"Accidental Discharge," "Negligent Discharge," or "Unintended Discharge?"
By Kirk Lawson
The gun went off. It discharged. The person holding the gun didn't expect it discharge. The person holding the gun didn't plan for it to discharge. The person holding the gun didn't intend for it to discharge. But it did.
My friend Bob relates a story from his teenaged youth. Sitting in the bedroom of a school friend, his buddy was showing off his hunting rifle. It was pointed in his general direction and then (can you see it coming?)... BOOM! Fortunately for Bob, the shot went over his shoulder, not into his face. It went through the house, several walls, into the kitchen, through the freezer door on the refrigerator / freezer, and lodged in some frozen meat. No one was shot, thankfully, but apparently Bob's hearing was somewhat damaged, walls needed to be repaired, the freezer door needed to be replaced or patched, and his buddy's parents confiscated the rifle. His buddy didn't intend for the rifle to discharge. He was embarrassed, ashamed, and apologize for the accident.
Not all such events end without someone being injured or killed.
In 2012, Pennsylvania resident Joseph V. Loughrey, in what has been described as a "tragic accident," shot his 7 year old son with what he thought was an unloaded rifle. He wished to sell the rifle and had earlier unloaded the magazine but neglected to clear the chamber. While getting into his car, the rifle pointed at his son and his finger "brushed the trigger." The gun discharged into the boy's chest, killing him. While tragic, this incident can be said to be that of negligence more than "accident." Mr. Loughrey failed to follow several of the standard rules for firearms safety, including pointing the firearm at something he didn't want to destroy, not keeping his booger-hook offa da bang-switch, and not treating the firearm as if it were loaded. However, because Mr. Loughrey did not discharge his firearm by deliberate choice into his son, it is considered an accident.
In 1994, Brandon Maxfield was shot in the neck and paralyzed by a babysitter attempting to unload a Bryoco Arms pistol. The family sued Bryco Arms, eventually winning, claiming that the accident stemmed from a defective design. Bryco Arms, for their part, attempted to counter that the girl was unfamiliar with the manual of arms for the pistol as well as failing to follow the rules for safe gun handling such as not pointing the gun at anything she did not wish to destroy. Many would say that this tragic incident was due more to ignorance than that of an "accident." However, because the babysitter did not discharge the gun by deliberate choice into Brandon Maxfield, it is considered an accident.
In 2009, Florida residents Michael and Sherri Thourot, as well as visiting Irish man Gary Flynn, were all shot, Mr. Flynn in two places including in the neck. All three were visiting an indoor gun range Polk County when Mr. Thourot simply set the loaded and chambered pistol down when it "began to go off, spinning in circles." It discharged the contents of the magazine, injuring the three. Mr. Flynn was not there with the Thourot's. While still unclear as to the cause, most experts' informed opinion is that the cause was probably caused by a malfunctioning sear, most likely due to wear. Most believe that this unfortunate event was caused by a malfunctioning device more than an "accident." However, because Mr. Thourot did not discharge the gun by deliberate choice, and was in fact not even touching it at the time, it is considered an accident.
In 2014, Remington lost a lawsuit related to its X Mark Pro trigger, a lawsuit started by Bret Bachert who had his Remington 700 XMP discharge after it fell down off of a trophy antelope he set it on for a photograph. The round went into Mr. Bachert's leg causing injury, disfigurement, and continuing pain. Remington was eventually forced to issue a recall of the X Mark Pro trigger. While some argue that Mr. Bachert should have unloaded his rifle before setting it down most conclude that this tragic incident, and several other similar ones, are due to design and manufacturing defect more than an "accident." However, because no one discharged their rifles by deliberate choice when they fell over, it is still considered by some to be an accident.
Many would call all of these events an "Accidental Discharge." However, that does not sit well with a lot of people in the firearms community.
It has been argued by many that "words mean things." Applying the word "accident" to events such as these absolves the responsible parties of their guilt. Whether the responsible party was negligent, ignorant, or if the firearm malfunctioned due to wear or design flaw, many believe that "Accidental Discharge" simply does not lay the "blame" where it really should be.
There are some in the firearms community who argue that any discharge which was not by deliberate choice is a "Negligent Discharge." They argue that neglecting the firearms safety rules which a person already knows is negligence They argue that the rules of safe gun handling are so prolifically and easily available that an operator's ignorance is due to deliberate effort. And finally they argue that a responsible gun owner would ensure that no firearms they own would be malfunctioning under any circumstances.
There are some on the other side who argue that "Accidental Discharge" is, in fact, accurate. The very first definition for "accident" in the dictionary reads, "an undesirable or unfortunate happening that occurs unintentionally..." Lack of intentionality is the key trait of an "accident" so, therefore, the term is accurate.
However, there is a third term which has seen growing acceptance: "Unintended Discharge." It clearly and succinctly describes the fact that 1) there was a discharge and 2) it was not by deliberate choice. There is a strong, and understandable, urge in our society to lay blame, often even before accurate blame can be determined. Perhaps it was an "Accidental Discharge." Perhaps it was a "Negligent Discharge." But in either case it was an Unintended Discharge.
The surest way to prevent, or at least minimize these sort of injuries is to follow the rules of safe gun handling.
1) Always treat every gun as if it were loaded. Verify for yourself that it is unloaded by removing the magazine and cycling the action.
2) Never point the gun at something you do not wish to destroy. Always keep the gun pointed in a safe direction.
3) Be sure of your target and what is behind it.
4) Always keep your finger off of the trigger until your sights are aligned and you are read to fire.
All of the above "accidents" could have been completely prevented if these four rules had been observed. In some cases simply ensuring the firearm was unloaded properly would have saved life and injury. In some cases multiple rules were violated.
Observe every rule. EVERY TIME.