Safety and Training

There is no Such Thing as an “Accidental Discharge…”

… only a negligent discharge.

While I suspect all negligent discharges do not occur on purpose (the opposite of accidental), if looking critically at the definition of what accidental and negligence means, you will find that in fact, accidental discharges are intentional and 100 percent avoidable.

The definition of accidental is, “Happening by chance, unintentionally, or unexpectedly.” If you have had a negligent discharge, ask yourself these three questions:

  1. How did my finger unintentionally find the trigger?

Unintentionally means, “not deliberate.” Unless you have a nerve or muscular disorder, your finger does not move unless you tell it to. You put it on the trigger intentionally.

  1. When I was disassembling my firearm for cleaning, how did I by chance just happen to shoot the TV?

By chance means “the unknown and unpredictable element in happenings that seems to have no assignable cause.” The gun was loaded, you put your finger on the trigger, you pulled the trigger, the gun fired and a bullet exited the muzzle. Just like we expect and predict a gun to do—clearly an assignable cause.

  1. If my firearm was unloaded, how did I unexpectedly fire a round?

Unexpectedly means “not regarded as likely to happen.” Of course, if you did not remove the magazine, clear the chamber, check the gun to ensure it is clear and then check again, then you certainly must expect the possibility that a round could fire. Am I right?

On the other hand, negligence means, “Failure to take proper care in doing something.” An accidental discharge is just that—you did not take the correct precautionary steps to prevent the gun from firing. Following the rules of firearms safety all the time means a negligence discharge should never happen.

The Golden Rules of Firearm Safety

  1. All guns are always loaded.
  2. Never let the muzzle cover something you are not willing to destroy.
  3. Keep your finger off the trigger until you are ready to shoot.
  4. Know your target and what is behind it.

From 1999 to 2006, reported 5,974 people died from the negligent discharge of a firearm. If you ask me that’s a pretty freakin’ serious statistic. Negligent discharges are no joke. If you have had one and feel like an idiot—it’s because you should. There are no excuses. We know the Golden Rules of firearms safety—the only rules NOT meant to be broken.

I’ve read it described as “reckless,” “careless” and even “ignorant.” Actually, a negligent discharge is illegal in most places. Teach everyone in your household the safety rules. Do not ever bend these rules, no matter how sure you are.

Do not become too comfortable, complacent or cocksure. I know this guy—a real gun nut—who wanted to show me a recent purchase of his. He brought out his gun case and when he opened it and reached for the gun, I said, “Please show me clear.” He looked at me exasperated and said, “It’s clear.” “Humor me,” I responded. Sure enough, this same guy, while purchasing a gun from a friend, witnessed a negligent discharge. If you aren’t disciplined yourself, how can you discipline others? I’ve heard “it’s not a case of if, it’s a case of when,” but I refuse to believe this. I will continue to follow all the rules all of the time and respect the power that my trigger finger holds.

Have you had a close call? Tell us what lesson you learned in the comment section.


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Comments (22)

  1. I do not agree. I am a responsable gun owner for years. One day i was clearing my pistol. I thought it was clear and it wasnt. We are all human sh** happens. thankfully i was pointing it down range like you should . Doesnt make me neglagent. it makes me human. I can live with that .

    1. Of course it makes you negligent. You didn’t confirm the gun was empty. Doesnt make you a bad person, but that was negligent. You can live with it because you were pointing it down range and your negligence was restricted to not checking the gun, no where the gun was aiming.

  2. In follow up to Dogguy I say, “Hear, hear!” I have followed this discussion from the beginning and thought this all along. One person conspicuously absent in this discussion is Suzanne, the author of the article. As a counselor and interpersonal communications expert, I can’t help but wonder if Suzanne really meant to imply what Dogguy pointed out? Sometimes we say things without considering the ultimate implications of our statement. Suzanne, if you are following this, I would like to hear your response.

