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How to avoid improper weapon handling

Negligent discharges result from involuntary muscular contraction of the hand and finger muscles caused by startle effect, balance disruption, and/or sympathetic response


Editor’s Note: A significant amount of the information in this article was obtained from a bulletin prepared by Arnie Stallman. Arnie is a retired Phoenix officer and former colleague of mine in the NRA’s Law Enforcement Division. PoliceOne Contributor Mark Schraer explains that he is sharing this information to better illustrate the tragic consequences of unsafe weapon handling.

In most firearms training facilities you will find a sign listing the Four Core Rules of Firearm Safety.

1.) Treat every weapon as if it is loaded with live ammunition
2.) Never point a weapon at someone or something you do not intend to shoot
3.) Keep your finger along the frame of your weapon until you’ve made the decision to shoot
4.) Keep your weapon on safe until you intend to shoot

Most officers learn these rules in the academy and can recite them — in some form — throughout their careers. Most also abide by these rules while participating in firearms or tactics training. However, the ability to recite these tenants, and even to follow them during firearms training, does not automatically translate to their use on the street — particularly during critical incidents.

Why Proper Trigger Finger Placement is Critical
In this article, I will primarily focus on issues related to Rule #3 of the Four Core Rules, but as you will see, Rule # 2 will also prove to be significant.

Negligent discharges result from involuntary muscular contraction of the hand and finger muscles. This involuntary muscular contraction is caused by one of the following three issues:

1.) Startle Effect: Tests have shown that the muscles of the hands and fingers can contract involuntarily if a sudden noise or occurrence startles the officer. If the startled officer is holding a firearm, and their finger is on the trigger, it is likely that they will discharge that weapon. 

2.) Balance Disruption: An officer losing their balance will involuntarily clutch at anything nearby with their free hand. This can easily cause an officer holding a firearm to squeeze their trigger — if they have their trigger finger trigger at the moment they stumble or fall.

3.) Sympathetic Response: An officer exerting force with one hand — grabbing a suspect or pulling open a door - may experience the involuntary contraction of their other hand — the one holding their firearm. If their finger is on the trigger, this involuntary contraction will exert more than enough force to fire double-action and single action pistols, as well as shotguns and patrol rifles.

The following incidents include examples of all three types of unintentional firearms discharges. Keep in mind that this is only a partial list of the almost countless number of negligent discharges that occurred in law enforcement. 

Example #1 — Sympathetic Response
An officer holding his double-action pistol in one hand, grabbed the door handle of a suspect vehicle with the other.  As the officer pulled on the door handle with his empty hand, he unintentionally discharged his pistol, shooting a backseat passenger.

Example #2 — Balance Disturbance
After a high-speed vehicle pursuit, an officer ran up to the window of the suspect vehicle and pointed his revolver at the driver - while his finger was on the trigger.  The vehicle, which was turned off, rolled backwards several inches off a curb on which one of the tires has rested.  This movement caused the officer to lose his balance and fall backward, discharging his revolver into the front passenger’s heart.

Example #3 — Startle Effect
An officer searching a vacant apartment pushed open a door with his support hand. The door bounced off of a mattress that was positioned behind the door. Startled by the movement of the door, the officer discharged his pistol, firing a round into his own forearm.

Example # 4 —Balance Disturbance and Startle Effect
After a tactical situation had been resolved, an officer with a shotgun jumped over a small drainage ditch. He lost his balance and discharged his shotgun.  A second officer standing a short distance away was holding his patrol rifle — with his finger on the trigger. Startled by the discharge of the shotgun, this officer fired his rifle into a nearby patrol car, narrowly missing a handcuffed prisoner.

Example # 5 — Sympathetic Response
After a high-speed chase, an officer holding an un-cocked SIG 220, reached up to grab a teenage suspect, who was in a “surrender” position.  As the officer grabbed the driver, he unintentionally discharged his pistol, killing the suspect.

Example #6 — Startle Effect
An off-duty officer and his wife returned home to what they believed was an empty house. The officer went to a closet to investigate a suspicious noise.  When the officer opened the closet door he was startled by his teenage daughter hiding inside. The officer discharged his pistol — killing his only child.

Example #7 — Balance Disruption
Several officers entered the common hallway of an apartment complex on a drug raid.  The third officer in line, carrying a shotgun, and with his finger inside the trigger guard, stumbled. The officer fired a load of 00 buckshot into the back of the second officer’s head, killing him.

Train for the Inevitable
Stress, physical exertion, and balance disruption are all parts of law enforcement.

It is critical that every officer develops, and maintains throughout their career, the subconscious ability to maintain proper firearms handling skills — particularly trigger control and muzzle discipline — no matter the event. 

Breaking one of these two rules is reckless — breaking both can result in tragedies like those listed above.

I encourage you to share these examples with your partners or, the officers that you have the responsibility to train. Develop empty gun practice around these and other incidents, and demand proper trigger finger placement — both on the range and on the street.  

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