The danger of an UN-loaded gun

In all the accounts of the Sutherland Springs church shooting a couple of weeks ago, one element stood out for me.

Stephen Willeford … responded to the sound of gunfire by grabbing an AR-15 with an EOTech red dot sight out of his safe. But he didn’t have a magazine loaded. So he grabbed a handful of ammo and started loading a single magazine and headed for the crime scene.

God bless Mr. Willeford for being willing to put his own life on the line to protect the lives of others.  I’ve no doubt those who survived the massacre did so in large part thanks to his intervention.  However, his story highlights a conundrum that affects many gun owners.

We hear advice from many sources that one should never store a firearm in a loaded condition.  Many owners manuals for firearms specifically state that.  We hear advice that one should store ammunition separately from firearms.  Some jurisdictions make that official.  For example, here’s the sixth rule of gun safety from the office of California’s Attorney General.

Store your gun safely and securely to prevent unauthorized use. Guns and ammunition should be stored separately. When the gun is not in your hands, you must still think of safety. Use a California-approved firearms safety device on the gun, such as a trigger lock or cable lock, so it cannot be fired. Store it unloaded in a locked container, such as a California-approved lock box or a gun safe. Store your gun in a different location than the ammunition. For maximum safety you should use both a locking device and a storage container.

In other countries, for example Australia, it’s actually illegal to store firearms and ammunition together.  Police may make unannounced visits at “reasonable times”, without a search warrant, to ensure that gun owners are in compliance with the law;  if they’re not, they face confiscation of their firearms on the spot, and the permanent loss of their gun license(s).

The trouble is, such policies prevent any reasonably quick armed response to a crime.  Of course, that’s the point in such jurisdictions:  police don’t want citizens stopping crimes using their firearms.  That’s a very important reason for avoiding such jurisdictions if you can!  However, if he’d been living under such legal restrictions, Mr. Willeford would not have been able to stop the church massacre as he did.

Safety considerations are important, particularly if you have small children and/or untrained persons who might get their hands on your guns.  (You should, of course, store them in such a way that they can’t . . . but accidents happen.)  Nevertheless, you also need to be able to respond to crime in order to defend yourself, your loved ones, and your property, where that’s legally permitted.  To do so, you’ll need a loaded gun.  Ideally, you should have it on your person, where it’s always under your supervision and control.  However, for many of us, that’s not possible;  which means storing at least one firearm in a loaded condition, and/or with a magazine or other ammunition supply near it and available for instant access.

If Mr. Willeford had had a loaded magazine already available, instead of having to load one, he might have been able to intervene more quickly, and save even more lives.  That’s a thought I’m sure he’s had since the tragedy.  It’s one we need to think about, too.  If you rely on a firearm for self-defense and the protection of your family, you need to have ammunition ready to go, accessible with the firearm.

The military refers to a soldier’s ammo loadout as a “basic load”.  It’s carried over and above his other necessities.  Here’s what that looked like for a Vietnam-era soldier;  modern troops carry even more.

Police have a similar concept, although they don’t necessarily call it the same thing.  As civilians, we don’t need anything like a full “basic load”, and we almost certainly will never need that much ammunition.  Nevertheless, I strongly recommend having available at least three loaded magazines per weapon, one in the gun, the other two as backups, carried on one’s belt, in pockets, or in a so-called “tactical” vest.  If carrying two guns (e.g. a rifle and a pistol), I’d recommend three magazines for each weapon.

It’s all very well being safety conscious;  but too much safety consciousness can get you killed, or prevent you from responding to an emergency as you’d otherwise do.  I daresay Mr. Willeford regrets his lack of a loaded magazine.  I hope and pray none of us ever have cause to do the same.



  1. We keep our ARs unloaded, but have a few loaded mags on the next shelf in the locker. rotate them out every few months. Will probably never need them with luck, but as a pain as those are to load as I get older, better to have it.

  2. My father served in WWII and was a product of that era. We lived in a fairly rural area on a horse farm (American Saddlebred and Palomino). One evening my parents were taking another couple out for dinner. They were clients of my father's company. The woman remarked on the isolation of our home, and wondered how we could live there, away from any neighbors. Weren't my parents afraid of being robbed or something?

    My father assured them that he kept a pistol in his dresser drawer for such emergencies. The woman was politely horrified.

    "Well it isn't loaded, is it?" she asked.

    "You're damned right it's loaded," my father replied emphatically. "All you have to do is pick it up, point it, and pull the trigger."

