guns. “Keeping guns in cars is problematic,” he says, explaining that, because cars get broken into frequently, they are a poor substitute for a proper gun safe.
While conversations about household firearms safety measures often focus on children and youth, the same rules and recommendations apply to more mature populations as well. William explains that adults who purchase a gun for protection but have no prior training on storage or usage are equally as subject to the whims of firearms flukes as people half their age. Additionally, Jennifer points out that individuals suffering from dementia also have the potential to put themselves and their households in danger if there are improperly secured firearms in the home.
Practice Makes Perfect
When the right time rolls around to remove a firearm from its safekeeping, gun owners can scope out any number of opportunities for training, practice, and permitting in the Midlands. In addition to the basic firearms classes offered through CPD and SCDNR, local shooting range facilities, like Sandhill Shooting Sports in Lugoff and Palmetto State Armory in Columbia, also offer a variety of instructional classes. These courses run the gamut of conceptual, applied, precautionary, and operational instruction for both handguns and rifles. Many, like CPD’s Basic Pistol class and SCDNR’s Handgun Education class, are considered prerequisites for the South Carolina Concealed Weapons Permit class. They consist of a mix of classroom and range instruction generally designed to be beginner friendly and low-to-no cost.
For target practice and tuneups, shooters can opt for either indoor or outdoor range facilities. Retailers like Shooter’s Choice and Palmetto State Armory charge a nominal fee for shooting lane rental slots ranging from a half hour to full day and provide the convenience of readily available supplies for purchase.
For a more au naturel experience, outdoor ranges, such as SCDNR’s Wateree Range in Eastover or Sandhill Shooting Sports’ location in Lugoff, combine the serenity of the outdoors with the security of a supervised, controlled shooting environment. In addition to pistol and rifle ranges, Wateree Range also offers shotgun sports amenities, including skeet, trap, five-stand, and sporting clays.
Concealed Weapons Permit
With such an array of options for training, practice, and permitting, setting clear personal goals for firearms familiarization and proficiency can prove extremely beneficial. For those who have set their sights on obtaining a CWP, first-time firearms users might start by participating in any one, or several, of the introductory classes offered through SCDNR, CPD, or other entities that provide individual or group instruction. These classes are notably different from the official CWP course, which is also available through CPD, Sandhills Shooting Sports, and other organizations, as well as through designated CWP instructors via the South Carolina State Law Enforcement Division.
Be warned: the CWP class packs a punch. A full day of instruction covers a comprehensive scope of subject matter, including laws related to handgun use, deadly force, prohibited carry locations in the state, and proper interaction with law enforcement while carrying; handgun use and safety; proper storage and holstering practices; “cocked and locked” carrying; ways to respond if someone attempts to take your gun from its holster; techniques for de-escalation; and firing. Only after completing the firearms training course can applicants submit a CWP application via mail or by using SLED’s online application tool, IdentoGo, which streamlines the fingerprinting process. Once all of the documentation is submitted to SLED, CWP hopefuls can expect up to a 90-day window for a notification of approval or denial. If approved, permit holders are expected to keep their permit identification card on hand any time they carry their firearm and likewise withhold from carrying their concealed weapon onto premises with explicit concealed weapons restrictions, such as government offices, schools, day care centers, churches, and hospitals.
When all is said and done, though, firearms safety is a group responsibility that can only be successfully executed with collective buy-in. William says even those who do not own guns can contribute to firearms safety efforts. He encourages individuals to call their local police departments and other reputable sources to ask questions, get clarification, and increase their familiarization with firearms because it is better to be safe than scared.