You did it. You just joined the ranks of the millions of Americans who own a gun. I’ve had years of experience handling firearms — as part of my work in the military and law enforcement, recreationally, and for home defense. For many people, however, the novel coronavirus has been the catalyst for purchasing a first weapon. I want to be clear: Buying a firearm isn’t the same as stockpiling toilet paper. And it’s a grave — potentially lethal — mistake to simply toss a powerful weapon under a mattress or prop it up in a garage.

Owning a gun introduces real risk. States with high rates of ownership experience significantly more accidental shootings, which often injure or kill children. Numerous studies show that access to firearms increases the odds of suicide. And a gun’s introduction into a home with domestic violence can have fatal consequences. (In fact, there are already reports of shootings with guns purchased during the coronavirus sales surge.) People who purchase firearms incur a share of responsibility to help mitigate these risks, and learning as much as you can about proper safety and the operation of your weapon is paramount.

Under ideal circumstances, you’d have time to research and contemplate your purchase. But we don’t live in ideal times — and now you’ve got a new gun in the house.

So what’s next?

Handle your weapon with extreme care

There are four cardinal rules of gun safety:

  • Treat all guns as if they are loaded.
  • Never let the muzzle of the firearm point at anything you are not willing to destroy.
  • Don’t place your finger near the trigger until you are ready to fire.
  • Always identify your target — and what lies in front of and behind it.

No matter what type of gun you have or what scenario you find yourself in, these rules are your Bible. Your Old Testament of safety. They will never fail you — and can save you from accidents that unfortunately happen all too often.

Store your gun safely

If you lined up for a gun in response to the coronavirus crisis, you bought a weapon for self defense, and you want to be able to quickly access it in an emergency. But the reality is: You won’t have eyes on your weapon at all times. Research shows that in 70 to 90 percent of youth suicides, unintentional shootings, and mass shootings, the person pulling the trigger used weapons belonging to family or friends. Plus, unsafely stored guns can present an opportunity for thieves.

The good news is: You can have ready access to your weapon, while simultaneously placing a barrier between your gun and people who shouldn’t be touching it. Find a safe or a lock, and practice accessing your weapon.

Read the manual

Operating a gun isn’t as simple as plugging in a new television. Guns are not always the most intuitive. Firearms come in a variety of models, with different purposes. They also break down and malfunction in a plethora of ways. So, sit down and read the manual. Carefully. There are a ton of YouTube videos out there with instructions on how to use your gun, and also how to break it down. You probably have time on your hands these days, anyway.

Clean your weapon

Guns, unlike cars, are not sold ready to “roll off the lot.” If you bought your weapon new, you may notice a thick greasy coating. This grease is for packing purposes, and typically attracts dirt and muck, which is less than ideal for firing. It’s imperative that you remove this gunk, and keep your weapon clean for the foreseeable future. This job is infinitely easier with a cleaning kit.

Train with it

There’s a big difference between casually firing off some rounds with a new weapon, and actual training. I always extol the virtue of finding a solid, experienced firearm instructor and seeking their guidance. But training doesn’t stop there. Proper firearm manipulation — reloading, drawing, and clearing — are acts that are also crucial to firearm safety. Dry-fire practice can be an effective training supplement, allowing users to grasp these concepts in the comfort of one’s home, away from distractions and live fire. Such training can be done safely. Just make sure the gun is unloaded before handling it. And then check it again — just to be sure.