Handling guns under stress

One of the primary rules of firearms safety is to keep one’s finger off the trigger until aimed in on a target which they fully intend to shoot. It sure seems simple enough, and yet unintentional discharges with firearms still happen. Sure, some of these unintentional discharges happen because the person handling the gun is an idiot, but it’s not just idiots who have experienced an unintentional loud noise when handling a firearm. I’ve mentioned before that I have collected a number of anecdotes sharing personal experiences with unintentional discharges from names a lot of folks out there would recognize . These people are most certainly not idiots, but they are still human. Human beings are prone to lapses in attention due to fatigue and when under stress.

Here we see police chasing a man who was driving dangerously enough for other motorists to have reported him. When the police rolled up behind him, he didn’t stop, running red lights and even zipping through a busy construction zone. A police officer involved in a chase is under fairly significant levels of stress. There are a myriad of reasons why someone might run from the police that range from something like hypoglycemic shock all the way up through multiple murder. Even if the car is stopped the danger isn’t really over, because the vehicle can still be used as a lethal weapon. The occupants in the vehicle can pull weapons and use them. When a police officer is in a chase he/she always has a scenario more like this on their mind than the person experiencing a medical emergency, and there’s enough dashcam footage of chases ending in shootouts to justify that concern.

It’s stressful, no question. When your mind is preoccupied with trying to manage a situation where your life is at stake, the amount of brain power you can dedicate to proper firearms handling practices goes down significantly. Prior to the unintentional discharge in the first video you can see that the officer actually “trigger checks”, meaning he put his finger on the trigger of his weapon probably without realizing it. Shortly after you can see his trigger finger noticeably go straight again. This is something people often do under unfamiliar levels of stress without any conscious awareness of it. Anyone who has run force-on-force scenarios for a while could probably fill a book with observations of trigger checking. People think they might need to shoot in the very near future and the trigger finger snaps right to the trigger without them even really knowing it’s happening. The possibility of shoot forms in their mind and their body responds to take the shot. I’ve caught myself doing the exact same thing. It’s natural. That’s why you have to train so carefully to stop it from happening.

The officer in the video switched his sidearm from his left hand back to his right, and it’s shortly after switching hands that the round was touched off. Under the influence of adrenaline he probably didn’t realize that his finger was on the trigger. Just as he was reaching to open the car door, he unintentionally discharges a round. Likely because he subconsciously tightened his grip on his sidearm…including tightening his trigger finger. Which was probably on the trigger without him even realizing it. There has been some controversy over the use of some types of tape switches for weapon mounted lights for precisely this reason. They usually work on grip pressure which is fine right up until the point where someone has their finger on the trigger of the firearm and squeezes their whole hand, including the trigger finger, when they intend to activate the light.

Most honest citizens, and indeed most police officers and even a sizeable chunk of military personnel, are not used to handling lethal weapons under very high levels of stress. Even training junkies who like to go to tactical courses become accustomed to the slightly enhanced levels of stress they initially experienced in such a course and don’t really realize their vulnerability to losing muzzle and trigger finger discipline under unfamiliar levels of stress. This is one of the reasons why elite LE and military units have such an emphasis on training, because it programs in the correct actions even under the most extreme circumstances imaginable.

A lot of people out there are going to make fun of the officer in this video because they believe he acted foolishly. I have a different take…I believe he acted naturally. Based on my experiences on the range learning from people much smarter than me and watching a lot of shooters ranging from beginners to members of elite military units who hunt and kill the worst bad guys on the planet, I believe just about all of us are capable of reproducing the exact same result in the same circumstances.

If we admit we’re vulnerable and make dedicated efforts to refine our handling habits and practices then when we’re running on autopilot under high levels of stress the right moves will show up instead of all the wrong ones. Training isn’t magic, but the right kind of training has proven time and time again that it produces the correct actions even under the worst circumstances. Nobody has ever achieved the proper actions under stress by assuming it couldn’t ever happen to them…and that’s what the ridicule does. Dismissing the possibility of your own weakness will never make you stronger.

This could happen to you or me. So let’s focus and ingrain proper handling habits to ensure that it doesn’t.

3 thoughts on “Handling guns under stress”

  1. Proper handling habits, that’s it right there. The natural rest position should be with your trigger finger along the frame. It should feel STRANGE and WRONG if your finger isn’t up there unless you’re actually taking a shot.
    This is one thing that pretty much requires the 3 P’s. Practice, Practice, and Practice.

  2. Really great analysis of the “why” here, Tim. Also, I think it’s very much worth noting how quickly the officer recovered – he immediately holstered and regained control of himself and the situation. The one time I had a neg discharge (fortunately with the weapon facing down range at a firing range), I had a moment of shock where I had to process what happened. Really impressed that under stress, the officer kept going.

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