A very good friend of mine came to the house recently for a social event. I could see he was out of sorts, and I chalked it up to some family issues I knew he was having, an elder relative nearing the end. He pulled me aside and said, "I need to talk to you. Alone. Now." I didn't know what was up, but I knew my original assessment had been wrong.
We went outside and he hit me with, "Dude, I f***ed up." He went on to explain that earlier that morning he had been in bed with his wife talking. They'd had breakfast and were back up stairs, chatting. He decided to take his defensive handgun out and clean it. He wasn't entirely focused on what he was doing, and didn't realize just how distracted he was until he fired a single round into the closet in his master bedroom. He immediately put the handgun down and checked to make sure no one was injured. Everyone was indeed fine, but he'd just had the dreaded Negligent Discharge, or ND.
A Negligent Discharge is any time a person accidentally or unintentionally fires a firearm. It's the quickest way to get kicked out of a firearms class or range, and it carries the stigma of being the worst kind of operator error when it comes to firearms.
Let me be perfectly clear. My friend is no idiot. He's an intelligent guy with loads of good firearms training and experience, but he did violate some of the basic safety rules and that resulted in a ND. He asked that I not share his name, but he did want the story told for the benefit of educating others. I'll treat it as a teachable moment.
Let's review the NRA's 3 Basic Safety Rules:
1. Always keep the firearm pointed in a safe direction.
2. Always keep your finger off the trigger until you're ready to shoot.
3. Always keep the firearm unloaded until you're ready to use it.
So, where did he go wrong? Where did he go right?
Rule #1. Safe direction: This is the most important rule and it proved to be his saving grace. Because he maintained a safe muzzle direction, when the ND happened, damage was minimal. He's got some sheetrock to patch, but no one was injured and the bullet never got farther than his closet. The closet is in an unoccupied corner of the house, so there was no risk to anyone else in the house. There are both interior and exterior walls there to stop the round, preventing it from exiting the house, so this ND did not end in tragedy.
Rule #3. Keep the gun unloaded: Yes, I know I'm jumping the order, but I'm following how it happened, not how the rules are taught. He was distracted and not paying full attention to what he was doing. Obviously, this handgun is stored loaded for defensive purposes, but he didn't follow a proper unloading procedure. In my classes, I cover cleaning, maintenance, and storage of firearms. One of the things I always touch on is removing live ammo from the area any time you clean or work on your guns. Do your unload procedure, put the ammo away, double check the gun is unloaded, then start cleaning or working on it. My friend unloaded his Springfield XD, or so he thought, and went to decock it (as he does with his Glock) by pulling the trigger.
Which brings us to Rule #2. Finger off the trigger: Another point I touch on in my classes is this- You might get away with breaking one rule, but if you break two or more, an accident is extremely likely. So, having failed to focus on what he was doing and failing to properly unload the gun, he pulled the trigger. BANG! Negligent Discharge.
Here's where he did the absolute best thing possible- he put the gun down. It has been shown that you are most likely to have a second ND immediately after your first ND. Why is that? You're confused. "That wasn't supposed to happen!" And your brain is trying to process what you did wrong. The natural thought process is to retrace your steps, but in this case you're immediately going back down the path that just led to disaster. Put it down. Take a breath. Process what just happened with empty hands.
This is where my friend fortunately stopped making mistakes. He put the gun down, checked himself and his wife, and made sure the bullet had not exited the house. Fortunately, no one was hurt.
He told me the next thing that happened was an overwhelming sense of guilt. "I just f***ed up. I'm an idiot. I can't have guns anymore. I have to get rid of all of them. How could this happen? How could I screw up this bad?" Obviously, his wife was shaken and going through her own emotional roller coaster. And as he told me, she didn't hold back her feelings either!
By the time he got to me, he'd carefully unloaded the gun and locked it back up. He was still pretty shaken and upset with himself. We walked through the events and errors, and by the end of the conversation, he had some more clarity, but wasn't feeling much better. I told him that was good. He should feel bad, guilty, upset, etc. because it means he cares and doesn't want to repeat the mistake. If he hadn't been feeling so bad, it would mean he didn't care. Not caring would surely lead to another ND, and maybe the next one wouldn't end so neatly. He nodded, and I convinced him to go back inside.
In the NRA courses I teach, we discuss the difference between ignorance and negligence. Ignorance is not knowing the rules, and negligence is knowing them but not following them. Complacency in this case was a form of negligence that led to a Negligent Discharge. Don't assume that just because you've done it "a million times before" you're doing it right. The casual attitude of "I know what I'm doing" or "it won't happen to me" because "I'm too smart to make those mistakes" are what lead to violating, even unintentionally violating, the 3 Basic Rules.
If you haven't taken a NRA Basic or NRA First Steps class, or if you haven't had any formal training in several years, I encourage you to take one of these courses with a qualified NRA certified Firearms Instructor in your area. In addition to the great marksmanship training, there is a lot of safety information and training included. It's a great way to brush up, and it might just help you prevent an incident like the one described above.