Aerospace Concepts for Firearms Safety

What can aviation teach us about safety? A lot, if we’re willing to look at what they’ve done, how they do it, and extrapolate from the concepts they’ve used to develop new ways of thinking of safety with firearms.

For many people, this is a dull subject, that they think is beneath them. “I’ve never had an ND, so this doesn’t apply to me.” We assure you that safety matters, and that no one is immune to mishap. Often the guy who has the ND is the same guy who read the same books as you do and who made the same “tsk, tsk” sound at the accident report on his morning news site. (Or who laughed along with us at one of our A Mess of Accidents roundups). Safety begins with the sober revelation that it can happen to you.

Reduction in accidents and fatalities

The numbers don’t lie, and once-occasional fatal mishaps have become extremely rare. The last scheduled airline crash in the United States that caused fatalities. entire years pass with no deaths. Even military flying, much more dangerous that airline aviation, is enormously safer that it was fifty years ago. Fifty years ago, the services thought nothing of losing a thousand planes and crews in crashes — every year!

Certainly part of the mishap reduction story in general aviation comes via the tightening coils of the airline-centric FAA, trying to squeeze it out of existence. GA aviators often joke that the largest office in the FAA, and the only one that has command emphasis, is the Office of Aviation Inhibition. But GA has tightened up on once-accepted practices such as flying after having a few sociables with the guys (in the 1960s, one in four fatal general aviation crashes involved a pilot with ethanol in his system).

But primarily, increased safety has come about by improving training and (especially) culture, making the safe decision the default one, and the one liable to be respected by colleagues.

Aerospace Safety Concepts and Technologies

Many concepts interweave to make the solid web of today’s air safety culture. But we’re going to focus on four formal programs that made aviation safer, and that are adaptable to professional and amateur use of firearms for self-defense, public safety, and recreation.

  • CRM – Cockpit/Crew/Complete Resource Management
  • ADM — Aeronautical Decision Making
  • Tool Accountability
  • LO/TO – Lockout/Tagout

To expand on them:

CRM is nothing more or less than using all the resources at hand, informational, material, and, especially, human. The co-pilot of 1967 was more of an under-pilot. He (and in 1967, it was always a “he”) was encouraged to sit still and shut up, letting a valuable safety cross-check from a trained professional go to waste. This video from the FAA describes the history CRM.

Since being developed in the aviation world, CRM has spread to other fields where active risk management is beneficial, including surgery, anesthesiology, and firefighting. Why not shooting?

A primitive version of a CRM technique should be familiar to all shooters: even on ranges where only a designated individual can declare the range “hot,” anybody has the right and responsibility to call “cease fire!” in the event of an unsafe act or condition. This empowers all the shooters to be an extra set of eyes and ears for the range officer, who is (loath though some of them may be to admit it) only human.

ADM is an interesting term. It is, in fact, Judgment Training, something that many old-time pilots thought was beneath them, so research psychologist Allen Diehl renamed it Aeronautical Decision Making. Nobody’s going to be enthusiastic about attending training that questions his judgment, but who would reject the chance to get some new decision-making techniques?

One key ADM technique is to develop the skills to recognize risk-increasing hazardous attitudes, and to use an “antidote,” a sort of countervailing mantra, to back oneself down from the attitude.

Aviation hazardous attitudes include such things as:

Resignation — “Whats the use? Forget it, I give up!”
Anti-Authority —  “The law is stupid. Regulations and procedures are for the little people!”
Impulsivity — “Do whatever, but do it NOW!”
Invulnerability — “It has never happened to me before, so it can never happen to me!”
Macho — “The average person can’t do this, but I’m so far above average it doesn’t apply to me!”

For each hazardous attitude, there is an ADM countermeasure.

Against Resignation — “I can make a difference!”
Anti-Authority —  “The regulations are written in blood. They are usually right.”
Impulsivity — “Wait! Think first. In an emergency, wind your watch.”
Invulnerability — “It can happen to me if I don’t take care. The laws of physics apply to everyone.”
Macho — “Taking chances is for fools; I play it safe and solid.”

