I was recently and vividly reminded of how important firearm safety is to everyone who is around a firearm being handled. I also was close witness to how even the most experienced and professionally trained individuals can fall victim to what I call the “It will never happen to me” attitude.
While I visited one of my local gun shops a young couple entered the store looking for advice as they wanted to buy their first handgun. The sales person who was attending to the young couple was a personal friend and an experienced, professionally trained firearms instructor. He politely listened to the seemingly never-ending questions they had typical of a novice gun buyer and provided them with outstanding advice and guidance based on their stated needs. After looking at several models, they decided to test three handguns that best met their needs…this is where everything began to go south and side-ways in a hurry.
As the instructor removed the trio of selected handguns from the rental counter and placed them in front of the customers, I noticed that one of the handguns had the slide in battery and a magazine in the magazine well. In complete shock, I looked at this instructor, whom I have always known to be a professional and safe instructor, pick up the aforementioned handgun and point it toward the lower abdomen and groin area of one of the customers, and attempted to remove the magazine from the handgun. I did say, “attempted”, because the magazine required an extraordinary amount of force and three attempts before it was finally removed from the magazine well; furthermore, when he attempted to bring the slide back to check the chamber, it too appeared to be “stuck”.
At this point, the handgun was still being pointed in the general direction of the customers and everything went into slow motion when I heard the instructor say that with this particular pistol, one must “pull the trigger” before the slide can be pulled to the rear. As I saw his finger go into the trigger guard, I reached over and pulled the customer away from the muzzle as I heard a very loud “click”. Everyone froze. A second later the slide released, moved rearward and ejected a spent casing; at this point, you could have a pin drop. To say that it could have been a whole lot worse would be an understatement!
As I drove home, I couldn’t stop thinking about what I had just witnessed. How could someone so knowledgeable and experienced act in such a reckless and irresponsible manner? Why did this happen? Experience has taught me that when we develop a certain level of “professional knowledge and experience” we believe that somehow the basic rules no longer apply to us; somehow we have moved so far ahead of everyone else that something so rookie-like, as a negligent discharge will never happen to us.
I believe that this attitude caused a series of oversights, which in turn caused the breakdown of the safety protocols designed to keep incidents like this from ever happening. Why was this rental handgun allowed to leave the firing line, much less the range, with the slide in battery and the magazine in the well? Where was the Range Safety Officer? Was there a Range Safety Officer on-duty? Who brought the handgun from the range to the front counter? Who in the front counter received the handgun and accepted it in said condition? I know that this shop has established safety rules and policies in place to keep incidents like this from happening; however, if those charged with the responsibility of ensuring that these rules and policies are followed, fail to do their jobs, the results are often disastrous and sometimes fatal.
As an instructor, I must have a clear understanding of how firearms work. This, I would say, is an indispensible part of the job. I’m the first to admit that I don’t know everything there is to know about firearms; having said that, I’m unaware of any semi-auto pistol design, modern or otherwise, which requires the user to depress the trigger in order to pull the slide to the rear. Clint Eastwood said it best, “A man must know his limitations.” There’s nothing wrong or shameful with admitting that we don’t know something, or asking for help when we’re unsure of how a certain firearm functions. When shooting or instructing others in the use of firearms our safety and the safety of others IS the most important part of the equation, and no matter how experienced and knowledgeable we believe ourselves to be, when it comes to firearms safety there can be NO short cuts and NO oversights!
Lastly, I was really angry with myself for not saying something as soon as I noticed the questionable status of that handgun. Why did I stay quiet? I expected and assumed that this experienced instructor would handle the situation and firearm, as I’ve always known him to do, with due care; moreover, I didn’t want to come across as a know-it-all, or as disrespectful toward my friend and create an embarrassing situation in front of his clients. Neither one is valid or acceptable reason; as his friend, I should have said something as soon as I noticed the questionable status of the handgun.
That situation forced me to re-learn three very valuable lessons; never believe that my training and experience makes me immune from making mistakes, never assume ANYTHING and never fail to speak up when witnessing a potentially disastrous or deadly situation.
B3E Editor’s note:
I asked my friend (who is a retired police officer and a professional firearms instructor) to write this after he relayed this story to me even though it did not show anyone involved in a good light, but this is the EXACT event we should learn from. Gun owners are most invariably complacent and almost arrogant about safety so situations like this occur frequently without much publicity. The ONLY reason that this was NOT on the news, a customer NOT fighting for their life, an employee NOT out of a job and facing legal implications and a business PROBABLY going out OUT of business is the casing IN THE GUN did not have a unfired primer, bullet and powder.
This was is a case of “Negligent Gun Handling” (NGH), as opposed to a “Negligent Discharge” (ND) and THAT should be the new threshold for action by shooters. We have already changed to ND from “Accidental Discharge” because a discharge of a firearm when nobody wanted it to go off is NEVER an accident. It happens because critical safety barriers, usually more than one, were forgotten, ignored or not used. About a dozen were breached here. None of that is a sufficient reason to have bullet fly around in a shop, home or sideways at the range. In this case, as in every NGH, the participants need to be debriefed and a root cause established to determine why this happened and what barriers failed. Is this a pain in the ass? Oh very much a yes, but to not do it and get a customer or employee shot during business will be oh so much worse.
I have seen (participated in actually) ND’s that since no blood was shed, was laughed off and quickly forgotten so few, if any lessons were learned. Every shooter must know the difference between significance and consequence so that even though nobody or nothing got shot, the HUGE significance of an inconsequential NGH should NOT be ignored but learned from. What to do? Have an immediate safety stand-down, interview the participants to determine their states of mind and if they should have even been handling a deadly weapon and document the findings. It could turn out to be a lack of knowledge, or a mechanical malfunction and/or a cultural issue. Does your organization have established “never violate” rules and procedures such as “NEVER PASS A FIREARM TO ANOTHER WITHOUT VERIFYING THE CONDITION” or “NEVER HAVE A FIREARM WITHOUT A VISIBLE SAFETY DEVICE IN THE BREECH” and if so why didn’t the rules work or not applied? Does your shop, club or family encourage the ability to simply say “I don’t know” or “I need some help” or even worse have a person feel he or she is too young, too new, too inexperienced or not qualified to speak out to question a situation? Anytime guns are being handled EVERYONE involved needs to be alert, aware and KNOW that their input is not only allowed but critically important because you might be the ONLY one to see something and calling a quick ceasefire is MUCH, much better than having a NGH or ND.
Most of all, as seen in this situation, EVERYONE was confused and unsure what to do, but one ONE thing you NEVER, NEVER do is what was done with several people present. A trigger was purposefully pulled on a firearm that was in an unknown condition! The lesson; NEVER, ever proceed in the face of uncertainty. If something with a gun has become a problem or has gone wrong; PUT THE THING DOWN! Talk about it, call other people into the process, discuss what to do next and make a plan – BUT DON’T TUG ON THE TRIGGER! If not then the next few calls you will be making with be to 911, your lawyer and your spouse to tell them you probably just lost your savings and future because a customer or employee just got shot.
We simply cannot allow unsafe gun handling even to the point of interjecting ourselves in situations when you witness an unsafe act. Why? It is our duty as gun owners to stop those activities because every AD or ND affects ALL shooters but most importantly, you might save a life. We need to start with tightening up our intolerance with drawing the line not just at events that caused an unwanted bullet to fire, but investigate and correct to prevent recurrence – to the satisfaction of the primary shooter, business or organization – ANY threshold event of negligent gun handing. It will save lives, injuries, damage and help our whole industry.