Thinking Critically About Safety. Again.

A while back I used this space to discuss thinking critically about what we’re doing when handling a firearm, inspired by a discussion of someone who had an accidental discharge during a match. Safety is always a good topic for discussion, but a few things have happened lately that makes it timely for us to revisit the topic now. We’ll start with this:

Frequently when you see discussions of firearms safety online you’ll hear people repeat something about keeping one’s “booger hook” (finger) off the “bang switch” (trigger) and that seems to be as deep as the discussion goes. Any attempt to mention that perhaps there are more concerns than that when one is carrying a handgun with a roughly 7 pound trigger and no manual safety is usually met with dismissal. People seem immune to the idea that something other than a finger can find its way into the trigger guard of a handgun. Well, ladies and gentlemen, there’s video proof that stuff other than trigger fingers can get inside the trigger guard and can cause the gun to go off. (Credit to Todd Green’s blog for bringing this video to my attention.)

As Tam so capably points out, the design of the firearm wasn’t the sole culprit in this. There were multiple issues leading up to the point where tugging on the jacket resulted in a (thankfully minor) gunshot wound. That is usually how these things happen. There are people who spend their entire professional lives studying accidents and disasters in an effort to learn as much as they can about the causes. If one knows why the bad thing happened, then it might be possible to make some changes to keep it from happening again in the future. One of the best strategies for safety is to think about it in terms of layers.

What is the primary safety system in your vehicle? You, of course. That being said, you are fallible and capable of making mistakes. People make mistakes behind the wheel all the time, sometimes with fatal results. If you go to buy a new car today you’ll find that they all have anti-lock brakes, multiple air bags, some form of traction and perhaps even stability control to try and prevent any situation where the car gets beyond your ability to control it, and the car itself has been designed to a pretty high safety standard to protect you from serious injury should you hit something. There are layers at work, designed to put as much distance between you and a bad outcome as possible.

While you can put a computer in a car that will detect wheel spin and apply the brakes or cut the power to keep traction regardless of what the driver is doing with the gas pedal, you can’t put a computer in a firearm that will second guess a trigger pull. The layers of safety for handling firearms have to come directly from the person who has their hands on it. We have to be actively thinking about what we’re doing with a gun in our hand. Everybody likes to think they’re doing that when handling a gun, but there’s plenty of evidence to the contrary.

It’s also worth noting that all firearms are not created equal in terms of safety. Some of them by virtue of their design have a larger margin of error than others. A double-action semi-auto pistol like the Sig P22x family or the Beretta 92 likely would not have gone off in the holster like that. A longer, heavier trigger pull is not a substitute for proper trigger discipline, certainly, but the fact remains that it takes more force to cycle a 12 pound trigger than a 7 pound trigger. The extra force required to pull a double-action trigger can mean the difference between a close call and a gunshot wound whether it’s your finger involved or a drawstring from a jacket.

One of the big danger zones for accidents with firearms is when it comes time for cleaning. People attempt to disassemble weapons for maintenance and fire a shot unintentionally fairly regularly. Firearms that require a trigger pull to disassemble are a particular worry in that regard. To take a Glock or Springfield XD or an original Walther P99 down for cleaning you actually have to pull the trigger. On a Sig P22x or a 1911 you have to lock the slide to the rear to take the pistol apart, which gives a greater margin of error. I’ve witnessed this personally, and I’m telling you straight up that it’s a hell of a lot better for someone to find out that a gun is actually still loaded when they pull the slide back and see a live round fall out than to discover that the gun is loaded when they pull the trigger and get a loud noise.

This doesn’t mean we necessarily avoid a pistol like the Glock, (I own two at the moment) but we need to honestly assess the potential safety implications of the weapon’s design if we’re going to create a properly layered safety protocol. We have to think critically about the gun and what we’re doing with it. Little changes to the way we do things can make a big difference in the likelihood of an accident. Let’s take the following scenario:

And consider how it would be different if this individual had made racking the slide multiple times before pulling the trigger to disassemble a habit. Had he racked the slide multiple times with the weapon in a safe direction, he would have seen live rounds ejecting from the weapon and that would have been a clue that something was amiss before it reached the point where he got a loud noise and a gunshot wound. Thinking critically about our firearm and our handling habits allows us to create a layered approach to safety that places barriers to an accident.

Accidents, be they with automobiles or firearms, generally do not happen when people are at their best. They typically happen when there has been some lapse in attention due to circumstances or complacency. It’s in this compromised state where layers come to the rescue. The four major rules of firearms safety are, essentially, layers designed to prevent tragedy. If you think critically about your gun, your environment, and your habits you can add some personal layers (like cutting the drawstrings off your jacket, only using blue guns for classroom demonstrations, or adding steps to your clearing process when you’re breaking your carry gun down for cleaning) that will help keep you from ending up in the news.


  1. Re racking the slide multiple times

    While unlikely, you could have a damaged extractor which leaves the round in the chamber, or maybe a damaged ejector which results in the round re-entering the chamber.

    If you want to verify that the chamber is empty look at it and/or lock the slide and stick your pinky finger in it.

  2. Not saying it’s a case for carrying a 1911 without a holster, or even carrying a 1911 at all; but you can’t get much more redundant than the thumb and grip safeties in terms of preventing things accidentally setting it off by simply getting inside the trigger guard. There are a lot more physical impediments to backstop any given momentary lack of attention.

  3. That video is a perfect example of WHAT NOT TO DO! Hopefully, the “trainer” either received some more training, or no longer teaches gun safety classes.

  4. To use Captain Dummy talk, most accidents either happen during reholstering, or when the gun is ‘unloaded’.
    Be super special extra careful when reholstering, or when the gun is ‘unloaded’.

  5. Well said. Many people don’t think about their processes, once they’ve learned them. The process you used to clean your old 1911 (since it didn’t require a trigger pull prior to disassembly) isn’t necessarily safe when you switch to a Glock.

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