The adaptability of these to the shooting (recreational, competitive, and combat) world should be all but self-evident.

The last two concepts, Accountability and LO/TO are important because many accidents happen because of failures in firearms control and storage. The military, which has relatively few accidents (for this reason) despite a wider range of ability and maturity levels than you are likely to have in your home or business, has managed to reduce weapons loss and accountability failure to a rounds-to-zero level. Other Federal agencies that do not practice similar control culture have much greater accountability problems.

Some of these concepts have already been implemented to some extent in gun safety. We’ve seen a reduction in hunting accidents since the 1950s, and a great deal of safety training .

Sometimes, though, the training and improvement that has gone before is nothing but the foundation for a better level of safety to come. This is one of those times.

Where we can improve, In General

  • Reject the idea that the current level of accidents is normal. “Is gun, is not safe,” fine, but accidents need not happen. “Is Plane, is not safe either,” but they have made planes pretty damned safe.
  • Study every accident and scour the record for learnable and teachable lessons.
  • Develop a formal Firearms Decision Making system of judgment training, and infuse it into the training culture.
  • Develop a Resource Management program with tiers for professional and amateur firearms users, and for individuals and teams.
  • Provide Accountability and LO/TO tools to the general gun-owning public.

Some of these things are already happening, but only on a sporadic, ad hoc basis. We need to get the big organizations (NRA and NSSF) behind FDM and FRM in a big way.

Adapting CRM, ADM, TA, and LO/TO to Firearms Training

Firearms Resource Management — identifies the entire ranges of resources that are available to the sport shooter, defensive gun user, police officer, soldier, and other armed professional, and works to familiarize those gun users with how to identify and use these resources. Best done with case studies.

Firearms Decision Making — teaches using case studies of decision errors with tragic consequences. Highlights hazardous attitudes and the risks contained within, and provides tips for recognizing those attitudes in self and others, and countermeasures for each.

TA & LO/TO — provides safety-oriented training and equipment to insure that firearms are maintained under positive control.

25 thoughts on “Aerospace Concepts for Firearms Safety

  1. James F.

    Unfinished thought: “The last scheduled airline crash in the United States that caused fatalities. entire years pass with no deaths.”

    The answer is probably 2013, in which UPS Airlines Flight 1354 and Asiana Airlines Flight 214 crashed.

    UPS Airlines was the most recent, but the Asiana crash is the one that was reported to have “Sum Ting Wong,” “Wi Tu Lo,” “Ho Lee Fuk” and “Bang Ding Ow” on board, another kind of accident.

  2. joshua

    At sea, we call it Bridge Resource Management. It can be a challenge to implement as the Captain is god, and folks, even well trained folks can be hesitant to disagree with him. (Unlike flight, ships move slower and you usually have a few seconds to stop, review what has been said and move forward).

    On a well run ship, watch standers feel comfortable and empowered to disagree (respectfully) – and should feel that they can call the Navigator, Ops or XO if they cannot convince the Officer of the Deck of a concern.

    That extends all the way down the lowly helmsman. You’d be surprised how often a 24 year old college grad orders right standard rudder when he meant left… the 18 year old helmsman needs to know how to question an order he thinks is incorrect without being insubordinate. Getting a team of un-equals to work together smoothly takes a good deal of constant effort, but might just save you from a collision or grounding.

    On the range, the biggest use for CRM would be to use it to help us fight the urge to pull the trigger after we’ve experienced something odd, like a squib round. I know, who would do that? Yet, it happens. Folks fire handloads that are inappropriate, notice the problem and do it again. That endangers the shooter (usually) and those in the next lane (often). Empowering ourselves to stop and think would save a few of those 300 Whisper rounds from going into a 223 chamber.

  3. SPEMack

    That is something that I like about the NRA First Steps course. The ramming home of the three always rules to the point where it becomes an ingrained rigid check list is a key factor in the Boy Scout perfect safety record in regards to marksmanship merit badges.