    1. In reference to doggy, his logic is poor. Not checking to see if a gun is loaded and then pulling the trigger might be accidental, but its was caused by negligence. “Getting behind the wheel of an automobile, cooking a meal for a friend, owning a dog, operating machinery and equipment…” not one of those will automatically result in an event that can kill someone without the interceding of dumb luck. Not checking a gun and pulling a trigger will. If you have a gun, it is incumbent on you to verify the gun is empty and to stay away from the trigger. If you dont then its on you. Its not a “oh well, sh*t happens” or “hey, just a accident, like cooking a meal and someone getting sick”. It’s more along the lines of getting behind the wheel of a car while at 4 times the legal limit. cooking meal for a friend using chicken you found in a ditch, owning a dog with rabies or operating heavy machinery without any idea of how to operate it. None of those results in accidents without the appearance of negligence.

  3. I call BS on the concept of there only being negligence involved in the unintentional discharge of a firearm. We are inundated in our society with placing blame. If something happens bad, something…someone…must be at fault. This stems from trial lawyers who sue everyone for any reason and it has filtered into our daily life in such a way that most everyone has been brainwashed by media reports into believing it. I don’t buy this concept. Accidents are unintentional. It’s in the definition. The fact that you placed your finger on the trigger of a firearm does not, in itself, show negligence. It might set up a situation that leads to unintentional consequences but, then again, every act that involves any risk will do the same. Getting behind the wheel of an automobile, cooking a meal for a friend, owning a dog, operating machinery and equipment…they all involve risking unintentional consequences. Firearms are dangerous. They are supposed to be. If you believe this concept of negligence as the only reason for unintentional firearms discharges, you are setting up a situation in which the very ownership and possession of a firearm (a dangerous object) is negligent.

    I believe life involves a certain amount of risk that is unavoidable unless one exists in a bubble, afraid to attempt any activity whatsoever.

  4. Closest I’ve ever come to a ND was when I was trying out a friend’s revolver at the range. Thankfully I followed all of the rules, so I was aiming downrange when it happened. I loaded it (a .357 magnum) and lifted it up, pulled the hammer back, began to aim, but my finger strayed to the trigger before I was actually ready to shoot (though I was aiming where it should go).

    Because it had a hair trigger… it went off when I was absolutely not expecting it to. It really startled me, and was humbling and sobering. Glad no one was hurt.

  5. Someone might be negligent while having an accidental discharge, but I don’t agree with your assessment that there are no accidental discharges and that all are negligent. If that were the case then we should believe the liberals and scrap all guns.

    1. an undesirable or unfortunate happening that occurs unintentionally and usually results in harm, injury, damage, or loss; casualty; mishap: automobile accidents.

    1a : marked by or given to neglect especially habitually or culpably
    b : failing to exercise the care expected of a reasonably prudent person in like circumstances
    2: marked by a carelessly easy manner

    While they are similar and one could certainly lead to the other, they are not always the same thing.

    If I take your logic to the next level, I could say there are never any accidents, period. Every accident must therefore be negligence. Pull a Cheney…negligent. Fall or stumble while carrying a loaded firearm and hurt yourself or another person…negligent. Get into a car accident…negligent. Slip and fall on a slippery floor (with or without a firearm)…negligent. Choke on some food in a restaurant…negligent. Start a fire that burns a house down, a forest, whatever…negligent. Where does it end?

  6. My m1a Springfield came with a big guide about slamfire. Floating firing pins in AR’s and Garand platforms can experience slamfire, in which the bolt slams forward hard enough the firing pin will move forward hard and fast enough to indent a primer enough to cause a discharge. This problem can be seen most often with tight specification match rifles and with reload light duty primers, although it is rare. Rare, but enough of an issue for Springfield to send an entire guide and warning specifically for one issue. Slamfire not only can cause accidental discharge, but actually trigger an explosion when the primer detonates before the round is chambered, allowing an uncontrolled explosion outside of the chamber, blowing the cartridge up, and often times the gun, potentially wounding or killing people.

    In NRA tests, when a round was put directly into the chamber by hand, and the bolt was released into the chamber, it caused slamfire 3 out of 1000 times. Match shooters have documented lost rifles do the the effect. Cookoff has been observed in the military, and is warned against in training. These things may be rare, but are very real.