    And that was that.

    I keep a loaded revolver and a flashlight in each nightstand. All I have to do is pick it up, point it, and pull the trigger.

  3. Never get your gun advice from idiots.
    (That would include the state and the media in toto, inasmuch as they are the same thing, and overwhelmingly peopled by reality-averse purebred idiots of the worst sort.)

    Of course the guns are loaded, because an unloaded gun is about as useless an object as the mind can conjure. Which is one of the reasons the ex-wife is now ex-.

    She had cleverly moved the loaded Springfield 1903, (with long Jap-sticker bayonet muzzle-mounted, though sheathed) from behind the front door, where it had lived peacefully for some long number of months without offending anyone's peace or tranquility. This change without telling anyone. (Anyone being me). When one Saturday afternoon a few days after such concealed stupidity, a broad-daylight rapist attempted to set up shop literally ten feet from the front step, and trusty rifle was not where I'd left it, I was forced to troop to the closet three rooms away, grab a hammered double-barrel 12 ga. instead, paw around for some shells, and dash back to the front step, which belatedly got the point across, but left me with no way to safely shoot the sonofab***h in flagrante without endangering what lay beyond him, including his would-be victim.

    She survived unmolested when he departed (rapidly, once seeing the muzzles pointed his direction), but I'd much rather have left him pinned squirming to the maple tree at bayonet-point for handy law enforcement pick-up, instead of fleeing to the winds for his next incident, which is what transpired.

    The topic was the focus of a brief and pungent in-house after-action, whereupon it was laid down with emphasis that Firearms Are Loaded, You Don't Touch Them, and Get Over Your Stupid About That.

    I will store my firearms unloaded and separate from the ammunition when the police patrol in the same jack@$$ical manner.
    Actually, no I wouldn't, even if they did it first.
    Something momma said about people jumping off of cliffs comes to mind.
    (She who, at 80 years young, dissuaded a would-be home-breaking burglar on her patio with a steady pointed .38 snubby. Loaded with +P hollowpoints. Dear old Depression-raised Ma was always the practical sort.)

    So if the cops were stupid enough to listen to those storage maxims, I'd probably point and laugh.

  4. Law Abiding Firearm Owner from Australia here.

    The last time the Police inspected my firearms he was asking where guns I hadn't owned for about 2 years were. I must confess I was extremely concerned because potentially we're talking about gaol time (catastrophising? Maybe, maybe not).

    It turns out that the body in charge of keeping records isn't very good at it. The Officer told me not to worry about it to much and if there was a problem he would return. I didn't get a call saying everything is OK just I would get an unannounced visit if it wasn't ok.

    Whilst I've got your attention. If you get a handgun licence your car registration plate gets flagged so that when the Police pull you over they know you could be armed with a handgun.

    Lastly, I had issues with a prowler. The speed with how things went from bad to worse is astonishing. Far far faster than I could get to my safe.

  5. "Your guns are loaded? Horrors! Isn't that dangerous?"

    "Yes, Ma'am! Of course that's dangerous! They wouldn't be very useful if they weren't!"

  6. Peter,

    I am currently tinkering with a couple of surplus molle vests (from Midway)for this same purpose. I'm looking to build something that is minimal grab and go–spare mag or two, flashlight, first aid, cell phone. I want to be able to respond quickly yet be hands free with my weapon. Perhaps such a discussion would be a useful addition to your sidebar.

  7. I never understood the people who asked if my guns were loaded. All of them are, all of the time and the simplest way to treat guns is to treat every single one as if it is loaded. Srsly, how hard is that? Oh, and responsible parents teach their little children how to swim. They also teach them about gun safety so they're never the moron who stands there with the stupid stunned look on his face saying, "I didn't know it was loaded."

  8. I have core defensive guns. They are loaded and stored safely. I keep mags loaded for them. Probably 2-3 spares for my Glock and a half dozen for the AR.

  9. I've been wondering how long it would take for Willeford's negligence to be pointed out.

    I'm also wondering if Mr. Willeford removes the spare tire from his car, lets the air out and locks it in his garage when the car isn't in use.

    Earth didn't come with padded surfaces and rounded corners; sometimes s**t happens unexpectdly.

    "Unexpectedly" does not mean "unable to anticipate" or "be unprepared for."

  10. Do you jack up your vehicle when you get home, to take the load off your axle springs? No? Then why unload your mags for storage?