  4. Aesop

    Been shooting quite awhile. Seen plenty of other people eff up. Never had an ND.
    Because I’m always worried about having an ND, and treat it as a possibility.
    And don’t ever want to join the Oops! Club, and cross that particular Rubicon.
    Or is it Rube-icon?

  5. Kirk

    Safety with firearms is a product of training and culture. Flawed training, flawed culture? Flawed firearm handling.

    One of the things I was heartened to see in the Army towards the end of my career was an end to the stage prop mentality. Were it I? The weapons wouldn’t leave the arms room without live ammo in them, and we would use an entirely different set of weapons, like the “blue guns”, for training.

    One of the most destructive things the military does for small arms safety is use the same exact weapons for live fire and for blank fire training. They should be identical, but with emphatic signs that the training weapon is different. Color, something–A deadly weapon is always deadly, and teaching that it sometimes isn’t? Nuts.

  6. redc1c4

    The last scheduled airline crash in the United States that caused fatalities.

    it’s the UNscheduled airline crashes that are the real problem…


  7. John M.


    Excellent article and I agree very strongly.

    With that said, there are probably 5-6 unfinished sentences and paragraphs in this article. It could use a good going-through. :)

    -John M.

      1. John M.

        Well. I prefer Hognose out to lunch over most other writers at the top of their game. :)

        -John M.

  8. Keith

    In my early life subjected to non injury or fatality ND’s and shot at and missed by between 18 and 24 inches because of target lock.

    The first thing I tell anyone regardless of there stated level is there is no such thing as an unloaded weapon. Unless empty chamber, mag well, cylinder are visibly and obviously shown.

    There are a lot of other considerations around training and firearms safety but that seems to be the most important one. IMHO recognize YMMV.

    Keep your powder dry and your faith in God.

  9. BAP45

    I find the hardest part to overcome is with that “know it all” syndrome people get. I have some older in-laws who have terrible habits. But God forbid you try to mention it. Don’t even want to let them come to the range with me half the time. And I see the same cavalier attitude in a great many of the other patrons at the ranges. They know how to make it go bang so they know all there is to need to know.

  10. Docduracoat

    We in Anesthesia have taken aviation safety policies and procedures and introduced them into the operating room
    Check lists, ” time outs”, and even the most junior person has to agree with right patient, correct side and equiptment present and ready.
    We have gone as far as we can with the human side and have started to lobby for engineering safety into the equiptment .
    Soon, I.V. syringes will not mate with epidural or feeding tubes
    Tall man lettering on easily confused drugs. Etc, etc.
    Firearms have a long way to go in this respect
    Why do no pistols have a shelf or indentation to rest your trigger finger on when not on the trigger ?
    Why do so many striker fired guns require a trigger press to take apart?
    There is no need for that. It is an accident waiting to happen
    I’m certain engineers and designers could add a lot of other safety ideas that would not interfere with bringing the gun into action rapidly in an emergency situation
    You can talk about ” safety is between the ears” and “follow the 4 rules” but accidents will happen due to complacence, unfamiliar equiptment and simple mistakes
    We see people committing basic errors in Anesthesia for all these reasons
    It’s time gun consumers demanded safer guns, not with thumb or grip safeties or electronic locks
    rather with safety features engineered into them

    1. whomever

      “Why do no pistols have a shelf or indentation to rest your trigger finger on when not on the trigger ?”

      I always thought that was why the end of the 1911 takedown/slide stop lever was rounded and protrudes right where it does :-)

      I agree with the sentiment. When I taught classes, I always said ‘The rule isn’t ‘finger off the trigger’, it’s ‘finger is affirmatively somewhere other than the trigger’. Otherwise you have people holding their finger out in midair, and that goes right back on the trigger the first time they are startled.

      1. Hognose Post author

        And if your finger is on the trigger, you tend to have a global response, i.e. the whole hand clenches, in a variety of situations. Like tripping… that’s how an incompetent cop on the incompetent Framingham, MA police department blew a citizen’s head off while serving a warrant. On the wrong place.

