The Safety Sin

26-Feb-09 – 11:40 by ToddG

fingerAt a recent major pistol competition, an accident happened. One of the participants, while holstering his gun between strings of fire, got his trigger finger in the wrong place and shot himself in the leg.

Before you read any further, think about that. Think about what your reaction would be if you saw that happen, or if it happened at your club. What would you do? What would you think of the event, the shooter, and the sport? How should the club respond? How should the sport as a whole react?

Once you have an idea in your mind about your personal reaction, read on …

What assumptions did you make about the shooter and the incident?

By all accounts, the shooter will make a full recovery. He took full responsibility for his mistake. He is an experienced and respected competitor with a military background. No one ever considered him unsafe, unskilled, or irresponsible.

The range staff and match officials responded immediately and professionally to the incident. There was a plan in place and it was followed. The match was delayed but not canceled.

It wasn’t until after the match that it became a major problem. The online forum dedicated to the sport officially stated it would censor discussion of the accident. On another forum, it was suggested that perhaps the match official should have been able to prevent the accident by reacting in the split second between seeing the gun going into the holster and hearing the crack of a shot going off. Why? Because in the shooting world we treat an accident like a mortal sin. 

But this wasn’t a sin. It was a mistake. It was a mistake made by an intelligent, experienced gun handler. That makes us uncomfortable. It tears away at our often self-righteous attitude that only idiots make mistakes. It threatens to overwhelm our religious fervor when we talk about how we would never make a mistake like that because we know the Cardinal Rules and always follow them!

The reality is that none of us is perfect. We have safety rules to minimize the chance of someone getting hurt, but if you are around guns often enough and long enough you are going to see mistakes happen. Eventually, you are going to make one yourself. The most dangerous gun handlers are the ones who think they’re too safe to worry about making a mistake.

As a community, we need to stop treating all accidental discharges as foolish and criminal acts. By placing every accident under the umbrella of sin, we do ourselves a disservice. We lose the chance to examine the details and learn from them. We lump the competitor who made a momentary transgression in with the idiot who’s never learned anything about safe gun handling. Worst of all, we create a mindset that tells us mistakes won’t happen to smart people (meaning, “us”) … which breeds complacency, which breeds more mistakes.

We have redundant safety rules specifically so that when a mistake does happen, it’s less likely to result in an injury. But “less likely” is not a guarantee. Remember that the next time you’re pointing your gun at the wall to your kid’s bedroom because you know you’ll keep your finger off the trigger … Or the next time a buddy hands you a gun without clearing it first because you both know you’re too safe to make a mistake.

And if you’ve read all this and still believe, “It’ll never happen to me,” good luck with that. I hope I don’t see you at the range. Or in the Emergency Room.

Train hard & stay safe! ToddG

  1. 30 Responses to “The Safety Sin”

  2. Outstanding post…

    By Tanner on Feb 26, 2009

  3. Wow that’s terribly unfortunate but like you said we are all human. Great article and excellent reminder that none of us are above our own human frailties. It sounds reminiscent of the DEA agent who shot his foot while doing a demonstration for a class. he too was probably well trained and also became complacent with his own expertise. Accidents happen, guns go bang. Just be careful people.

    By Jojo on Feb 26, 2009

  4. There are old pilots and bold pilots, but few old bold pilots. When you think you can fly the box it came in you are a danger to yourself and everyone around you.

    Oh yea. I forgot, we are talking about shooting. Funny how human nature transcends the particular activity. Examine all that we do in that light.

    As usual, Todd, your article was spot on. Can’t be reminded too often of our limitations lest hubris win out over intelligence.

    By HowardCohodas on Feb 26, 2009

  5. Good points Todd. What type of pistol was it? 1911 or striker fired variant? That particular accident above is why I still prefer hammer fired pistols over striker fired ones. They take more time to learn to shoot well, but being able to hammer check the gun is important to me.

    By Rich on Feb 26, 2009

  6. Rich — My understanding is that the gun was a Glock. Even though I carry a SFA pistol myself, I agree with your assessment.