    Downloading your mags 3-5 rounds for long term storage might make some sense. Might.

    For those who can't have loaded mags for some reason, there are loading aids available, that greatly speed up the process.

    has plastic adapters that will take loose ammo or stripper clip mounted ammo for 7.62 NATO and 5.56 NATO mags for common rifles.

    You won't be running while using these products, though.

  11. @Anonymous at 2:54 AM: I don't think Mr. Willeford was negligent. He doubtless followed what he'd been taught, and what even the NRA appears to recommend in its basic courses. From an "absolute safety" perspective, that's the way to do it. Unfortunately, that also leaves one unable to respond as fast as possible to a threat. I daresay he's reconsidering the matter now.

    @Will: Yes, downloading magazines that are loaded long-term is a good idea. I have several dozen magazines loaded with range ammunition, because if I get the opportunity for an extended range session (which isn't often), I may not have time to load a lot of them. Instead, I load such magazines to between 80% and 85% of capacity; i.e. a 30-round magazine with 25 rounds, or a 17-round mag with 14 rounds. That doesn't over-stress the springs. A ready-use magazine with defensive rounds will be loaded to 10% under capacity; i.e. a 30-round magazine with 27 rounds, or a 17-round mag with 15 rounds. However, they're rotated every three to four months, so the load on the springs isn't permanent.

  12. @Bystander: Yes, if by "fail" you mean "fail to function correctly". I've seen M16/AR15 magazines (the older variety, particularly the "straight" 20-rounders) misfeed after the spring took a "set" through being loaded to full capacity for too long. I've also seen first-generation Glock magazines (which were not metal-lined) bulge under a full load of ammo, to the point that they could no longer be inserted into the magazine well.

  13. The corollary to that, Pete, is the story of the WW I vet that brought a 1911 home and left it in his dresser drawer loaded with a full 7 round mag. 60 years later he pulled it out a fired several shots at an intruder. This was a story I read in the Armed Citizen from an American Rifleman back in the 90's.

    Another problem with UNloaded firearms is…how many times have we heard, "I thought it was unloaded"? Had a lady come through my CCW class a couple years ago that, 20 years before, she and her husband had gone over to a friend's house for a visit. The friend pulled out his new .44 mag to show it to them. And he pulled the trigger on an "unloaded" pistol in his living room, and shot his own son in the head. Needless to say, this scarred ALL of them for a very long time.

    MY firearms safety rule number 1 is: "ALL firearms are loaded until YOU prove otherwise." If you treated an unloaded firearm the same as an actual loaded firearm until you VERIFY that it is unloaded, it is difficult to have an "accident".

    (Rule 2 is "Keep your booger hook off the bang switch until ready to fire." Stolen from Larry Correia.)

  14. @Anonymous at 2:54 AM: I don't think Mr. Willeford was negligent.

    We'll have to agree to disagree on that, Peter. His actions indicate that he was emotionally and more-or-less (mostly less) mentally prepared to use his firearm in defense of self and others. Deliberately being unable to do so constitutes negligence in my book.

    I also teach NRA courses, and there is the standard boilerplate in every NRA student and instructor manual about "do not load the gun until you use it." A discussion then ensues regarding "what does 'using it' mean? I have a carry permit, so how do I carry my concealed firearm?" That discussion leads to something along the lines of "if licensed, or legally allowed to, when carrying your firearm it should not only be loaded, but also have a round chambered, and let's talk about that, too."

    Everyone I know who has functioning brain cells cautions against storing any firearm in a loaded condition, so Mr. Willeford was correct in ensuring the firearm in his safe was unloaded.

    I consider not being prepared to defend self – and others, if that's the individual's inclination and is legally permitted – negligent. Mr. Willeford was not prepared: rifle secured in a locked safe, and no loaded magazines.

    As for the rifle being in a safe, that may be the best way for Mr. Willeford to secure his firearm(s) against access by unauthorized and/or untrained persons, so I'm not going to fault that as much as "no loaded magazines."

    Were the rifle in question purely a target rifle, a "range queen," only carefully fired at authorized shooting facilities at carefully printed targets under the watchful eyes of Range Officers during competition matches sanctioned by a national or international organization (which, in fact, it may be, I haven't seen anything to confirm or deny it), then of course the precious magazines should not be soiled with having to hold ammunition not immediately needed.

