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The average police officer’s firearm handling, safety and shooting skills are poor. Sadly, the news carries all the examples of this you’d ever want to read about. But you can almost understand it, given the infrequency with which the average cop has to use his weapon. Not that it’s an excuse. If you’re entrusted to protect the public and given a firearm as one of your tools for the job, you damned well ought to know how to use it as effectively and safely as possible. So when looking at the military, I would expect – as someone who’s never been there – that the extensive drills and training would result in a significantly more stringent culture of firearms safety. It turns out I’d be sorely mistaken…

According to Tom Ricks in an intro to a Foreign Policy piece by Billy Birdzell, 90 service members have been killed in Iraq alone by negligent discharges since the beginning of operations there. Something the military talks very little about. I don’t want to think about what’s happened in Afghanistan.

Birdzell, a former Marine, attributes this to what he describes and a dysfunctional culture regarding guns and training in the Military. He recounts some horrifically reckless gun handling and negligent discharge examples.

Almost as disturbing than the NDs were the responses the them by commanders. “After that, the battalion commander wanted weapons unloaded inside the compound and Condition 3 on guard towers (magazine inserted, no round in the chamber).” In Iraq. During a war.

So, rather than re-training personnel to make sure firearms safety is part of the culture, it was evidently easier to just say “screw it, everybody unload your guns.” Not an attitude I’d expect from the Marines.

Birdzell says that this all goes back to dysfunctional basic firearms training that treats troops like idiots. This, he says, results in either fear or cavalier use of guns rather than familiarity, safety and confidence in their proper use.

We’ve seen what can happen when you create huge unarmed groups of military personnel. As hard as it is to believe, based on Birzell’s account it appears that the policies that result in bases full of unarmed soldiers stem from a basic distrust of troops’ gunhandling discipline and safety skills.

Which all goes back to poor weapons training to begin with. Surely the US military can do a better job of training than this. Surely we owe at least that much to enlistees.

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  1. in Iraq alone

    Most of the troops were in Iraq for most of the past ten years. How many since major combat ops ceased (for reals). How many total troops/NDs? What constitutes an ND-shot in the back while kicking in a door at 0300 or sitting around the FOB cleaning? Lies, damn lies, and statistics.

    • TTACer – not lies, not statistics, but facts. I helped compile nearl three years worth of the supporting casualty reports. And a negligent discharge is firing oyur weapon when and where oyu are not supposed to. Being tired or on patrol is no excuse. There’s a reason it has been in the Manual for Courts-Martial for generations. NDs kill!

  2. Admittedly, my time in the Navy was in the mid Eighties to the early Nineties. The exact extent of my firearm training from the Navy at that time was 5 shots with a .22 to a paper target 25 yds away. There were 80 recruits and about 8 instructors/range officers. We were told when to touch, pick up, aim, release safety, finger on the trigger, fire – and to continue firing until they said stop. That’s it – didn’t have to hit the target (although for those that did {not me}, I believe they may have had an entry made in their service record).

    I know it has changed quite a bit, and certainly the Army and Marines undergo much more training – but I am sure it is with the same rigorous routine we do EVERYTHING in the military. I attribute this to 17-19 year olds, most of whom are for the first time on their own, in a new situation (and stressful at that), – too easy to have accidents with that level of maturity.

    My guess is the thinking goes, better to have “accidents” in the war zone than in the training zone, easier to explain given the circumstances. But they certainly are doing a very bad disservice to our military folks.

    As for my Navy time, they obviously did have more training for those whose job included the use of firearms, mine wasn’t so that was it. Everything I have learned has been from RF and Hickok45 🙂 just kidding, Mas is in there too…

  3. I think I probably mentioned this in a TTAG article last year sometime, but in the Army at least, firearms qualification traditionally took a back seat to other types of training. When I held a non-combat MOS (Military Occupational Specialty – a military job classification), which I did most of the time, the only time we ever had live rounds in our weapons was once or twice a year at qualification time. That’s it. On training exercises, we rarely had or used blanks, and 99% of the time our weapons were merely ornaments to be hauled from place to place and accounted for over and over again.