    But, even with mechanical failures and accidental discharge, can we go further and accuse people of negligence? If a slmafire occurs, can we blame the shootish for using below spec ammunition, or reloading with lighter duty primers? Can we fault people for throwing rounds directly into the chamber and slamming the bolt instead of putting a fresh round into the top of the magazine and loading it correctly? If someone is shooting a rifle in rapid succession, should he not heed the advice of keeping his chamber empty with a hot gun on a hot day?

    The only time an accidental discharge is truly without fault to the shooter or those who operate and prepare the weapon for other shooters is when the manufacturer makes a mistake or a defect in production, or say in some absolute freak accident of a hot round coming from a factory, which is really not heard of. Even in cases of rare and peculiar accidental discharges, they are often specific to an individual weapon and its design and function, and every man who shoots a firearm should be well versed with any weapon they fire, down to its basic function and any peculiar dangers and hang ups.

    In the end, if somebody gets shot dead by accident, I doubt its going to matter much who you can point the finger at. Its too late for that to help then.

    1. Once you became notified of the possibility of ‘slamfire’ and how to avoid it, any further discharge due to ‘slamfire’ becomes a negligent discharge.

  7. I observed an accidental discharge of an autoloading shotgun at a high school trap shooting practice. The kid loaded one shell, hit the release button and when the bolt slammed forward the shell went off. No finger on the trigger.

    The coach (who has been doing this for years) says he’s seen it happen before and it will happen again. Luckily they listen to him and keep the guns pointed in a safe direction.

  8. Jim P. and DB Cooper,

    I am not disagreeing with either of you. I am disagreeing with Suzanne Wiley (CTD Suzanne), the author of the article.

    From the title onward, Ms. Wiley states and implies that from the beginning of time (not even once) has a bullet ever left a gun barrel due to “mechanical malfunctions/defects (not user initiated)” and such will never occur (not even once) until the end of time. I was pointing out that bullets have left gun barrels due to neither the excuted will of the shooter nor to the negligence of the shooter. I was pointing this out by citing four events well known to shooters by either personal experience or the experience of others.


  9. Art,
    Discharges because of mechanical malfunctions/defects (not user initiated) are neither. And your example of rapid fire causing a cook off isnt realistic. I’ve fired several mags in succesion on full auto (gas tube glowing cheery red) and never had a cook off.

  10. About 10-11 years ago I just bought a Savage 110 for my daughter to hunt deer with. While at the range I had a true accidental discharge. This rifle had a two way adjustable trigger, it was just before Savage started installing their Accu-trigger, and probably the reason they switched. Anyway I took 4 shots, reloaded then decided to try shooting and chambering rounds faster.I got off two shots and while closing the bolt, because I was trying to move faster, I closed the bolt with a bit more force than normal As soon as it locked down into firing position it fired. Scared the hell out of me. Unloaded the thing and went home and read the owners manual a bit closer, there is a section in there about adjusting the trigger. It says when you get it where you like it they recommend slasmming the bolt handle down with considerable force to see if the thing would have fired had it been loaded… my rifle failed. Dry fired it a few times to check creep, it had zero creep, felt nice but I knew there was the problem. I followed all of Savages instruction on adjusting the trigger, since it was going to be my daughters rifle, and was going to be used for hunting, I set the pull at 6 lbs and enough creep that you can feel the trigger move before it fires. I added a rule before rule 1, I always check ALL moving parts for proper function, with a new rifle I check all the moving parts more thoroughly. I haven’t had an unexpected discharge since.

  11. Brings back fond memories of a recruit shooting the deck three feet away from him in boot. Range went cold and everybody’s head shifted down to what looked like 5 drill instructors involved in a cartoon dust cloud. Nothing but yelling, screaming, and thrashing luckily. Though it sucks to say, there is a reason why mental scarification tactics for teaching still exist today. Even though his mos was that of a cook, I’m assured he won’t do it again…least not with a rifle