    But….range queen or not, Mr. Willeford hauled it out and performed well with it under adverse conditions. Based on news reports, Mr. Willeford's residence is close enough to the church where the shootings took place that it could have been possible for the criminal activity to spread to encompass Mr. Willeford's house.

    When the Bad Guy With a Gun is kicking down your front door is not the time to see how quickly one can spin the safe dial and load empty magazines.

    I happen to keep an AR within reach whenever I'm home, with 28 rounds in the magazine, 4 spare loaded mags in a carry bag and a Hornady Rapid Rack in the chamber, because I consider it the most useful defensive tool I have that's suitable for my rural area. When leaving the last thing I do is pop the mag out and stick it in the safe, the first thing upon return is to reverse the process, because "unexpected" should not translate to "unprepared."

    And, @ Will: I've been using that spare tire analogy (phrased a little differently) in classes for years as a reminder that if you are going to the trouble of obtaining training and a CWP to accommodate the possibility of needing it for self defense, carry the %@#$ gun. Waving your carry permit at Bad Bart and telling him about the gun in your closet at home turns out to be remarkably ineffective.

  15. Mr. Willeford did a remarkably good job, and likely saved a lot of lives.

    From his account, he had five rounds. Three were fired at the murderer, and two were left when he was holding the murderer at bay. His ammo was low, but he had enough and did not waste it.

    Say what you want- he made his rounds count, he reacted quickly, assessed the situation clearly, and shot well under enormous pressure.
    He went from full "white" condition to a combat mindset in seconds, forced his fear under control, and engaged the enemy effectively.
    We should all hope we could do as well if the situation should ever require it. He attributed his clarity of mind to the Grace of God.

    I would like to see Mr. Willeford recognized by the State of Texas, as he exemplified the virtues associated with Texans all the way back to Col.Travis.

  16. Five rounds. It's fortunate, isn't it that Mr Willeford did not find himself in a six round gunfight?
    "I brought too much ammo" said no one, ever.
    Boat Guy

  17. More on our host's response to my comment, RE: @Anonymous at 2:54 AM: I don't think Mr. Willeford was negligent

    According to raven's comment (above), From his account, he had five rounds. Three were fired at the murderer, and two were left when he was holding the murderer at bay. His ammo was low, but he had enough and did not waste it.

    As Anonymous@3:13 PM points out, Mr. Willeford was pretty damn lucky he didn't wind up in a gunfight requiring 6 rounds. I haven't been following the latest details, so was unaware of Mr. Willeford's self imposed ammunition limit.

    My original comment @2:54AM said: I've been wondering how long it would take for Willeford's negligence to be pointed out.

    So: unready firearm (stored in a locked safe), no loaded magazines, did load one magazines with 5 rounds while running to the incident, no spare magazines, no spare ammunition, no shoes…….it seems God really does protect fools, drunks, and Good Samaritans.

    I stand my my original comment regarding negligence.

    That said, despite his negligence, I'm glad there are Stephen Willefords in the world; hopefully, this incident will prompt them to increase their preparedness.

  18. "I've been wondering how long it would take for Willeford's negligence to be pointed out"

    I get your point, but I don't think you're using the correct word – negligence is "failure to exercise the care toward others which a reasonable or prudent person would do in the circumstances, or taking action which such a reasonable person would not"

    We can argue over Mr. Willeford's state of preparedness (and I am sure he wishes it was greater), but I don't think he was negligent. Not everyone can be primed and ready to go in 10 seconds, for a variety of reasons (children in the house, for example). In any case, I will not Monday morning quarterback his actions. I applaud him and his actions, will analyze the events surrounding this tragedy and apply those lessons to my way of doing things.

    "… carry the %@#$ gun." On this we are in total agreement!

  19. First off I want to say a big THANK YOU to Mr. Willeford for his brave actions. It's always easy to 'Monday Morning Quarterback' in situations like this, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't look to improve our own readiness by making observations. I believe that issue of the unloaded magazine has been covered pretty well here.

    The other interesting tidbit I immediately noticed upon hearing it was that he was barefoot. It sounds like part of the reason he was barefoot is that he didn't have time to put on shoes because he was loading his magazine. If he had to run for his life or, conversely, pursue the shooter on foot, it would have been very difficult (assuming he doesn't walk barefoot all the time and have calloused feet). Made me think that I should always have shoes on my feet (even some type of comfortable house shoe or slipper that goes around the heel) so that if an engagement happen suddenly, I am already prepared to run outdoors if necessary.

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