    When I was stationed in Germany in the late 1980’s (’87-’89 to be exact) we had to pull guard duty at the back gate of our Kaserne (barracks) armed with an unloaded M16. We weren’t even allowed to have cartridges in our possession.

    My understanding is that there has been a re-emphasis on gun handling practices since the WoT started in 2001. I saw some of it in A-stan in 2003 and Kuwait/Iraq in 2004, but there’s still a long way to go. In fact, when I was in Kuwait we usually didn’t have a week go by without someone losing a weapon or firing a round into the clearing barrel.

  4. I train the Army Mon-Fri each week (over 67,000 to date in 5 years) with all weapon systems (9mm up to AT4’s & MK19) and I have seen, firsthand, how safety has gone away. These soldiers today do not seem to have the attitude or desire to learn the skills that can/will save their lives when they need it and their leadership (not all) lacks because they are not beating it into their heads. Soldiers will sweep each other, ignore range calls and then give attitude to the instructors.

    *Knock on wood* none of the 67,000 have come home in a box and I hope that each and every one of them have absorbed their training but it really should start in Basic training with the safeties. I know the Drills are putting it into their heads but they are undermanned and seriously overworked (not by choice either). It comes down to the senior leadership and decision-makers.

    My training schedule remains jammed for the entire year, which makes me happy and more and more are coming because of the training and that I am consistent in my training and do not teach out of a book. Safety is number one and everything else is gravy. since I am only in one location I cannot reach out to the other bases and posts to help out and even if I could, there are those that get their feelings hurt if someone were to offer some advice about training. Not trying to step on toes, just trying to help our servicemembers.

    I spent 16 years in the Navy and in Special Warfare and loved my job everyday. I miss it still today. I only left because of busting my back badly on a couple of parachuting accidents. I love what I do now and gladly go to work knowing I am saving lives. There is no excuse for ND’s. Safety is first, everything else is gravy! Stay safe

    • “Soldiers will sweep each other, ignore range calls and then give attitude to the instructors.”

      I’m on par with “Tim”, but your first choice was my first thought, they can’t or don’t avoid sweeping each other, especially in combat..

      • But, JD, they can avouid shooting their fellow warriors when they do, when they clean their empty weapons, and when they mishandle weapons during movement, clearing, and so forth. There is no excuse for NDs.

  5. Although this may seem odd to those who have never served, it’s important to understand that proficiency with firearms is simply one of many, many skills a soldier has to know. Outside of the combat arms (Infantry, Armor, Artillery, Cavalry, Special Forces), firearms proficiency is not, generally speaking, highly valued in the military (or at least in the Army.) Even in the Military Police, firearms proficiency will not gain as many accolades for an average soldier as will excelling in outher pursuits like physical fitness or education.

    This is pretty easy to understand if you consider that a modern military force is pretty much like any other huge, bureaucratic organization. If a commander has a choice between, let’s say, a track mechanic who is a crack shot but only so-so repairing tracks, that soldier is not much of an asset to the commander. OTOH, a crack mechanic who can’t hit the side of a barn is an asset 99% of the time and only a liability when the convoy he’s driving in gets attacked. When you consider that the “tooth to tail” ratio of the modern US military is probably 1 to 10, a lack of emphasis on firearms handling becomes more understandable, though still not excusable.

  6. On the same vein as TTACer (I think), we need to look at the sheer number of personal that have been in Iraq vs. the number of NDs.

    Though I can’t find a hard number, it appears as though approximately 1.3 million people have served in Iraq throughout the war (this number is for combined Iraq and Afghanistan as of 2006, but let’s assume that the number is mostly valid for Iraq alone 5 years later). 90/1.3mil = 0.007% fatality rate ( From what I can find for the US overall, we have about a 0.8% accidental shooting death rate ( That means 114 times more people are killed by a ND in the general population vs. the military serving in Iraq. I’d say that’s a pretty healthy improvement. While I’m not saying that this makes everything ok, I just wanted to put things into perspective.

