Unintended Firearms Discharges in Law Enforcement – Principle and Contributory Causes – Part 1 of a 7 Part Series.

Inspector (Ret.) Chris Butler

Aside from the profoundly rare instances of firearms discharging as a result of an inherent mechanical malfunction, there are several other causes of unintended firearm discharges,  as a result of human performance errors – all of which have occurred, and not infrequently, in all groups of firearms users; civilians, police and military. In the law enforcement realm, unintended firearms discharges occur every year in North America. While the majority of these discharges do not result in human injury but only minimal property damage, occasionally the most tragic outcome of serious injury or death, to a civilian or fellow law enforcement officer, does occur.

Before continuing the discussion on the causes of unintended discharges, it is critical to understand that consistent law enforcement firearms training adheres to a safety doctrine called the ‘four cardinal rules of firearms safety’. These rules are heavily indoctrinated into police officers from the beginning of basic recruit or academy training and are reinforced through regular range live-firing practice and qualification shoots throughout an officer’s career.

The four cardinal rules of firearms safety are:

  1. Treat all firearms as if they are loaded,
  2. Keep the muzzle pointed in a safe direction[1],
  3. Keep your finger off the trigger and outside of the trigger guard until you are on target and have decided to shoot,
  4. Be sure of your target and what is behind it, and between you and it.

Ideally, all of these rules of safe firearms handling should be adhered to at all times under all circumstances. However, even if an officer were to violate one of these cardinal rules ( and I am by no means advocating for that!) no tragic outcome would result. For example, if an officer pointed their firearm at someone when they shouldn’t, as long as they do not violate rule #3 and keep their trigger finger away from the trigger, the gun will not discharge. Or, if they put their finger inside the trigger guard and pull the trigger causing the weapon to fire, as long as the officer does not violate rule #2 and keeps the weapon pointed in a safe direction, no human injury is likely to occur. It is only when an officer violates two of these safety rules, specifically they point the weapon at another person and they concurrently pull the trigger that people get injured or killed.

Yet, in law enforcement, unintended firearm discharges occur frequently. How often these occur is impossible to know with any degree of accuracy because there is no mandatory national reporting mechanism in Canada or the United States. Most experienced police officers are personally familiar with unintended discharges having occurred in their agency. However, some studies have been attempted and as a result we do gain some understanding on the frequency of unintended discharges in law enforcement occupations. One such study was conducted by the Federal Department of Justice (2004)[2] which examined all firearms discharges (both intentional and unintentional) reported by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the United States Marshalls Service (USMS). The Justice Department collected all reports from these agencies over a three-year period from 2000 to 2003.

During the study period, the component agencies reported that 267 shooting incidents had occurred during enforcement operations and ‘other’ activities (which included training, cleaning weapons, or acting off duty). Of all 267 shootings, 14 were unintended discharges during operational enforcement activities, 88 were unintended discharges during non-enforcement related activities.  In other words, 5% of all firearm discharges by these agencies were unintended discharges during enforcement activities. The report does not indicate how many of these unintended discharges resulted in human injury or death.

The Center for Homicide Research (2013)[3] published a report on accidental discharges by police. This study examined 80 cases of unintended discharges and with regard to the severity of impact, found that 17.4% (n=14) resulted in death, 56.3% (n=45) of the incidents resulted in injury without death, and 26.3 % (n=21) resulted in no injury at all.

In yet another study of unintended discharges by police, this time examining cases of unintended discharges by German police officers, the researchers discovered that between 1999 and 2004 there were four documented cases of unintended discharges resulting in the death of civilians and one case of an officer accidentally discharging his weapon and killing another officer during a building search for intruders[4]. It’s important to understand that these deaths happened despite rigorous training and indoctrination of the safe firearm handling regulations which stipulate that officers are to keep their trigger finger outside of the trigger guard at all times unless they have made the decision to fire.

The point in mentioning these studies is to underscore the reality that unintended discharges happen in law enforcement and there is evidence they happen frequently despite the paucity of reporting. And these discharges happen despite the fact that standardized police firearms training places a strong, regular and repeated emphasis on the safety rules to guard against them. With this in mind, then, it is necessary to examine the contributing causes that result in unintended discharges occurring.

Thanks for stopping by and reading. Please join me next week as we begin to explore some critical information about human bio mechanics and motor action principles that will set the stage for later series that will discuss decision and performance errors that lead directly to unintended discharges occurring.

Until next week – stay alert and stay safe!



[1] A ‘safe direction’ is typically defined as a direction that if a discharge were to occur, only minimal property damage and no human injury would result. In law enforcement operations where the gun is drawn and held in a ‘ready position’ during high rick incidents, a safe direction typically has the weapon muzzle pointed or angled down towards the ground in front of the officer.

[2] Review of Shooting Incidents in the Department of Justice; E&I Report I-2004-010, September 2004. Accessed at https://oig.justice.gov/reports/plus/e0410/intro.htm

[3] Stephen Kennedy; Center for Homicide Research, “Accidental Discharges by the Police”; July 17, 2013

[4] Heim, Schmidtbleicher and Niebergall; “Towards an Understanding of Involuntary Firearms Discharges”; Policing: International Journal of Police Strategies and Management, Vol. 29 No. 3, 2006