Sorry, Guns Do Not "Discharge"

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You may have noticed that there seem to be an increase in so-called "accidental shootings" being reported in the media lately. While I am uncertain whether the actual number is increasing it seems to be getting more media attention, at least in my view.

And in these media reports there seems to be a common phrase being repeated: "The gun discharged." This phrase, whether intentional or not, incorrectly places the blame on the shooting on an inanimate object. It also implies that guns themselves are dangerous. Especially when discussing modern firearms, this is completely inaccurate.

But even if we're talking about antique firearms the blame is almost certainly to be lain at the feet of the person handling the firearm. In most cases I would wager that the responsible party ignored one of the four basic safety rules when handling firearms, which is why "negligent discharge" is a more appropriate description than "accidental shooting." The four basic rules, of which the first three are more applicable to negligent discharges, are:

1. ALWAYS treat every gun as if it is loaded until you have verified that it is not.
2. NEVER point the muzzle of a firearm at something or someone you do not intend to destroy.
3. Keep your finger off the trigger until you are ready to fire.
4. Know your target and what is beyond it.

Recently I was made aware of an article on Yahoo! News about a woman who was fatally shot in a gun store by a 9mm pistol "when it discharged." (Article here) There's that phrase again. "[I]t discharged." Much more likely the relative who shot her ignored all of the first three safety rules. Without a doubt he ignored number 2, as it is not possible to shoot something at which you are not aiming, intentionally or not. Whether he knew the gun was loaded is not clear from the article but if he had treated it as such, or better yet, cleared the weapon when he took control of it, this unfortunate tragedy would have been easily avoided. It is also very likely he had his finger on the trigger as it is very unlikely that the gun discharged without the trigger being pulled.

Further research reveals that the gun in question was a Kel Tec 9mm. (Source) Kel Tec makes two 9mm pistols: the PF-9 and PF-11, both of which implement safety features to prevent accidental discharge. Common to both is a double-action only (DAO) trigger system. For those unaware, a double-action pistol is one where pulling the trigger performs two actions (or a double action, hence the name). The first is to cock the pistol by moving the hammer to the rear; and the second is to fire the pistol by releasing the hammer, which then strikes the firing pin, igniting the primer, and finally firing the projectile from the gun. The reason a DAO trigger is considered to be a safety mechanism is that they require a much sturdier pull on average than single action pistols, and therefore it is extremely unlikely that you would ever pull the trigger without actually intending to do so.

The second safety feature on the PF-9 is a hammer block. A hammer block prevents the hammer from striking the firing pin unless the trigger is actually pulled. It is a mechanical safety which is very unlikely to fail. The PF-11 accomplished the same thing through a lightweight hammer and spring loaded firing pin. A muzzle down drop of the PF-11 should not create enough pressure for the firing pin to ignite the primer. In other words, it is almost guaranteed that the gun did not simply "discharge," causing the unnecessary death of Beverly Dively Klepic. And even if it did, if the the basic safety rules had been followed, there would simply be another hole in a target or a wall somewhere and Beverly would be alive.

All this to say, very rarely does an accidental shooting happen. More often than not the shooter ignores safety rules and as a result shoots himself or some other innocent person. The media would do well to take these things into account when reporting these incidents and leave out such phrases as "the gun discharged" as they do not accurately portray the events that lead to the injuries or loss of life that result from them.

Originally posted in my blog, on August 23, 2011