Why the argument against striker-fired guns for police is flawed

LASD's experience with the M&P pistol reaffirms the importance of training, and confirms that software is more important than hardware in preventing discharges


In December 2015, the Los Angeles County Office of Inspector General (OIG) published a report that examined the rise in “unintended” firearm discharges by Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department (LASD) deputies equipped with the newly-authorized Smith & Wesson M&P 9mm pistol.

Within days, the industry’s “blame the hardware” crowd was back in full force, proclaiming once again that striker-fired pistols with five- to seven-pound, short-travel triggers were inappropriate choices for law enforcement, and the OIG report proved it.

We’ve been down this road before on PoliceOne, but it bears repeating: Negligent discharges — and make no mistake, almost all of the LASD “unintended” discharges were caused by negligence — are primarily a software (training) issue, not a hardware (equipment) issue.

Negligent discharges are primarily a software (training) issue, not a hardware (equipment) issue. (Smith & Wesson Image)
Negligent discharges are primarily a software (training) issue, not a hardware (equipment) issue. (Smith & Wesson Image)

A Surge in Negligent Discharges
Although some popular writers would argue that striker-fired pistols like the M&P are inherently more prone to negligent discharges than the Double/Single Action (DA/SA) autopistols they are replacing — and should not be permitted in law enforcement holsters — there is nothing in the recent LASD experience which supports that conclusion. Instead, the LASD experience with the M&P pistol reaffirms the importance of proper training, and confirms that software is more important than hardware in preventing these discharges.

Naysayers point to the statistics cited in the OIG report to discredit this notion, and remind us that LASD experienced a 138 percent increase in negligent discharges between 2012 and 2014 (the period of initial transition to the M&P pistol for academy recruits and in-service deputies) with the M&P predominating in 28 of 31 negligent discharges in 2014. By contrast, negligent discharges with the DA/SA Beretta 92F pistol occurred much less often (three in 2012, four in 2013 and one in 2012 — versus zero, eight, and 28 for the M&P during those same years). The naysayers would have us believe that the numbers prove DA/SA guns are safer than striker-fired guns, but unfortunately for them, it’s not the case.

There’s no doubt that LASD experienced a surge in negligent discharges with the M&P pistol during the timeframe examined by OIG, but the numbers fail to demonstrate that this spike was somehow unique, surprising, or unpredictable. It’s interesting that the OIG report limited its research on LASD negligent discharges to the time period of 2004 to 2014, which prevents us from seeing whether or not a similar spike occurred around the time of the department’s transition to the Beretta 92F. The 92F became the department’s primary weapon in 1992, a full 12 years prior to the starting point of the OIG analysis. As a result, the OIG study doesn’t permit us to determine whether or not the M&P negligent discharge trend is an anomaly, or merely a repeat of the same pattern experienced by the department when it switched to the 92F from its revolvers.

The available evidence indicates that agencies have historically experienced a significant increase in negligent discharges following a change in duty firearms, and anecdotal evidence indicates that LASD was no different in this regard during the conversion to the 92F. Veterans of LASD from that era indicate there were numerous negligent discharges with the DA/SA 92F, particularly in the light weight and short-travel SA trigger mode — which is typically lighter and shorter than that of the striker-fired M&P. To focus on the spike in negligent discharges connected to the M&P conversion while ignoring the larger historical context is unhelpful, at best, and quite possibly misleading.

The OIG negligent discharge numbers also tell us little about the comparative safety merits of these designs. Comparing the rate of negligent discharges of a pistol that was just adopted after a hasty and incomplete training effort (M&P) to those of a pistol that has been in service for 20-plus years (92F) tells us almost nothing about the guns themselves, but does tell a whole lot about the experience and qualifications of the deputies, and the quality of their training. If the 92F safety record, after 24 years of deployment, wasn’t better than the record of the brand new M&P, then LASD would have a serious problem, indeed.

