The accidental discharge from a firearm is part of police work. It’s an embarrassing topic of discussion. We like to keep it in the closet, yet it occurs. After all, we’re “experts.” We handle weapons like accountants shuffle paper. And while CPAs occasionally get a paper cut, every “blue moon” we have a gun unexpectedly go BANG.
Hence, when the firing pin hits the primer and there is a surprise explosion, it is enough to make you crap yourself.
Most agencies simply refer to this event as an “AD.” And when it occurs there is usually a paper trail that leads to disciplinary action.
The Tragedy of an Accidental Discharge
Some accidental discharges are tragic. I knew a rangemaster at a neighboring agency who accidentally lost his life while inspecting a Mac-10. The weapon had been booked as evidence. During the inspection process, there was an accidental discharge, and a round went through his neck.
On another occasion I was part of a SWAT entry team during a high risk warrant service. We made a dynamic entry into the fortified residence using a variety tools. While clearing the home, two of my partners had the primary suspect lying in the prone position in a rear bedroom. One officer, who was carrying an H&K MP-5, reached for a set of handcuffs. While doing so he had an AD into the concrete floor about six inches from the upper torso of the suspect.
Unfortunately, the round ricocheted into the collar bone of the violent drug dealer. This incident occurred well before the standard practice of “trigger-finger-safety” was routinely employed. But like all mistakes, we modified our training and it was in play from that moment forward.
The suspect was not seriously wounded. Nevertheless, he eventually received an eight year prison sentence for trafficking large amounts of black tar heroin. Yet we enriched his stay in prison to the tune of about $60,000, as that was the settlement from the lawsuit.
What a difference a few decades make. That event occurred in the early 90’s. Today, the heroin dealer would probably receive a much shorter sentence, and our officer might be criminally prosecuted.
Unload Weapons During Training Scenarios
Separate from the accidental discharge is the intentional firing of a weapon that was believed to be unloaded. We’ve had too many training accidents. On a serious note, in addition to practicing trigger-finger-safety, please unload firearms during training scenarios. Furthermore, have a designated range officer inspect each weapon to ensure they are unloaded.
The Comical Side of an Accidental Discharge
On the flip side, some accidental discharges are simply funny. Yeah, people still get in trouble, but when the dust settles and no one is injured, you gotta laugh. (For the uber-serious-safety-conscious-firearm enthusiasts, I am not being cavalier about this. So please, do not send hate mail.)
My organization had a contract range in our city. Not only did every officer at our department qualify monthly (twice if you worked SWAT), but there were about ten contract agencies that also used our facility. As a result, there was a lot of lead flying down range.
We experienced at least one AD at the gun cleaning station. All that was damaged was a bottle Break Free gun oil. However, the funniest ADs incurred at our department didn’t happen at the range. They occurred in our police facility.
AD in the Men’s Locker Room
The first one occurred in the men’s locker room. (Cops across America will be able to relate to this.) My partner had to … how should I say it? … take a dump! Naturally, he needed to remove his gun belt to drop his drawers. If an officer left a Sam Browne gun belt laying on a bench, an old salty sergeant would heist your firearm and book it into the property room. It was a pain getting it returned.
As a result, officers routinely hung their duty belt on a hook in the stall. Unfortunately for my friend, his fell off and the firearm discharged when hitting the ground, blowing a big hole in the tile floor.
As a form of punishment, he was directed to develop a training video regarding firearms safety. It became a classic within our organization. There was no shortage of humor used to learn from this serious event, complete with credits rolling at the conclusion of the video on a roll of toilet paper.
AD in Women’s Locker Room
Years later, I had another partner rehearsing her ability to “clear leather” in the women’s locker room. As she drew her loaded firearm (yeah . . . bad idea), it inadvertently discharged. She killed a locker door.
We have an annual awards ceremony at my shop. One award in particular is referred to as the HUA Award—Highly Underrated Achievement. … What did you think?
Anyway, each accidental discharge from their respective locker rooms won the award. I had the privilege of removing the “deceased” door to the locker; the top of which contained the “gun shot wound.” After cutting off the top portion of the door, it made a great background for a plaque to memorialize the event. (I’m not sure what she did with it.)
Trigger Finger Safety
I’ve been somewhat self-effacing on behalf of my organization regarding this topic. But I’ve been around long enough to know we are not alone.
I hope you’re all practicing trigger-finger-safety. I promise, you are not losing time when firing your weapon.
Finally, I’d also like to hear your funny stories. Do you have a locker-room-AD-story to share?
– Jim McNeff
Author’s note: I yield to experts who’ve politely reminded me the correct terminology is “negligent discharge.” No doubt parsing words since an “accident” is the result of negligence. I remember the time when the Traffic Bureau at my department educated our officers by training us to use the word “collision” in lieu of “accident.” So “negligent” and “collision” are in, “accident” is out. Nevertheless, I hope you enjoyed the article.
Jim worked in military and civilian law enforcement for thirty-one years. While in the USAF he flew as a crewmember aboard the National Emergency Airborne Command Post—a presidential support detail. Following his military service, he served for twenty-eight years with the Fountain Valley Police Department in Orange County, California where he retired as a lieutenant. He holds a Bachelor of Science degree in criminal justice from Southwest University and graduated from the prestigious Sherman Block Supervisory Leadership Institute as well as the IACP course, Leadership in Police Organizations.