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In yesterday’s post about fatal negligent discharges in the military, a Marine blamed the deaths on a pervasive atmosphere of unsafe weapons handling. In a subsequent piece in Foreign Policy, an anonymous writer (evidently still serving) confirms a similar situation in the Army. Only this time, the tale is told from the perspective of someone who had an ND himself . . .

The anonymous author admits he was one of the first officers to commit an ND in Iraq; the experience has haunted his career ever since. But like the author of the first piece, he places a lot of blame on the Army’s general culture of poor training, lax procedures and severe punishment for anyone committing an ND.

Taken as a whole, the story’s something of a mixed bag of self-pitying rationalization and clear-eyed criticism. During the author’s second deployment, he became more aware of the Army’s gun safety problem. For example, every forward operating base had different areas and rules for clearing weapons.

At every echelon, from squad to Corps, I heard the question asked at least once– “If the weapon fires into the clearing barrel, why do we punish the soldier? He followed proper procedure, didn’t he?” No one attempted to say “because the weapon wouldn’t have gone off if he had followed proper procedure from the beginning.” No one attempted to give any answer at all.

Soldiers who did commit an ND faced harsh punishment. While the author had to dig a grave (yes, a grave) another soldier’s penance was to do hours of PT in the sun in front of the entire company.

Because of the harsh consequences for NDs, “some units forewent pulling the trigger at all (when clearing weapons), with commanders and NCO leaders at every level declaring they weren’t going to put their troops at risk of being punished for doing the right thing.”

The author seemed irritated, however, when he discovered that what was termed an ‘accidental discharge’ when he committed it, had later been given the new (and more accurate) name of ‘negligent discharge.’

It left the impression that the Army was institutionally no longer willing to consider that people have accidents. Every misfiring of a weapon was categorically an act of carelessness, and would be treated as such.

Sorry, but that’s a good thing. Whether it hurt his feelings or not.

He ultimately blames a lot of the Army’s problems on a culture chock full of  testosterone and hoorah . . . and comes off as whiny in the process. Embedded within the grousing: observations about training and procedure that add more to the story. The evidence is mounting that the military has some serious problems with weapons training, procedure and safety. Wounded and killed soldiers are the result.


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  1. That reminds me of a scary/funny story when I was in Saigon Vietnam (1965). The Navy guy who ran the arms room in our hotel (yes, we lived in hotels in Saigon) told me about a 2nd lieutenant coming in from the field who saw the sign above the clearing barrel that read “Clear All Weapons Here.” He followed instructions to the letter: he drew his .45 M1911A1 from his holster and calmly fired eight rounds into the barrel. Before the second round fired, the Navy guy was under his desk, thinking the Viet Cong was attacking the hotel. When the pistol locked back on the now empty magazine, the 2nd lieutenant then put if on the half-door shelf and started filling out the paperwork. The Navy guy crawled over to the door, reached up and took the pistol, and told the lieutenant “We’ll take care of it for you Sir.” The lieutenant said “Thanks” and left.

  2. An odd thing happened when I was transferred from the Army Signal Corps to the Infantry in 1976 (long story). When my Infantry company went to the range for annual qualification, I (a Signal Corps non-combat troop) was the only one in my company to qualify Expert on the .45 pistol. I would have expected many of the Infantry troops to have significanly beat my score.

  3. I have an anecdote and a theory.

    My military service was on submarines, which has to have put me rock bottom on the list of “servicemen likely to get into a gunfight”. Even during a shooting war I’d bet money that the average civilian was more likely to fire a smallarm in anger than I was. Despite that we had quarterly smallarms training, run by the Chief torpedeoman. It was a point of pride for him that even the engineers on his boat could safely handle any firearm we had in stock and at least hit center mass at 25 feet.

    My theory about the Marines/Army and their disappointing safety record? I think that because they’re infantrymen they just take for granted that they know how to handle guns, even if they don’t. As submariners we had no problem admitting that we needed (and wanted) training and practice. Someone who “handles guns for a living” is at risk to become complacent over it… which may also help explain all the numbskull cops I’ve seen rack up NDs in my life.

  4. I think there are several factors at play regarding negligent discharges in the Army based on my own observations. I’ve met many Soldiers, some in combat arms, that don’t like guns by thier own admission. As such, they don’t practice and become as familiar with weapons as they should be. If you don’t like weapons and handling weapons why did you join the Army?

    I’ll agree with the lack of training for many. Support MOSs generally have trouble getting range time and ammo to use for the range. The result is that lots of Soldiers in support positions get to the range at the minimum requirement and some less than the minimum. Part of the problem are the commands and their emphasis on safe weapons handling or lack thereof.

    In keeping with the command issues, I’ve known several Soldiers in Combat Service Support MOSs that qualified expert then quit requesting to go to the range. They didn’t want to risk getting a lesser qualification and losing promotion points. The Sr NCOs and Commanders didn’t make them got because they were “looking out for the Soldier” by not chancing hurting their promotion.

