Negligent Shootings

It's past time for law enforcement to eliminate these needless tragedies

By Mark Schraer  |   Jul 28, 2015

In only the past four years, seven more law enforcement officers have been killed in non-duty related shootings. The two most recent deaths occurred in the first four months of 2015.

  • April, 2015: A Florida officer is killed during firearms training by another officer who was reloading his pistol;
  • January, 2015: A Mississippi law enforcement administrator killed during training by an officer who mistakenly believed that his pistol was unloaded;
  • October, 2014: A Texas officer dies after shooting himself in the groin during firearms training;
  • September, 2014: A Pennsylvania trooper is killed by an instructor who believed that his pistol was unloaded;
  • August, 2014: A Hawaii officer accidentally kills himself while showing a pistol to friends;
  • November, 2013: An Alabama sergeant bleeds to death after shooting himself in the leg; and
  • August, 2011: A 23-year-old Georgia probation officer killed by her firearms instructor—the instructor believed that his duty-pistol was a training firearm

This is only a list of the non-duty related shootings that resulted in an officer’s death. It barely scratches the surface of the total number of “accidental” shootings that have occurred in just the past four years. The list does not include the officer who unintentionally shot and killed his wife and unborn child, the trainee who was shot in his eye in the academy, the numerous shootings in which officers were seriously wounded, or the scores of incidents in which only property was destroyed.

The Four Core Rules of Firearms Safety have been part of law enforcement training for decades. These easy to follow principles were created to help prevent these tragedies – particularly among those of us who handle firearms every day. These rules could not be any clearer…

  1. ALWAYS treat any firearm that you handle as if it is loaded
  2. NEVER point your firearm at anyone who you cannot legally shoot
  3. ALWAYS maintain your trigger finger pressed along the frame of the gun until you have made the decision to shoot
  4. NEVER shoot at anything you have not positively identified as a target/threat

These tenets are preached in almost every firearms training program in the nation, yet unintended shootings still occur with inexcusable frequency. Recently, a major law enforcement agency experienced a dramatic increase in their annual number of unintended discharges—an increase from 12 incidents in 2012 to 18 in 2013 to 30 in 2014. This increase coincided with the agency’s transition from the Beretta to the new Smith & Wesson M&P pistol. In an article about this issue an agency official was quick to attribute the increase to some officers “still adjusting” to their new pistol, while another official expected their number of unintentional shootings to “fall in the years ahead.”

I have had the privilege of teaching a number of already well-trained officers from this agency and I am confident that the statements made by these two officials do not represent the opinions of most. However, these, and similar comments made by other law enforcement officials throughout the country, are further evidence that many still fail to appreciate just how serious this issue is.

Unintended shootings and firearm discharges are a serious threat to officer safety and this issue needs to understood and addressed by everyone in law enforcement. This threat is directly tied to the effectiveness of an agency’s firearms training program and their officers’ commitment to the principles of firearms safety. These shootings have nothing to do with officers “adjusting” to a new trigger pull or the lack an external safety.

How to Stop It

Even clearly written tenets and range safety rules will be violated unless they are accompanied by an agency-wide commitment to a culture of safety. I would like to offer three simple suggestions on how we, as a profession, can immediately improve our firearms safety culture.

1. Stop Treating Negligent Shootings as “Accidental”: Referring to unintentional shootings as “accidental” is dangerous. While unintentional, these tragedies are the result of negligence rather than an accident. Every law enforcement agency needs to recognize this as they establish strict guidelines for addressing firearms safety. Prevention of these shootings should start with effective training, but prevention should also include disciplinary action for any officer, regardless of rank, who violates that agency’s firearms safety or range training rules. It’s better that an officer receive a written reprimand for one safety violation than face criminal indictment after they violate two, which has been the reality for a number of officers responsible for these tragedies.

2. Discuss Firearms Safety: Reciting firearms safety rules off of a clipboard is not an acceptable safety briefing. Briefings should be well-prepared discussions that leave every student with an unmistakable understanding that their instructors and their agency have a zero-tolerance approach to any violation. Each safety discussion should include a review of at least one negligent shooting so that officers are reminded that even a momentary lapse of vigilance can lead to tragedy.

Example: On the first morning of every NRA Law Enforcement Instructor Course, we spend up to an hour teaching a specific lesson plan that addresses both firearms and range safety. At the end of the class we make it clear that while we hope every student instructor is successful, we feel an obligation to remove any student who cannot demonstrate both safe gun-handling skills and strict compliance with our range safety rules. While we take no pleasure is sending students home, all of us understand that it is much better to remove one officer from a course than to risk the safety of an entire class.

3. Instructors Set the Standard: Instructors have the most influence over an agency’s safety culture. Firearms instructors must demonstrate flawless gun handling skills and insist on the same from every officer they train. Instructors should build redundancies into every firearm inspection procedure so that no one is working with a loaded gun during “empty-gun” drills or returning to training from a break with a loaded firearm. But most importantly, trainers must show the courage and leadership to immediately address safety violations when they occur. This includes removing students who fail to comply with either the core rules of firearms safety or instruction on where and when their can un-holster their pistols.

Conclusion

Today’s law enforcement officers face a mounting list of threats to their safety. Being shot by partners or trainers who cannot follow four clear rules should no longer be one of them. Just one careless mistake, by otherwise good officers, leads to preventable tragedies that destroy lives, families, and careers. More must be done to eliminate rather than reduce this threat.