Do You NEED to Take a Handgun Safety Course?

Last Updated on February 9, 2024.
Do You NEED to Take a Handgun Safety Course?

A handgun safety course can prepare you for the responsibilities of firearms ownership. In these courses, you’ll learn how to safely and correctly handle handguns, understand the differences between handguns, and what laws apply to you. Find out whether you need to take a handgun safety course.

Why a Handgun Safety Course?

Firearms instruction is mandatory in some jurisdictions to purchase a firearm and optional in others.

In California, for example, a Firearm Safety Certificate (FSC) is equivalent to a license. If you want to buy a firearm from a federal firearms licensee (FFL), you will need to complete the written FSC Test and achieve a score of at least 75%. 

However, even in those states where completing a handgun safety course is not compulsory, you can still benefit from taking one. 

Whether you need to take a handgun safety course will ultimately depend on your skill, experience, proficiency with firearms, and state of residence.

Handgun Safety Course Basics

If you’re new to firearms and shooting, you should consider taking a handgun safety course, regardless of whether it’s a legal requirement where you live. If you understand and strictly adhere to firearms safety rules, you can significantly decrease the risk of experiencing an unintentional discharge.

What You’ll Learn

The class may be called a handgun safety course or pistol safety or training program. Depending on the specifics of the course, you may learn the following:

Firearms safety

A handgun safety course should teach you, first and foremost, how to safely handle firearms. Firearms safety rules are formulated differently, depending on the source, and may range from as few as three rules to more than ten. However, one of the most concise examples consists of four rules, codified and popularized by Col. Jeff Cooper. These are:

1. All guns are always loaded. Even if they are not, treat them as if they are.

The purpose of this rule is to ensure you never assume a gun is unloaded or take someone else’s word for it. If you lift a gun off a table or someone hands you a gun, you should always clear it. 

A handgun safety course should teach you how to clear handguns of various types, including revolvers and semi-automatic pistols. Once you’ve cleared a gun, proving its unloaded status, you should still observe the other rules. You can snap for practice — i.e., dry-fire the gun—but always ensure that the gun is pointed in a safe direction.  

2. Never let the muzzle cover anything you are not prepared to destroy.

This is called practicing “muzzle awareness”—you should always keep the gun pointed in a safe direction. A safe direction is one in which the gun firing will not injure another person.  

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

This is called “trigger discipline.” When you’re handling a gun, you should keep your index finger off the trigger, outside the trigger guard, and straight alongside the frame, receiver, or slide, until your sights are on target and you’re ready to fire. By practicing consistent trigger discipline, you can avoid most firearms-related mishaps

4. Be aware of your target and what is behind it. 

Knowing what your backstop can and cannot stop on a firing range is essential to safe shooting. However, this rule isn’t limited to firing ranges. You should never fire a gun at a target that you have not positively identified. Shooting at a sound or a shadow can have dire consequences. Likewise, if you ever need to use your firearm in self-defense, you should be aware of what will happen should your bullet pass through your intended target. 

Unintentional Discharges

An unintentional discharge falls into two categories: accidental and negligent. In an accidental discharge, the firearm discharges due to a mechanical failure through no fault of your own. 

In a negligent discharge, the firearm discharges due to your failure to observe firearms-safety rules. 

The latter is far more common than the former; however, if you keep the gun pointed in a safe direction at all times and your finger off the trigger, any mechanical failure that causes the weapon to discharge should cause minimal damage.

Safe Storage of Firearms and Ammunition

Several states have safe-storage and child-access prevention laws. A handgun safety course should teach you how to safely store your firearms to comply with these laws and reduce the risk of an unauthorized person, such as a child, gaining access to them. You may need to find a way to balance reducing access to unauthorized parties with preserving accessibility for self-defense.  

Firearms Handling

The instructor should teach you the principles of firearms safety and how to operate handguns of various types. This includes clearing/unloading, loading, activating safety catches, slide stops, magazine catches, etc. If the course is comprehensive, it may also cover how to field-strip a handgun for routine maintenance, such as cleaning. 

A handgun safety course should also teach you how to properly grip a handgun and the fundamentals of pistol marksmanship, regardless of whether the class includes a live-fire exercise. 

The Law

A handgun safety instructor should teach your state’s deadly-force statutes and the laws regarding the concealed and open carry of firearms. Suppose your satisfactory completion of a handgun safety course is a requirement for the issuance of a concealed-carry permit. In that case, your instructor should also explain the principles governing armed self-defense.

Preparation for Class

You shouldn’t be afraid to ask the instructor questions before attending their class. If the safety course includes a live-fire exercise, you should know that in advance. If you recently purchased a firearm or already own one, ask the instructor if you can bring your gun to the class and how you should transport it. Some handgun safety courses only permit deactivated firearms or non-gun training props to maximize student and instructor safety.


Understanding how to safely and properly handle firearms is an invaluable skill, and you don’t have to be a novice to derive benefit from a handgun safety course. If you haven’t handled firearms for a while or want to introduce a beginner to guns, this can be a useful refresher.

However, if you want to pursue more advanced training, consider attending a dedicated shooting school. These schools can teach you pistol and rifle marksmanship and the techniques and tactics necessary to wield firearms effectively in self-defense or combat.

Part of the training is for you to be able to zero out a pistol in order for you to accurately hit your target and the target alone.

Final Thoughts

Once you learn how to safely handle firearms of different types, you should continue to practice developing your skills. If you want to pursue more advanced training in the use of handguns, rifles, and shotguns, a safety course is an excellent first step.

You can either think of it as part of the cost of having a pistol including all the legal requirements and training since it's part of your responsibility by acquiring a firearm.

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