Skip to main content

Posted on July 15, 2019 by in Training

Firearm Negligent Discharge & Why It Occurs


During the 2019 SHOT Show, CCW Safe National Trial Counsel Don West suggested I write an article on the reasons that negligent discharges might occur, for the benefit of sharing these precautions with CCW Safe readers. I didn’t realize at the time of Don’s request that he was actually doing me a big favor, because until then, although I knew multiple ways to avoid negligent discharges, I had never taken the time to present them articulately to others (and perhaps even myself).

When I sat down to write the article and really thought about the topic, it occurred to me that there were at least a dozen possible violations of caution, and likely more, leading to the negligent discharge of a firearm. In the end, I came up with the 16-item list below, but there are many more off-shoots of these not discussed here.

What is a Negligent Discharge?

What is a negligent discharge, and how does it differ from an accidental discharge? Accidents happen, though some are unavoidable while others are not. A negligent discharge is a firearm discharge associated with culpable carelessness. In general, such carelessness is caused either by a shooter’s error or lack of appropriate attention to basic safety rules.

For the most part, the user of the firearm that was unintentionally discharged bears the responsibility for this mishap. Exceptions can happen, usually related to a manufacturing defect in the firearm at the factory, which is why we never let the muzzle cover anything that we are not willing to shoot and possibly destroy. Having said this, I think it might be more realistic to say that I only allow my muzzle to cover those things I am willing to shoot from the safest possible position at the time. This could include a floor, brick wall, etc., as I really don’t want to see those items shot, either.

The Cost in Human Lives

The impact of negligent discharge is dire. In 2017, a team from reported the results of a study they conducted on negligent discharge, which examined 300 discharge accounts occurring during a 24-month period from December 2014 through November 2016. All 300 incidents selected for the study involved situations in which someone was injured or killed. (According to the author of the report, Jacob Paulsen, these stories were sadly easy to collect.) Among other informative data was the unfortunate finding that out of all these incidents, roughly one-third of the discharges resulted in a death.

Another sobering fact clearly evident from the study, for those who feel confident that they are a safe firearm handler, was that a large number of the injuries or deaths from negligent discharge are sustained by innocent bystanders and not necessarily the person holding the gun. Consider the people you don’t know who surround you at the shooting range, or the possibility of someone you care about being killed because of someone’s lack of proper firearm handling.

Negligence = Violating Rules of Firearm Safety

A negligent discharge is a direct result of user failure, which can stem from ignorance, carelessness, recklessness, inattention or any combination of these four. Likely causes of a negligent discharge probably stem from one or more violations of the following rules, which I’ve listed below in no particular order:

  1. Consistently adhere to the four most basic rules of firearm safety, which are detailed below.
  2. Treat all guns as if they were always loaded.
  3. Never let the muzzle cover anything that you are not willing to destroy.
  4. Keep your finger off the trigger until your sights are on the target and you have made the decision to shoot.
  5. Be sure of your target and what is behind it.
  6. Keep the trigger finger straight and position it above the trigger guard, and on the highest possible index point on the receiver or slide, whichever is applicable (and the highest). This is referred to as High Register.
  7. Obtain sufficient gun handling practice with the trigger finger in High Register when appropriate. Be committed to practicing, as it may take months of constant repetition to make safe gun handling a reflexive action.
  8. When holstering, go to High Register. Failure to do this may allow the trigger finger to contact the top of the holster upon the pistol being inserted into its final holstered position. Continuing to insert the pistol with the finger on the trigger has a high probability of causing a negligent discharge.Ideally, the concealed carrier should also keep their support hand anchored on their torso (higher on the torso is better) while holstering. Not doing this could result in the concealed carrier shooting one or more of the fingers of the support hand if he or she is attempting to locate or stabilize the holster with that hand.
  9. Clear the firearm properly, including obtaining visual and tactile confirmation that the chamber is empty. Shooters might remove the magazine, but forget to remove the round in the chamber. On occasion, the extractor slips off the unfired case and leaves the same round in the chamber. Get used to checking upon every use  if this has occurred.
  10. Remove all ammunition on and around the concealed carrier prior to dry-fire practice. It is best to have no ammunition in the same room or general area during dry-fire practice.
  11. Never leave a firearm loaded, half-loaded or unloaded in an area where unauthorized persons can access it.
  12. Unload the firearm before performing an inspection of it, much less taking some action with it (no matter how minor) other than shooting.
  13. Safe or de-cock a firearm when doing anything other than shooting. Negligent discharges have taken place when the trigger in a fully cocked handgun comes in contact with web gear, backpacks, seat belts, etc.
  14. Avoid unsafe after-market trigger jobs. Firearms have been known to fire when a round is chambered. I have seen this happen on an AR-15 with a factory trigger.
  15. Don’t “outrun your headlights,” to quote Master Instructor Tom Givens. It is easy for shooters to easily shoot their guns faster than they can process what they are seeing and react appropriately. The result might be that a concealed carrier in an otherwise lawful defensible shooting situation sends a round down range after their assailant has dropped his or her own gun, turned around and started running away, or even moved slightly. Worst-case scenarios include second-degree, negligent homicide, or manslaughter charges if the DA claims the concealed carrier was attempting to “finish off” the violent criminal actor, or a missed round struck and injured or killed an innocent third party.
  16. Never engage in multi-tasking while playing with firearms, loading, sorting gear and cleaning. Each of these tasks should be done in an area and at a time where distractions can be minimized. There is always time for television, scotch and lively conversation with others later.

In summary, this is by no means a complete list, and as stated previously, there exist multiple variations and subsets of failing to adhere to these rules, which are not covered them here. This is another reason why continual firearm training and regular practice are more than highly advisable, whether you’re a beginner or veteran shooter. It may seem surprising, but some of the most unsafe gun handling I have ever seen has been committed by experienced firearm users. There’s simply no room for complacency when handling and using firearms.

Another major factor driving many a firearm-related tragedy has been alcohol. The concealed carrier should keep this in mind the next time they feel the temptation to just “bend the rules this one time.”



Steve is a longtime defensive weapons instructor based out of Texas, who has spent more than two decades training hundreds of men and women of all ages on how to better prepare to defend themselves and their loved ones. Steve has completed over 80 private-sector and law-enforcement-only defensive weapons and tactics classes, and has trained civilian and law-enforcement officers in six states. Moses is a reserve deputy, former member of a multi-precinct Special Response Team, competitive shooter, martial artist and author of numerous articles for SWAT Magazine and other publications. A licensed Texas Level 4 Personal Security Officer and Instructor, Steve was Shift Lead on a mega-church security detail for seven years, and he has provided close protection for several former foreign Heads of State. Currently, Steve is an instructor at Relson Gracie Jiu Jitsu/Krav Maga in Tyler, Texas, as well as Director of Training at Palisade Training Group, LLC.