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May 04, 2007
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Preventing accidental discharge during close quarters contact

By Rachel Fretz, PoliceOne editor

Last night (5/3), a California officer was wounded when his partner inadvertently discharged his gun during an undercover sting operation. News reports have not disclosed full details of that particular situation, but most accidental (some also refer to them as involuntary or negligent) discharges

You could be experiencing muscle fatigue and diminished fine motor control. You might not be thinking about the position of your gun: How is it positioned — pointed straight ahead or canted down? What hand are you holding it in, and how is that hand holding it? 

While most training programs will tell you to keep your finger off the trigger until you’re ready to fire, under stress fingers often subconsciously wrap around the trigger anyway. At that point, if you are startled, bumped, or jostled your trigger finger can then inadvertently discharge the weapon.

Ralph Mroz, Training Director of the Police Officer’s Safety Association and author of “Defensive Shooting for Real Life Encounters,” says the biggest mistake people make is that they get out of the car and point the gun at the person they’re after. “You may wind up accidentally shooting someone you weren’t intending to fire on or are legally justified to shoot,” he says.

Mroz believes that the tendency to run with the muzzle oriented toward the subject comes from training techniques for searching a structure. “They teach you to search with the muzzle pointed in front of you,” he says. “But if you’re startled and your finger is on the trigger, the gun may discharge.

“I suspect there’s probably a crossover effect,” he says. “I think we should go back to what they taught ten years ago — that being when you search a structure, search with the muzzle depressed.”

Mroz believes that running with a gun out is a bad idea unless there’s a real emergency that forces you to do so. “If you have to run after somebody and you can’t holster your gun due to imminent threat, make sure the muzzle is depressed until you’re ready to come on target and fire,” he says.

Also, if you have the gun in your strong hand and you use your off-hand to try to control the suspect, you may be setting yourself up for a sympathetic muscle contraction. It’s a subconscious reaction: Your strong hand may involuntarily constrict as your off-hand closes down on the subject, thus pulling the trigger.

If you can’t holster your gun when you go hands-on with the suspect, one option is to transfer it to your support hand in a non-shooting position. Your support hand should now be holding your gun in such a way that no matter how hard you grip, none of your fingers will be right on the trigger.

To illustrate:

The weapon is positioned in the web of your weak hand (barrel pointing down and away from you ) with your thumb wrapped around the slide and your finger covering the trigger guard. This is a very secure grip that prevents the weapon from discharging and is easily transitioned back into the officer’s strong hand — ready to fire.

 

Kathy Vonk, a firearms training expert with Team One Network, adds that when using this method, the pistol should be held against the hip or pocket area with the muzzle pointed downward and outside of the officer's knee. “If it is not held against the body, when the officer goes hands-on the pistol will likely flail about and end up being pointed at the officer, a partner, a by-stander, the suspect, or all of the above,” she says.

”Anytime there is a forced, dynamic hands-on encounter with a gun out of the holster, the potential is always there for an AD [accidental discharge], so if it is pointed ‘down and out’ and secured against the body, it won't ‘wave’ around during the physical contact, and an AD will not injure or kill anyone. “

If officers aren’t taught this fast and effective method for going hands on, Vonk says, they’re prone to do just about anything, since there is no prior training or experience to which to resort.

On more than one occasion, Vonk has witnessed an officer in a training environment — prior to being taught a weapon transition to the support hand -- throw his own gun out of range because there wasn't enough time to re-holster before the suspect closed the gap.

The suspect was holding a bat in a threatening manner. The officer pointed his red gun at the suspect and ordered him to drop the bat. The suspect complied, then charged the officer empty-handed. There was no time to transition to an impact weapon or other option.

The officer explained that he didn't want to go "hands-on" with a suspect with his gun in his hand. When there is nothing in the mental bank to draw upon, they might do “just about anything,” whether it makes sense at the time or not.
 
Weapon transition to the support hand allows for strong side hands-on physical contact, such as an elbow strike and take-down, which then allows the officer to tactically step back, re-holster, opt for another force option, or move in for handcuffing — or maintain the position with another force option out and ready, until another officer arrives to move in and cuff.  
 
Henk Iverson, expert firearms trainer with Strike Tactical Solution in Illinois, says that telling officers to keep their finger off the trigger is too vague. Instead, Iverson says, “Teach them EXACTLY what you want them to do AND GIVE IT A NAME. I teach my students to have the trigger finger in a bent ‘C’ position on the frame of the pistol.”

Iverson wants to see clear daylight through the trigger guard — “NO piece of the trigger finger should be visible at ANY time through the trigger guard, except when we are shooting,” he says. “I call this the ‘C’ position.  [See photo]


The "C" position: "You should be able to see sunlight through the trigger guard," says firearm expert Henk Iverson.

So when I give verbal commands on the range, I will yell ‘finger in C!’ and everybody knows exactly what is needed.”

Iverson is a fan of the “C” position for two reasons:
1) If a bad guy gets a hold of the muzzle of your pistol, he will not be able to work against the trigger finger in a gun take-away. The bent "C" is a strong hold on the gun and it is almost impossible for a bad guy to press your finger flat onto the frame and then work against the joints.

2) During the so-called "startle effect" where an officer is surprised or loses his balance — e.g., falling down and sympathetic muscle tensioning — where the one hand does what the other hand is doing (also known as inter-limb/ inter-action), we have found that the "finger in C position" saves officers from negligent discharges. If it so happens that the trigger finger slips off the frame, it ends up to the REAR of the trigger on most double-action pistols.

Try this for yourself with a dummy gun. Place your finger in a bent "C" on the frame. Now push down on that trigger finger with all your might. If the finger does slip off, you will notice that it ends up BEHIND the trigger! 

Iverson recalls two actual cases where officers successfully ended up with their trigger fingers behind the trigger. “If they’d positioned their fingers in a straight ‘off the trigger’ position,” he says, “they might have negligently discharged their pistols.”

No matter what you call it – accidental, involuntary, unintentional, or negligent — the outcome can be deadly...and a legal nightmare. Familiarize yourself with your handgun’s configuration, and train for a hands-on encounter, throughout which you will remain in control of your weapon, regardless if you use it or not.

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