    By ToddG on Feb 26, 2009

  7. Amen.

    Cooper wrote that when he came up with the four rules, it was understood that people are fallibe. If they could keep their head on straight enough to break ONLY ONE of the rules at a time, no one would get hurt. Only when more than one were broken concurrently, did Very Bad Things happen. I’d say that in this case, only rule 2 was violated, rule 3 was, only in that the holster did it…

    It’s been said that there are two kinds of shooters: those that have made mistakes, and those that WILL (unless they cease being a shooter).

    By smithjd on Feb 26, 2009

  8. Inspiring writing, thanks Todd.

    By S Vega on Feb 26, 2009

  9. I am glad that the group I join requires that the range officer see clearly an empty chamber, no magazine before holstering. This would help prevent this. That’s within the group, but I still see others even shadow targetting behind the firing line, they have no clue of the danger they pose to others and themselves.

    By Mar on Feb 26, 2009

  10. Mar — The shooter was supposed to have a loaded gun. Don’t you holster loaded guns at matches? Otherwise, you couldn’t draw a loaded gun when the buzzer goes off …

    By ToddG on Feb 26, 2009

  11. I remember telling some people at work that I have had two negligent discharges. Both were put safely downrange about six feet in front of me and both were doing speed draw work at 7rds. I just put my finger on the trigger before my sights were on the target. Guys were nervous. A true “zero defect” environment. With my training regimen accidents are probable at some point, but as was quoted, only violate one rule at a time.

    The most dangerous gun handler is the over-confident one.

    By MHCPD on Feb 27, 2009

  12. Bad things happen to good people also. Try as much as we can we are not perfect. But let us
    learn and keep trying.

    By Ronald Newton on Feb 27, 2009

  13. I don’t know the details here but one of the things at the range that scare me the most are the guys who reholster as fast as they draw. I think we need to point out to people there is no reason to do this on the range under any circumstances. A few seconds of thinking about what you are doing and taking a deep breath before the gun reenters the holster can make a big difference.

    By citius on Feb 27, 2009

  14. The old adage of; there are those who have had an accident, and there are those who will…stands true no matter how may safety guidelines, rules, and checks are in place. People are people; as a section of society who decide to train and perform with a dangerous item like a firearm we must accept there will be accidents. We must also accept the responsibility to ensure the proper techniques are ingrained, followed, and overseen so accidents such as this are few.

    By Kelly V. on Feb 27, 2009

  15. Todd,

    I have been following the online discussion of this incident rather closely as I was in this shooters squad and was sitting ~10 yards behind him when the accident happened.

    I appreciate your thoughtful discussion of a serious incident. I have been very disappointed with the majority of the online discussion attempting to lay blame on everyone and everything involved rather than taking a moment, being thankful that the shooter will recover from his injuries, and learning from the incident.

    By Daniel C. on Feb 27, 2009

  16. He is an experienced and respected competitor with a military background. No one ever considered him unsafe, unskilled, or irresponsible.

    None of that means that he wasn’t foolish that day.

    Todd, you almost got it right at the end, when you said, “Remember that the next time you’re pointing your gun at the wall to your kid’s bedroom because you know you’ll keep your finger off the trigger … Or the next time a buddy hands you a gun without clearing it first because you both know you’re too safe to make a mistake.”

    That’s arrogance. Even the Greeks knew that hubris was always followed by ate — pride goeth before the fall.

    We don’t need to be arrogant, and say “This will never happen to me.”

    We need to be humbly committed to safety — to say, “I will not let this happen to me.”

    By Andrew Rothman, Minnesota Association of Defensive Firearm Instructors on Feb 27, 2009

  17. As a community, we need to stop treating all accidental discharges as foolish and criminal acts…we create a mindset that tells us mistakes won’t happen to smart people (meaning, “us”)

    That right there is the problem with the “all unintended discharges are negligent discharges” view. While it’s certainly true that almost all accidents could have been avoided, it’s almost inevitable that it will be followed by the thought “therefore accidents only happen to negligent people”. And since, quite naturally, nobody ever likes to think of themselves are being a negligent person, accidents then become things that just happen to other people.