    • Your methodology is incorrect, as the 0.8% is a percentage of the number of accidental deaths, rather than of the whole population, or even gun owners & for one year only.
      The figure is roughly 0.00025% for the whole population & 0.00097% for gun owners annually (based on a population of 311million & 80million firearms owners).
      US troops in Iraq averaged 140,000 from 2003 to 2011 so at an average of 11 deaths per annum due to ND’s the rate is 0.000079% or slightly less than for firearms owners as a whole.
      Of course the civilian figures include many deaths where the deceased was not a firearms owner.

      Funny old world is statistics. 😉

  7. Iraq. Been there for three tours. Heard about plenty of Negligent Discharges and I assure you all my commanders took it very seriously. We implemented stringent controls and trained as much as practical to prevent them. Realize too that different bases/locations require different levels of readiness; having a round chambered while strolling to the swimming pool on FOB Victory is not necessary. From my admittedly limited point of view, we had very stringent culture of firearms safety.

    As TTACer pointed out you’ve also got to consider that during the past ten years there’s been a troop presence counted in the tens of thousands at any one particular time. What is the relevance of the number 90? What percentage of the total is that?
    Considering the number of young men, and women, who had never touched firearms before coming into the military and grew up with a distorted Hollywood world view, I think it’s remarkable the number isn’t higher. As noted elsewhere throughout this blog, you can’t fix stupid, and unfortunately the law of averages says we got some stupid people in the military. Give them a gun and ammo, and ND will result somewhere, sometime. I tried to stay on top of my detachment, but I couldn’t be everywhere all the time. Never had an incident, but it wasn’t for my guys not trying.

  8. If Ian’s numbers are correct than they are doing pretty decent compared to the population as a whole. I would expect that the numbers would be lower due to training and vigilance.

    I wonder how many of those deadly NDs might be suicides. I also wonder about unreported NDs with no injury.

    • During OIF II, a USMC helicopter pilot accidentally shot and killed himself in the ready room while spinning his pistol on his finger like John Wayne.

      The first incident occurred when a lance corporal who had been a problem child pointed a Corpsman’s pistol at the Corpsman’s face in a “hey, look at me” scenario, and then negligently shot him in the head.

      In another “Look at me,” moment, another lance corporal pointed an M16 at yet another LCpl. A round had been chambered in the rifle and the Marine was shot in the neck.

      These are anecdotes the author lists, but would seem to reflect a reckless disregard for safety.

      • Hence my earlier comments on maturity… THAT is more the issue than just training and controls.

  9. I know that in 12 months with three companies (4th Engineers, 20th Engineers, 299 Engineers, in Vietnam, I recall one ND, an Officer cleaning (?) his .45 and one EM who supposedly shot himself in the calf with an M14. The ND didn’t result in anything but embarrassment, and the calf shot was supposed to be an accident. It might be that some of those 90 were intentional. That still doesn’t sound like much considering how many people cycled through Iraq in ten years. Our training was rudimentary to say the least. Just getting the guys to keep the weapons clean was a major hassle. We had eleven .50’s in one company and the guys would always throw the T&E mechanisims into the water filled ditches. If the enemy attacked in a column of twos we would have slaughtered them. The Engineers, not Infantry.

  10. We should be glad that the riflery skills of the empire’s army are degrading. If your enemy is ill-trained, you have a better chance of defeating him.

  11. A couple of thoughts from someone who has “been there, done that.” Obviously, training makes a huge difference when it comes to weapon safety. However, in my experience the training seldom resembles true combat conditions. Even though my infantry units did a fair amount of live fire training, the conditions were usually so tightly controlled that the training was not all that realistic. Hand grenade training was perhaps the most extreme example of this, as hand grenades are probably the most dangerous weapon a soldier will handle. Also, I think the military will always have higher-than-normal AD rates simply because both training and combat operations are often conducted under sleep-deprived conditions. As an infantry platoon leader, it was not uncommon to be conducting operations with little or no sleep for periods exceeding 48-72 hours. I Ad’ed a round once in training when I basically fell asleep with my finger in the trigger-well of my M16A2 – fortunately it was a M-200 (blank), and other than looking stupid in front of a couple of troopers, nothing ever came of it (I guess they liked me enough not to rat me out!) Dumb? Yes, but lack of sleep makes you do dumb things. Even when things got more routine, soldiers were not getting anywhere close to eight hours sleep a day under field conditions. Rather, 3 to 4 hours seemed to be the best one could have hoped for, and 1 – 3 hours was probably the norm. I always thought that “sleep is for wimps and whiners” mentality was unfortunate, but for some strange reason it is a very engrained part of the “macho” military culture.

