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September 18, 2007
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Richard Fairburn Law Enforcement Firearms
with Richard Fairburn

Causes and cures for the negligent discharge

One of the dirty little secrets in the annals of police firearms training is the number of accidental discharges we experience (I prefer the term negligent discharge, because very few of these are a  genuine accident).  Most of these unintentional rounds are let loose  because the gun handler broke one of the safety rules, so a review, of the four basic gun safety rules is in order.

  1. All guns are always loaded.  (Even if they are not, treat them as if they are.)
  2. Never let the muzzle cover anything you are not willing to destroy. (For those who insist  “this particular gun is unloaded,” see Rule 1.)
  3. Keep your finger off the trigger till your sights are on the  target. (This is the Golden Rule. Its violation is directly responsible for about 60 percent of inadvertent discharges.)
  4. Identify your target, and what is behind it. (Never shoot at anything that you have not positively identified.) What I mean by the term negligent discharge (ND) is, a round fired from an officer’s weapon that they didn’t intend to fire. Several factors can enter into the causation of a ND, but they almost invariably involve mishandling on the officer’s part.

Most training ranges will eventually see the “late, great leg shot,” as one instructor described it.  This type of ND is usually caused by trying to holster a weapon with your finger still on the trigger. Depending on holster design and placement, this error generally causes a grazing wound down the side of the leg, or sometimes a through and through hole in the strong side buttock. Often, the only permanent damage suffered by one of these officers is hearing the; “jumped up and bit me in the butt-tocks” comments from their co-workers -- usually in the Forrest Gump voice.  Clearly, this is a violation of safety rule #3 and the solution is to constantly emphasize the need for a straight finger, except when on target.

Another major cause of NDs is when officers involve themselves in extreme exertion with a pistol in their hand.  The most common examples in my database involve running all-out and jumping over fences. Deadly force encounters are often very fluid and involve extreme levels of stress.  An officer may have to transition from covering a suspect to an all-out footrace in the blink of eye. If this happens with a finger on the trigger (a violation of rule #3 again), an unexpected loud noise can ensue. Some creative officers will write this one up as a warning shot.  Yeah, ... Right.  While keeping your finger off the trigger can fix this cause, the best solution here is to holster the weapon when running hard or dealing with obstacles like fences and ditches. This suggests a holster that uses either friction screws or mechanical “latches” that allow an officer to quickly holster a sidearm and expect it to still be with them after the exertion.

A variation of the extreme exertion cause is to experience a ND when handling a suspect.  This happened to a friend of mine several years ago when dealing with a suspect in the back seat of a stolen vehicle. My friend had a sidearm in hand when he saw the need to grab a leg and pull the dude out, so he transferred the pistol to his weak hand and grabbed the suspect with his strong hand.  As we all know, our hands tend to mirror each other’s actions under stress and when the officer grabbed the suspect’s leg with his strong hand, his weak hand also “grabbed” (with a finger on the trigger - of course). The .4 caliber hollow point bullet bouncing around inside the car made the suspect much more cooperative, I’m told.  The rule here is a very simple one - NEVER put your hands on a suspect with a gun in your hand!  Holster the weapon!  Luckily, this unarmed suspect wasn’t hit.

Of course, I’ve left out the most common cause of a Negligent Discharge, the ever popular “while cleaning the gun,” excuse. This is a rule #1 stupidity issue, pure and simple.  You must clear the thing fully and carefully before pulling the trigger or attempting disassembly for cleaning. An aggravating factor here is the need to pull the trigger before disassembly with some brands of pistol.

If you handle guns long enough, you will probably get a BANG when you didn’t expect one. Rule #2 is our failsafe that will prevent injury no matter what you do.  Good, stressful training can eliminate most of your officer’s negligent discharge problems, but not all of them. Harping on your officers to keep their finger off the trigger until they are coming on target (rule #3) and emphasizing the need to holster their sidearm before extreme exertion or handling suspects will eliminate most of your field NDs.  Religious attention to where your muzzle is pointed (rule #2 - again) will prevent a tragedy even if you manage to “let one go” when you didn’t mean to.

Society has every reason to expect safe gun handling from professional peace officers.

About the author

Dick Fairburn has more than 30 years of law enforcement experience in both Illinois and Wyoming, working patrol, investigations and administrative assignments. Dick has also served as a Criminal Intelligence Analyst and as the Section Chief of a major academy's Firearms Training Unit and Critical Incident training program. He has a B.S. in Law Enforcement Administration from Western Illinois University and was the Valedictorian of his recruit class at the Illinois State Police Academy. He has published more than 100 feature articles and two books: Police Rifles and Building a Better Gunfighter.

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