        The guy they were looking for? Turned himself in when he heard he was wanted.

  11. MattCFII

    Amen Hognose!

    FWIW, my favorite hazardous attitude antidote is follwing the rules, they are “usually right.” That’s the FAA admitting the FARs can be wrong!

  12. Squid

    “The last scheduled airline crash”… These crashes are infrequent because nobody has the nerve to schedule them.

    Thanks for the laugh.

    1. Hognose Post author

      Sorry, Squid. “Scheduled Airline” is a term of art in the industry, as opposed to a nonscheduled airline (charter or on-demand operation). Each operates under a different set of regulations.

  13. Tennessee Budd

    I was in naval aviation, as an avionics tech, & that’s where I became familiar with some of these concepts. They made sense, so I adopted & adapted them. For instance, I always “pre-flight” each of my motorcycles before I get on it. It doesn’t take that much time, & it has enabled me to find incipient problems.
    I’ve ridden with folks who just want to jump on & ride, & who announced their unhappiness at the few seconds I spend on a cursory inspection–hell, man, let’s just GO! It got you here, it’ll get you home. For whatever reason, whether their choice or mine, I don’t ride with them anymore.
    I’ve been badly injured twice in bike wrecks, and almost killed in the latter, neither of them by mechanical fault or through any error of mine that I can detect. I take it seriously; third time might really be the charm!
    I treat weapons-handling equally seriously. In an emergency, I’d certainly pick up my carry weapon & use it without checking it, but then, I give it a cursory check each time my hand touches it. I might do so with one (or four, or…) weapons I have stationed around the house, but that’s why they’re there. One I haven’t handled or checked in awhile isn’t a go-to arm anyhow.
    Maybe I’m over-cautious. I’m gimpy and scarred. I have steel screwed to some bones, but I’m still here. To each his own.
    Apologies to all for the long comment.

  14. John Distai

    Thank you for uploading the video. It was a good review. The part about “ineffective leadership” really struck a nerve.

  15. Lame-R

    The guy who not long ago accidentally and fatally shot his son at the range when an errant hot casing caused him to lose his composure has been haunting me ever since. Perhaps some stress testing available to the general shooting public would be worthwhile? Professional pilots have to spend time in simulators, can we do something similar in a way that even the non-hardcore will be attracted to annual check-offs or something along those lines?

    There arent many instructors who could do this and most people would balk at the cost to attend such training. So how about we bring the training to them? i.e. get as much training available at as many ranges as possible and certify the ranges. Id rather go to “Billy Bob’s Bazookas et al” range further down the street than “Manny’s Machineguns & Mayhem” closer by if Billy’s is NRA certified level XIV and has free refresher sessions for my NRA “safe operator level 3” certification. Plus I can wave that cert in my friends faces to prove my bona fides. Anyways, you get the drift. A lot of this stuff is already around but isnt a pervasive part of the gun culture and not easily accessible, either.

  16. Cap'n Mike

    USCG small boat crews do something similar before launching a mission called a GAR (Green-Amber Red) model that has trickled down to Police Marine Units.
    There is a phone app that makes it really simple to use.

    One discipline that could really use this kind of thinking is Public Safety Diving.
    Several cops and firefighters die every year in Diving accidents, the large majority in training.
    A percentage that rounds to a hundred could be and should be preventable.

  17. Hartley

    It has been my observation that “accidents” in aviation and maritime worlds are often the end result of a chain of events, most of which are minor (or seem to be) in and of themselves. If you read accident reports (before I moved onto the boat and away from the mailbox, I used to subscribe to a pub called “NTSB Reporter” which presented condensed version of NTSB accident reports) you can see this pattern. Once in a while a single failure causes a big problem, but it’s usually a chain, whether the slow failure of something mechanical/electronic, or judgement errors piling up. If you read enough of those reports, you can recognize the chain developing around you, and hopefully take action to affirmatively BREAK that chain: “Weather is just too iffy, we’re turning back now” or “the last round didn’t sound right, I’m gonna put this batch of handloads aside & check them”.

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