  12. Please explain how the following unintended discharges are the result of negligence.
    1. The Ruger P85 semi-auto pistol comes with a decocker/safety lever designed to decock the visible hammer and place the weapon on Safe, when there is a round in the chamber. A shooter with an early production weapon in 9mm utilized the decocker safety as indicated in the instruction booklet. The shooter was pointing the pistol in a safe direction and following all safety rules. The weapon discharged. The shooter contacted Ruger, which immediately issued a recall. This shooter did not intend to fire the weapon. How was this shooter negligent?
    2. A shooter squeezes the trigger on a weapon and hears only the click of the firing pin on the primer. The shooter immediately initiates all safety procedures for hang fires. Two seconds later the weapon discharges in a safe direction. The shooter did not intend to discharge the weapon after he realized he had a possible hang fire situation on his hands. How was this shooter negligent?
    3. After firing a long string of rapid fire from a semi-auto weapon, a shooter ceases pulling the trigger well knowing that a fresh cartridge has gone into the chamber. The weapon is pointed in a safe direction and all safety rules are being followed. The round in the chamber “cooks off” and a shot is fired. The shooter did not want to fire the round that was cooked off. How is this shooter negligent?
    4. A shooter pulls the trigger on a semi-auto weapon. A mechanical malfunction causes the weapon to “go full auto” and discharge two rounds. The shooter did not intend to fire the second round. How was this shooter negligent?

  13. One more thing. Just to clarify, I finally found the web site, which is:
    One thing to note is this: over eight years, there were 5,974 deaths, as against a total population group of 2,310,000,000. The graphic plots this as zero deaths per 100,000. I’m not trying to say anything bad about the article, with which I agree totally, it’s just that the numbers are not astonishing, considering how many people shoot. That comes out to about 750 per year, which is still too many people, but not a staggering number. I think that the two largest classes of people who cause ND’s are: poorly trained novices, and complacent pros. I agree with CTD Suzanne. The message is: Hammer home those four basic rules with all your trainees, and never, ever let them forget. AND, don’t get complacent. Complacent pros are just as bad, if not worse, than poorly trained novices.

  14. I beg to differ. I experienced an “accidental discharge” once when dove hunting with a pump action shotgun. I took the safety off, did not fire because the bird veered away, and the shotgun fired while my finger was moving between the trigger and the safety. My finger did not touch anything to make the gun fire. As always, I had the gun pointed in a safe direction. The gun was not mine and was probably on the order of 30 years old at the time. The owner took it to a gunsmith to have it repaired. I don’t know what repairs were made, but the owner did tell me some parts were replaced. It has worked fine ever since, no repeats of the incident.

  15. I have seen an HK4 fired inside a building, while we were watching a demo of how to lower the hammer after chambering a round. The HK4 is a double-action pistol. The odd thing is, the hammer is decocked by putting the safety in the “safe” position and pulling the trigger, which allows the hammer to fall without striking the firing pin. We all thought that this was a kind of nutty way to lower a hammer, but the guy goes, “No, it’s OK. Once it’s on safe nothing will happen,” and he proceeded to pull the trigger. BOOM! The bullet did not hit anyone, but it bounced off the concrete floor and lodged in a ceiling rafter. All of our ears were ringing, and we had one red-faced expert asking if everyone was OK.

    I still think that the HK4 is not a safe pistol, even though, logically, I know that the discharge was “operator error.” At least, the guy had it pointed away from everyone and at the floor.

    I always tell everyone I introduce to shooting the four rules, and I don’t take them shooting until they can repeat them back to me.

  16. The only “ND” I’ve had was when I was 14 and being taught how to shoot. It was a Walther PP .380 DA. The first round fired truly unexpectedly into the target. That surprised me so I lowered the weapon some to look and fired the second round down the range about 15 feet away into the ground. The guy that was instructing me didn’t say anything until afterward on the way home.

    I think he realized he shouldn’t have started with the DA, but at the same time I was not really being bad on the four rules.

  17. A few years back a local Firearms instructor took his 13yr old daughter to the range to teach them how to shoot. He blatantly neglected to follow rules 2 & 3 when he turned the pistol sideways (instead of turning his body and keeping the pistol aimed down range) toward his daughter to get better leverage to pull the slide back. When he released the slid the weapon discharged shooting his daughter in the arm and her friend in the leg.

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