    When I go to the range nowadays, I am always well rested and can focus on the weapons and weapon safety. But you don’t have that luxury to focus on one thing in the military. Particularly if you are in a leadership role, your individual weapon may be just one of many things that you have to deal with. Personally, I never chambered a live round in my weapon unless I was about to shoot at something, and I don’t know too many officers or NCOs that did. Maybe if I had been clearing houses in Fallujah I would have done things differently, but fortunately, my experiences never put me in a situation where I would not have had time to pull the charging handle on my M-16.

    As for the commanders’ solution – that is an inevitable response to the way that the military holds its leaders responsible for their soldier’s mistakes. The unfortunate reality is that you don’t get promoted in the military by being some great Patton-like leader – you get promoted by doing a decent job and – more importantly, not making any big mistakes (and military culture is such that anything bad that happens in your unit is considered to be the chain of command’s fault). Here’s how it goes: One of your soldiers loses his $7000 pair of NVGs? It’s your fault. Commander’s solution: Don’t take NVGs in the field. A fair number of soldiers ARE idiots, so don’t be surprised that the military set the standard low. Even if 90% of the troops don’t need baby-sitting, there is always that 10% that do, and the standards get written around that 10%. Special operations units have the luxury of being able to weed out the idiots, but most regular Army units are not that fortunate.

    • Joe, excellent commentary. In swirling this issue around in my head I had completely forgotton to factor in sleep deprivation. Particularly in a combat theater where the onset of serious mental fatigue is greatly accelerated by the prolonged and heightened stress of combat. Taking this into account, and considering the number of troops that have been rotated through Iraq and Afganistan, perhaps we should view this number as a bit of an accomplishment while working very hard to reduce that number even further.

  12. In the Marines in the early 70’s we were taught safety all the time. Every Marine is a rifleman first. I spent 6 months as a small arms instructor and the worst were the reservists. There weren’t any NG’s on the line but it wasn’t because they weren’t trying. This is what happens when they only handle a firearm once a year. It’s hard to teach the reservists too much safety when you only have them for a day or two. Even on guard duty, we had rounds in our magazines, but we weren’t allowed to load up until after we were shot at. If more commanders would take the time to stress safety there would be a lot less NG’s.

  13. I am a combat medic in the U.S. Army currently, 2 trips to Afghanistan so far and 3 years in the Army. Its not about your MOS/Job its your unit. If your apart of a brigade combat team (BCT) which contains 2 Infantry Battalions, 1 Cavalry Squadron, 1 Field Artillery, 1 Support Battalion (This is where your mechanics and truck drivers are, I was in one of these once) and 1 Special troops battalion (MP’s, Intel, Signal and Combat Engineers). No matter what your MOS, if your in the big 10 divisions of the U.S Army and in a BCT (majority soldiers are) you goto the range so much you are tired of it. Most discharges occur with crew serves, and are usually during the clearing process.

  14. I spent 4 years in the Corps. I was an 0311 (grunt)! During those 4 years the number of times I trained or even fired live ammo were few and far between. I qualified with the rifle once a year and one time with the pistol. Every Marine may be a rifleman, but you couldn’t prove it by me. I did more live fire in the last two weeks at my gun club than I did in 4 years in the Corps.

  15. Served 24 years. It’s problematic. Yes it’s the training but I would attack the time they are trained. You get excellent weapons training in Basic Training. After that according what your military occupational skill you may only see your weapon once a year and then it is not weapons training it’s qualification, you have little time, to many people to qualify, your not there to train only qualify, soldiers don’t see their weapons on a daily basis, safety with the weapon is not a stand alone block of instruction, remember it’s qualification, soldiers don’t see their weapons full time until deployed, the weapons are cleared by range personnel not really the individual.

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