Some of the more important numbers in the OIG report have been ignored by the striker-fired critics. In particular, the number of LASD negligent discharges with the M&P pistol decreased in 2015 (year to date, through early December, when the OIG report was published), compared with 2014, in the wake of a renewed training and education effort by LASD. In fact, the OIG report indicates that the number of on-duty negligent discharges in tactical situations decreased 300 percent from 2014. Although the number is still 200 percent higher than the period before the adoption of the M&P, the trend is moving in the right direction after a concerted (yet, belated) effort to provide the training and education demanded by this kind of equipment conversion.

It’s interesting to consider how this kind of effort, prior to the adoption of the M&P, could have affected the rate of negligent discharges with the new gun. Could this spike have been mostly prevented by more rigorous training up front? Probably, but the important thing now is that the 2015 numbers positively demonstrate the influence of training and education in preventing these discharges.

Another critical OIG report statistic ignored by the naysayers is that LASD academy recruits simply find it easier to qualify with the M&P than with the larger and more complex 92F. With the 92F, remediation rates for recruit classes could reach as high as 61.3 percent according to OIG, but with the M&P they have never exceeded 16.8 percent. Presumably, these improved statistics indicate that most LASD deputies are capable of better shooting with the M&P, which is a significant public safety benefit in itself that is ignored by the critics who focus exclusively on the negligent discharge rate as the sole measure of safety.

The naysayers are fortunate that the OIG failed to look at the negligent discharge statistics of the LASDs closest comparison, the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), because the contrast would have damaged their case. The missions and makeup of the LASD and LAPD are virtually indistinguishable — the population they police is essentially (and sometimes actually) the same, and the two agencies have an almost identical number of sworn personnel — but the LAPD experience with striker-fired duty pistols during the 2012 to 2014 timeframe was very different than LASD’s, and disproves the case against them.

Like their LASD deputy brethren, LAPD officers had both striker-fired pistols (Glocks, in the case of LAPD) and DA/SA pistols (the same 92F carried by LASD, plus a few S&W 3rd-generation guns) in the field during the 2012 to 2014 period, but LAPD had more striker-fired guns in the field than LASD during those years. Despite this, LAPD did not suffer a comparable number of negligent discharges with their striker-fired pistols.

In 2012, LAPD reported nine negligent discharges (six pistol, three rifle), all of which were administrative (“non-tactical”) in nature. In contrast, LASD reported 13 negligent discharges (11 pistol, one rifle, one shotgun, three of them “tactical”). In 2013, LAPD again reported nine negligent discharges (eight pistol, one rifle), of which only one was tactical, but LASD bested them again with 19 negligent discharges (15 pistols, one rifle, three shotguns, three of them tactical), including eight with the M&P. In 2014, LAPD reported four negligent discharges (all with pistols, including one tactical discharge) whereas LASD reported 31 negligent discharges (29 pistol, one rifle, one shotgun, 19 of them tactical) including 28 with the M&P.

If striker-fired guns are so inherently unsafe that they’re “just a negligent discharge waiting to happen” (as critics are wont to observe), the LAPD — an agency with more striker-fired guns in the field than LASD — should have had a similar negligent discharge rate with them during the 2012 to 2014 period. The fact that LASD’s rate of negligent discharges in 2014 with the M&P was seven times higher than LAPD’s rate of negligent discharges with all handguns (not just striker-fired) indicates that the problem lies with the training and education of LASD deputies, not with their guns.

A look at that training and education reveals some interesting and highly relevant facts. Prior to 2002, LASD deputies were trained by their instructors to place their fingers on the triggers of their weapons when the weapons were brought on target. This “on target, on trigger” method, reinforced through repetitive training, undoubtedly established habit patterns that remained with many veteran deputies even after their transition to the M&P pistol, whose short-travel and lighter weight trigger (nominally 6.5 pounds compared to the “over 11” — typically 12 — pound 92F) was less tolerant of this breach of safety and discipline.