    Without recognizing that accidents can and probably will happen to you if you spend enough time around deadly weapons, safety gets reduced to following rules, instead of actually being consciously aware of what you’re doing. Most people will quite naturally check that a gun is empty when picking it up, or avoid covering their support hand with the muzzle when reholstering, because that’s what’s been drilled into them. But people are less likely to think, for instance, “what if, when I release the slide in a second’s time, the hammer follows through and the gun goes full auto on me? Where are all the rounds going to go then?” because that sort of eventuality is less likely to have its own internalized rule. Similarly, and potentially applicable to this situation, people are less likely to consider whether the muzzle is pointing slightly towards their leg or slightly away from it when reholstering, because nobody really teaches that. More to the point, nobody can possibly ever internalize rules for every single thing that could conceivably go wrong.

    Only recognizing that things can and will go wrong when you least expect it, whoever you are, gives you an incentive to remain aware of what you’re doing when you have a firearm in your hand. And without that awareness, you’re just following rules, instead of paying attention to the signs that might alert you to the fact you’re about to do something unexpectedly “foolish”.

    If it were only the eventualities that you’ve trained for that you had to worry about, we’d never have any accidents. Safety cannot be achieved in a mechanical way. It’s the things you aren’t expecting that’ll get you, every time, and by definition you can’t very well prepare for things you don’t expect. You can’t sensibly say “I will not let this happen to me” unless you know what it is that you’re trying to prevent from happening, and if you knew that something like that was about to happen you’d stop it. The general alertness which arises from an acceptance that you’re easily capable of causing accidents – and that that doesn’t make you an idiot or an unsafe shooter – is the only protection you have against those things.

    While it’s certainly a laudable attitude, a simple pointed determination to avoid being the cause of an accident isn’t enough to stop one happening. I doubt if anybody who’s ever had an accident thought they were going to let one happen in the moments before they did, but they were obviously mistaken. They didn’t see it coming, and so didn’t do anything to stop it. “It could easily happen to me” is probably a better mantra, and has the advantage of being perfectly true – when you have a firearm in your hand, you’re only ever a single brief moment of inattention away from causing an accident.

    By Paul on Feb 27, 2009

  18. Gabe Suarez said in a video about no gunfight was ever won by being the first on back in the holster. I think that applies here too.

    By Chris K on Feb 28, 2009

  19. Chris K — Except there is absolutely no evidence suggesting the shooter in question actually was rushing to reholster. One of the goals of this article was to get readers to compare their mental image of an AD with this actual AD. We tend to jump to a lot of conclusions when we hear about accidents, but sometimes it really is just an accident and trying to diagnose some poor technique or practice as the culprit just won’t work. The shooter had a brain fart and his finger was where it shouldn’t have been. Simple as that. Was it a mistake? Hell yes it was a mistake! A mistake that happened to a safety-conscious & experienced shooter … that was the point.

    By ToddG on Feb 28, 2009

  20. Very interesting that this is an active topic…

    I was running AR-15 drills, loading from a practice mag, 10rds at a time. I loaded the gun, then dropped the mag to ensure a round had indeed loaded. I was 100% sure I had 10rds – 1rd in the chamber and 9rds in the magazine.

    I proceeded to fire three, three shot groups. The gun locked back on the last round of the last three shot group.

    I thought “hmm, I should have one final round. I guess I must have shot a four shot group.” I then proceed downrange to check my target. I took the empty mag out before I left. As I headed downrange, I considered doing some dry-fire drills. I dropped the bolt then snapped the selector to semi, then decided that I needed to make sure my rifle was pointed at the specialized rifle backstop we had. I got a flash sight picture and pressed the trigger as I moved forward. You cannot imagine my surprise when the gun fired and a live round impacted the target.

    The magazine, a dedicated training mag that had seen better days, had let the last round feed but had still activated the bolt catch. When I dropped the bolt the round fully chambered, so the empty mag was indeed empty.

    I can’t believe how scary it was, but then again, I only violated one of the rules…

    By MHCPD on Feb 28, 2009

  21. do we know for sure that it was his finger and not something else that caught the trigger? Recently at a match up here (December) a shooter discharged a shotgun into the back of his left calf, severing the muscle completely. He’d failed to ensure the gun was empty (mag fed shotgun) and was performing a mag change when the gun got hung up in his gear, in attempting to clear it from the gear the gun went off. there were two RO’s right on him, and both are 100% sure his finger never went near the trigger. Having read Dans report, I didn’t see him mention if it was a finger or not. Belts, snaps, broken holsters, string/pulls etc. can all catch a trigger when you least expect it.
    I wish the shooter the fastest recovery from this injury.