    I was in Iraq in 2003 and have direct knowledge of 3 NDs. One was a COL who didn’t follow the steps to clearing his pistol. He fired a round into the clearing barrel. He looked at the pistol, looked at his SGM, then squeezed the trigger again and put another round in the clearing barrel. The second happened outside our little compound. A MP unit was heading towards the gate to do a mounted patrol and and one of the SAW gunners let loose a 5 round burst barely missing one of our Soldiers. He got yanked off the gun and put inside but we never heard what happened afterwards. The last was a SGT that worked for me. She and another Soldier were at the second clearing barrel and were too busy having a conversation to pay attention. She dropped the magazine but didn’t clear the chamber and shot the round into the barrel. She got a proper chewing out there at the barrel then after a written counseling had to write a paper on safe weapons handling then present a class to the rest of our Soldiers on safe Weapons handling. I don’t know if it was the benefit from writing the paper and presenting training on the subject of fear of another fussing from me but she became one of the most conscientious about weapons safety. She was a new SGT and I didn’t want to ruin her career but I did want to drive the point home. However, a Sr NCO or a Field Grade Officer I’d no pity for and they’d deserve to get crushed. After all, safety and training is a key component of our responsibilities.

  5. Echoing somewhat what Tony said above, I don’t want to sound condescending but I think quite a few civilians, especially civilian gun owners who have had little contact with the military, have a very distorted view of what daily life in the military is like, even in wartime.

    Most military people are not “gun guys”, even in the combat arms (and to answer the question “why would someone who is not a ‘gun guy’ go into the infantry?” there are many possible answers from “I couldn’t think of what else to do ” to “my dad was in the infantry and so was his dad so that’s what I did” to “my recruiter told me a lie.” [that one’s my personal favorite, BTW.])

    Get outside the combat arms and the number of “gun guys” dwindles further. To many people in the armed forces, the military is just another job, and weapons handling is simply one of many tasks they have to master.

    The most common ND I ever heard of was a soldier with a pistol firing a round into the clearing barrel. The reason for this type of ND is a simple mistake in the sequence of events. The soldier is supposed to (1) remove the magazine (2) rack the slide (3) point the weapon into the clearing barrel and (4) pull the trigger. Anyone familiar with automatic pistols can see that if you transpose (1) and (2), (that is, you rack the slide before dropping the mag) then the result is you chamber a round and then fire it.

    The premise of all these NDs-in-the-military articles in TTAG seems to be that the incidence of NDs is higher in the military than it should be. I’m not convinced that’s the case. As has been pointed out here and elsewhere, there have been literally hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of US military personnel deployed into the Iraq and Afghanistan theaters over the past 10 years. To expect ZERO accidental discharges is unrealistic – as unrealistic as expecting ZERO vehicle wrecks, helicopter crashes, forklift accidents, etc.

    That doesn’t mean we ought to be complacent about it, nor does it mean the military can’t improve weapons training, but I’m not sure all the tut-tutting and finger-pointing is really warranted.

    Civilians who get to choose when and where to carry a weapon and who do so only under the most ideal circumstances are very different from those who carry weapons 24/7 pursuant to military orders and under the most extreme stresses imaginable.

  6. Never been in the military, so I don’t know if it’s true or not; but I read on one of these gun blogs that the average Army infantryman only gets 490 rounds per year for training, and Guard/Reserve guys get half of that.

    Here’s a link:

    The article’s about marksmanship, but it seems like this may reflect the general attitude of the Military toward firearms training and proficiency. Just a bit more info for consideration.

  7. Nobody has asked what the ND rate was in previous wars. As we go backwards into the 20th Century a larger percentage of soldiers came from rural backgrounds where they used firearms from childhood on. Did that make them more aware of safe use or did they have a know-it-all complacency. My father, a pre-WWII regular, or my draftee uncles aren’t around anymore for me to ask how often someone fired a weapon in error. Soldiers in a combat environment are used to walking around unlocked and cocked I can see how one could get complacent about firearms handling. Perhaps the solution is periodic safety training to re-emphasize firearms safety as well proficiency.

  8. I think it comes about from two main causes: under familiarity and over familiarity. Not enough experience and so much experience that you forget to be wary of the razor edge of the sword.

  9. Maybe I’m just dense, or it’s that I’m in the Navy (or both, and no, they are not the same thing 😉 ), but why do you have to pull the trigger when clearing a weapon? When we’d go through clearing barrel procedures our finger would NEVER go near the trigger. Place the muzzle in the barrel, drop the magazine, pull the slide/bolt back, simultaneously catching the chambered round in your cupped hand (if unloading the M9) while locking the slide/bolt back. At that point you waited, with the weapon still in the barrel, for the duty GM to take the now, easy to visually verify as, empty weapon and you were done. If the duty GM was a real stickler for procedure they would make you demonstrate the four-point safety check: Safety, Magazine [specifically the fact that it was not inserted], Chamber [the fact that it was empty], Safety (heck, I usually did the four-point check anyway for the benefit of the duty GM and any other Sailors turning in/drawing weapons at the same time). Simple, easy, and darn near fool-proof IF you follow the procedure.

    Case in point, we did have one Sailor get confused once and without dropping the magazine she began repeatedly racking the slide on her M9 to unload it, sending rounds all over the armory as the horrified duty GM moved to stop her before she scattered the entire magazine everywhere. Definitely a training to procedure issue and probably also an issue with a qualification being granted without ensuring that someone was actually qualified. For the most part though, for only firing 48 rounds a year, I felt that most all of the Sailors I work/stood watch with were safe with their weapons, provided they were left in the holster (which is another issue altogether).

    Bottom line: I would contend that if your procedure for clearing a weapon, particularly issued small-arms (M9, M16, shotgun, etc) involves pulling the trigger at any point, then it might be time to see if there is a better procedure to follow/train to.

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