Of the 28 M&P negligent discharges in 2014, 22 of them were committed by deputies that had undergone conversion training, versus one committed by a deputy that started with the M&P in the academy (the OIG report does not provide details on the other five cases). While these numbers fail to prove a causal link between the old, trigger-prepping methodology (which certainly lingered long after the official change in training policy in 2002) and the negligent discharges amongst veteran deputies, there is little doubt that at least some of the 2014 negligent discharges are attributable to these old habits.

Training Issues
These old habits would have been hard to erase within the footprint of the eight-hour conversion training course required by LASD to switch to the new M&P pistol. In this course, a deputy who wanted to carry the M&P in lieu of the 92F received four hours of classroom instruction, and only two hours of live fire instruction with the new pistol. Like all agencies, the LASD has very real budgetary and resource constraints that limit their ability to provide extensive training, but there’s not a single firearms trainer in the nation who believes that two hours of live fire is enough to erase old habits developed over the course of many years (or even decades), and replace them with new ones that will withstand the effects of survival stress.

Interestingly, that group includes the LASD as well. A December 2014 LASD memorandum quoted in the OIG report noted that it would take more than a handful of days of training to reprogram old habits connected to the operation of an external safety lever on a pistol. Since the optional M&P external safety lever is deactivated by moving it in the opposite direction of the 92F safety lever, LASD preferred the version of the M&P that was not equipped with this feature to avoid “a serious officer safety concern/risk.” Why this accurate conclusion about the ability of abbreviated training to override ingrained habits was not extended to the bigger picture of transitioning from a DA/SA design to a striker-fired design is unclear, but economic reasons are probably the culprit. It’s doubtful that LASD trainers were as happy with the eight-hour conversion training limit as the county’s accountants were.

Making matters worse, LASD introduced the use of weapon-mounted lights (WMLs) concurrently with the M&P pistol, adding to the training burden. The Surefire X300 Ultra WML was issued with the M&P and a full four hours of the (already abbreviated) eight hour conversion class was spent doing classroom briefings and tactical exercises with the light. While the WML training was valuable, and certainly necessary if these lights were going to be issued, it robbed the instructors of an additional four hours that could have been spent on the range, doing live fire training with the new pistol.

The additional training burden of the weapon-mounted light was made even worse by the selection of a grip-activated switch (the DG pressure tape switch) for the light. In practice, the DG switch is activated by clenching the grip to apply pressure to the front strap of the pistol, where the pressure-sensitive pad is located. As it is extremely difficult to isolate the index finger and prevent it from joining the rest of the fingers when they clench tighter in a strengthened grip, there are significant safety and training issues associated with using this type of switch. An intensive training and practice regimen (which far exceeds the two hours of tactical exercises allotted in conversion training) is required to ensure the trigger finger stays in register with the frame — and does not stray onto the trigger as it closes with the rest of the grip — when the light is activated.

Accidental shootings and discharges attributed to this kind of error have resulted in many departments prohibiting these types of switches. Following several discharges of this type in 2013, the Denver Police Department banned their use. Other law enforcement agencies across the nation (to include neighboring LAPD) took the same action in the wake of accidental police shootings in New York, New Jersey and Texas that date back as far as February of 2005.

The OIG report found that errors attributable to trying to activate the DG pressure switch on the grip accounted for five of the 19 negligent discharges with an M&P in a tactical setting during the 2013 to 2014 period. When the 2015 numbers were accounted for, this figure changed to six out of 25. With almost one quarter of negligent discharges with the M&P in tactical situations attributable to errors in operation of the grip mounted, DG pressure switch, the effort to discredit the M&P (and other striker-fired designs) as a suitable law enforcement weapon falls apart even more.

It’s for all these reasons that the LASD training staff was right to redouble their efforts in 2015 to provide adequate training to deputies armed with the new pistol, and particularly to those deputies who only received the abbreviated eight-hour conversion course. Additionally, the OIG was right to make training (not equipment) the focus of their #1 Finding and Recommendations in the report.

They seem to understand what the striker-fired pistol critics do not; software is the first priority in stopping negligent discharges, not hardware. We forget that at our own peril.

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