    By Rob E on Mar 1, 2009

  22. Sorry ToddG but I have to disagree with the tenor and specifics of your comments. First of all, yes, we all make mistakes, accidental or otherwise. just because he was a conscientious and experienced shooter, his accidental discharge was negligent. Whether he was fast or slow into the holster he was clearly rushing. He brain fart or lapse of thought, whatever you want to call it, was the result of him not taking the time to get back into the task which was to holster safely with his finger well clear and no other obstructions in the way. I understand the need not to demonise people for making mistakes, but I also understand the need to make sure people incorporate methods that minimize the chance of the mistakes happening in the first place.
    So if you want people to visualize a mental image with the real image, maybe they should also start to visualize not rushing any movement with a gun beyond their capability at that moment. Taking the curve as fast as you can applies not just to hitting a target. We can all learn from these experiences…. but calling this mistake “just an accident” is negligent itself.

    By citius on Mar 1, 2009

  23. Recently at the range I shoot at, the local PD ERT was doing some close/fast training (VERY close/Very fast – contact range) one of the instructors managed to injure his off hand (muzzle blast burn). This gentleman has been training shooters for longer than most of his shooters have been alive. Thinking about that, and this incident leads me to believe that at least in some respects we are like Rally drivers – in Europe rally drivers are fond of saying that if you never crash, you weren’t going fast enough. If you never make a mistake while combat shooting, you probably weren’t practising combat shooting. We require ourselves to use devices that are designed to be deadly at speeds that push the limits of our ability (otherwise we would never improve) I believe we are fortunate that the most common mistakes are misses (how many have clearly missed the target by pressing the trigger while the sights were not aligned??), this type of accident can happen to anyone and the more serious kind can too. All accidents are preventable, that is true, but all people are capable of making them, anyone who feels different is simply showing a lack of experience.

    By Ian on Mar 1, 2009

  24. I wish the shooter well and that his/her recovery be complete. A tough lesson for sure, hopefully will prevent us (involved in this discussion) from making the same mistake. It could easily have happend to one of us.

    By jaime on Mar 4, 2009

  25. Excellent perspective Todd. It is complacencey and the inability to accept that you could be next that breeds unintended discharges.

    By Xavier on Mar 4, 2009

  26. Todd:

    My understanding was that he was reholstering his gun (just read also Dan Burwell put it taht way), in which case, at least for our gun club the RO requires that you reomve the magazine, rack your slide and show an empty chamber before lowering your gun into the holster. If the holstering is part of the drill, that’s another issue, bottom line though is it was an accident, no one would like to shoot themselves.

    By Mar on Mar 5, 2009

  27. Mar — I wouldn’t train or teach anywhere that required a procedure like that. Clearing the gun after every drill is more likely to cause problems than solve them.

    By ToddG on Mar 6, 2009

  28. Mar-

    My local club operates the same way. Whenever a shooter is finished with a stage, the SO requires you to drop your mag, show clear, and drop the hammer/striker all while keeping the muzzle downrange before holstering. So far it’s done what it’s supposed to–keep people from shooting themselves or someone else.

    By Lane on Mar 8, 2009

  29. Lane — The match which had the AD mentioned here followed the same procedures. The competitor didn’t AD with an unloaded gun or a gun that was supposed to be unloaded. He AD’d with a gun that was going into his holster so he could shoot the stage. Unless we all start from a “condition: empty” gun, the unload & show clear procedure doesn’t do anything to prevent this accident.

    By ToddG on Mar 8, 2009

  30. Oh, I see. Upon re-reading the first paragraph, I see that being mentioned. I must have missed it on the first read-through. Thank you for the correction!

    By Lane on Mar 9, 2009

  31. this is why I always carry a couple of old fashion field dressings I still have from my Army days and a roll of gauze and one of those new 15g packets of celox blood stopper in my range bag, you never know when you or someone around you will have a bad day.

    By Pete on Apr 1, 2009

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