Negligent Discharges vs. Accidental Discharges

Unfortunately, the topic of “unwanted firearm discharges” comes up quite often online, either when a news story about such an incident is being discussed, or when a member of a firearm-related forum has an “insert word here” discharge.

The topic can be contentious and is riddled with half truths and misunderstandings. I’m not claiming to be the final source of information on the topic, but I do believe that I have a well-grounded opinion. Now, some people say that there’s no such thing as an accidental discharge, and others say there’s no such thing as a negligent discharge. I disagree with both camps.

In my opinion, an accidental discharge is the result of a mechanical malfunction. Something is physically wrong with the weapon, specifically, one or more of its internal components.

Also in my opinion, a negligent discharge is the result of a shooter malfunction. Either the person holding/carrying the weapon was not trained in the safe handling of firearms, or the person knowingly ignored said training for some reason. Any external influence that causes the firearm to discharge also falls under the category of negligent discharges. This includes, but is not limited to, allowing the thumb strap of certain holsters to enter the trigger guard of a pistol while reholstering.

The vast majority of “unwanted discharges” are negligent discharges. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard something along the lines of “It was an accident, I didn’t mean for it to ‘go off’”. Intent has no bearing on this. Obviously, both accidental and negligent discharges are unwanted, hence me lumping them in together. Nobody wants for their weapon to have a dangerous malfunction, and nobody wants to “accidentally” shoot someone. Unfortunately, without an element of negligence, large or small, the latter case just doesn’t happen.

One other common phrase is “I didn’t know the gun was loaded” – that’s a sure sign of a negligent discharge. An accidental discharge can occur during the normal, safe handling of a loaded firearm, when all firearms safety rules are being carefully observed, although such incidents are exceedingly rare. An example would be the decocker on surplus CZ-52 pistols, which can cause the weapon to fire when engaged if certain components are worn, or certain weapons that will fire when dropped (it could certainly be argued that dropping a firearm is a form of negligence, however, it is nice to know whether your firearm will discharge or not in the unlikely event that it is dropped). These situations are generally known to the shooting world and appropriate precautions can be taken to mitigate risk. The vast majority of shooters will never encounter a true accidental discharge.

On the other hand, a negligent discharge occurs as a result of the violation of at least one and sometimes two or three safety rules. Every violation of a weapons safety rule is an occurrence of negligence. It doesn’t matter if you think the firearm is unloaded – you should always treat it as if it was loaded. This is basic stuff, but it is ignored way too often.

However, not all negligent discharges occur when the shooter chooses to ignore that first rule. As mentioned previously, another common cause is when a pistol is being reholstered. Sometimes, the trigger finger is caught by the holster, and other times, a retention strap can enter the trigger guard. Either case is not the result of a mechanical malfunction of the weapon, but of the negligence of the shooter in failing to ensure that nothing entered the trigger guard.

It can be a personal affront to the person whose negligence caused the discharge – and admitting fault in such a situation can be a hefty blow to a sometimes fragile ego – but identifying and acknowledging the situations by which a negligent discharge can occur will hopefully prevent them from happening again, if not in the first place.

9 comments

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  • Thanks for this.

    I had not thought of it in these terms before more along the lines of every “unwanted discharge” is negligent. I will begin using the phrase unwanted discharge going forward because it is more descriptive and I think helps setup the safety discussion better.

    Thanks Again
    JTG

  • One of my first days in an ER many, many years ago was an 8 yo girl shot by her 5 yo brother with a loaded handgun he found in a drawer in the bedroom. Lest I sound as if I am anti handgun, I am not…just a comment.

    A few months later we had a 60 something yo gentleman with a close range rifle gsw to the chest (sorry, don’t know which kind…it was too long ago and I was more concerned with the patient). He was working with his “unloaded” hunting rifle in preparation for the season up coming…you know, looking down the barrel and all to see if it was clean. At least that was the story.

    We cracked his chest, did all we could, but even tho’ he was sitting up and talking when he arrived in the ER he did not make it.

    Your points are well taken and I hope your readers take them to heart (no bad pun intended).

  • Call it what you will.

    _I_ was the person who pulled the trigger on my Glock 21 without checking to see if it had a round chambered. Since a Glock needs the trigger pulled to take it apart it was a deliberate action on my part.

    It’s by far the dumbest thing I have ever done. It was only luck it only put a hole in the drywall.

    Before it happened I considered myself a meticulous gun handler and would have sworn it would never happen to me.

  • I consider myself a “very meticulous gun handler,” and I have had a negligent discharge.

    My ND occurred at the end of the complete disassembly, cleaning and reassembly of a 1911 pistol.

    Somehow, at the end of the process, I inserted a loaded magazine into the pistol.

    I have reviewed the event over and over in my mind, and I have no idea how it happened.

    I have over 50 years of firearms experience, and I would have bet money this would never happen to me.

    Several of my very seasoned shooting mates have, in private, admitted to similar negligent discharges.

    Jeff Cooper, the “father of the modern technique of handgun shooting,” admits to a negligent discharge in his private office with a .44 Magnum revolver.

    It can happen to anyone, and, if you live and shoot long enough, it will happen to you.

  • Dr. Frank Latimer

    AD vs ND.

    26. An accident is an unintentional event. When a gun is discharged inadvertently it is an accidental discharge. The use of the term negligent discharge has become popular but in my opinion it is a bad idea. Yes, the vast majority of ADs involve negligence on the part of the operator but negligence is a legal term that assigns responsibility. Describing your unintentional discharge as negligent is admitting guilt to any cop or lawyer who happens to be listening. Until I am certain that I am not being charged with a crime or sued in civil court I prefer to not admit guilt.

    • I think that the more we brush these things off as accidents, the more likely it is that someone at the periphery of gun ownership is likely to have a (negligent) discharge.

    • No, no, no. An ‘accident’ is an unpreventable, unforeseen, unpredictable event over which one has no physical control. A negligent act is one that may very well be inadvertent and unintentional, but it is certainly not an accident.
      It is an ugly facet of the modern human that few are willing to accept responsibility for their own stupidity or neglect. This is not a question of legalities, but morality and ethics.
      I do not think that I would like to be your patient, Doctor.

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