negligent unintentional discharge training range
Courtesy Jeff Gonzales
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There are generally two kinds of gun owners: those who have fired a shot unintentionally and those who will. Another way to look at it is, play with fire long enough and you’ll eventually get burned.

The first thing we have to understand is the definition of an unintentional — or negligent — discharge. The way I explain it to students is an unintentional discharge is any time the gun fires as a result of failing to follow basic safety rules. Either through carelessness, lack of attention or deliberate indifference, the gun fired while it was in your possession.

Despite what you may read in the media, modern firearms don’t just “go off” by themselves (barring very rare mechanical failures). They can only be fired through human intervention. As gun owners, students, and practitioners of the art, it’s incumbent on us to be safe with our firearms. If something is predictable, then it’s preventable.

You have to be sure

If we were to study a number of unintentional discharges, where would we find that things broke down? The majority unintentional discharges I’ve reviewed pointed to a single issue; the operator of the firearm believed the gun was unloaded.

That’s the major issue. Then didn’t check. Whether through operator error or deliberate indifference, their actions lead to their gun firing when they didn’t intend it to.

Safety rules and procedures didn’t materialize out of thin air. They came from the hard lessons we learn in life. It’s when we fail to apply these lessons that we move from accidental to negligence. It’s one thing to discharge the firearm accidentally due to ignorance and another matter entirely when you know better.

The Golden Rule

Many who are reading this blog have been around firearms for a long time. You no doubt know the four rules of firearm safety:

The Four Rules of Gun Safety

I’m confident many would agree that the most important safety rule is number two. Over the years I have come to appreciate that rule the most. While adherence to all four rules is critical, the priority needs to be safe muzzle direction at all times. Even if the other rules are broken, safe muzzle direction ensures the worst won’t happen even if a firearm is unintentionally negligently discharged.

Gun Save Life New Shooter Training
Courtesy Guns Save Life

Teaching new students a litany of rules they’ve never heard of before can set them up for failure. For one thing, they aren’t going to remember all of them right away. Second, even if they do remember, they still have to apply the knowledge or change their behavior.

Drilling then on the importance of muzzle control and keeping their firearm pointed down range is relatively simple and easy to learn. It should be the first thing any new shooter is taught.

Keep it simple

For this reason, we begin students on three safety rules to start. Keep the gun pointed in a safe direction so that even if you fail at the others, the risk of property or personal injury is minimized.

trigger finger discipline
The Truth About Guns

Keep your finger on the home position until ready you’re to fire. If you aren’t sure where your finger belongs at any time you’re holding a gun, always go home — high along the frame and away from the trigger.

trigger finger discipline

We also have new students keep their guns unloaded until they’re ready to fire.

Once you get these three rules embedded into your students you can conduct live fire training with an acceptable level of safety. For our new students, these are the bare minimum and we work hard to instill them from the get-go.

Set the example

As an instructor it’s incumbent upon us to ensure the safest training environment possible. An unintentional discharge, whether accidental or through negligence, is the gravest of sins.

As an instructor, the first thing you have to acknowledge is how a discharge could could happen to you. Don’t think for a moment you’re exempt.

Prior to a demonstration, whether live or dry fire practice, I decide where I’d want a bullet that’s fired to end up and adjust accordingly. I don’t even like pointing a blue gun in an “unsafe” direction. It sets a bad precedent that could be repeated with a functional firearm.

When I’m performing a demonstration I don’t ask a fellow instructor or student to confirm the condition of my firearm. I have to set the example that I can be trusted to safely unload and handle my gun. Most students won’t have access to a second party to check that their gun is unloaded when they’re on their own. We all need to develop the skills to complete this fundamental task on our own, then maintain that standard and hold others accountable.

Guns are dangerous tools. It’s for this reason that we rely on them for defensive use. But there’s no reason we can’t mitigate the risk where possible through education and training. Learn the four rules and practicing them every time you’re around a firearm.


Jeff Gonzales is a former US. Navy SEAL and preeminent weapons and tactics instructor. He brings his Naval Special Warfare mindset, operational success and lessons learned to the world at large. He is the president of Trident Concepts in Austin, Texas. 

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  1. “safe muzzle direction ensures the worst won’t happen even if a firearm is unintentionally negligently discharged”

    And keeping your finger off the trigger ensures that there won’t be a negligent discharge.

  2. In over 50 years of shooting I’m still in the have not done it group.

    Have seen it done twice by ignorant/ arrogant pistol shooters at ranges and once with an M60 that did have a mechanical fault. The M60 was facing down range so no problem. The two pistol idiots were saved by luck. I was about 3 feet from the shooter and about a foot from .40 trajectory.

    The point it in a safe direction rule can not be over done.

    • Same. I’ve never ND’d in 30 years of shooting & training. Index/trigger finger is always outside the trigger guard unless I’m sighted in and ready to pew pew that very instant.

    • Closest I’ve come: I fired off one barrel of my 16ga side by side before my buddy had his ears in. The culprit was distraction, my lack of situational awareness, and an extremely light trigger. They say the trigger break should come as a surprise. It sure did.

      Fortunately my gun was already shouldered and pointed down range, within seconds of taking the shot for real. We were outside on private land and my friend was quite a few yards to the side and behind me. He wasn’t pleased, but neither was he furious. Nice guy!

      I should have recognized that he wasn’t ready and SLOWED DOWN. I should have kept my finger away from the trigger too.

      Lesson learned.

    • At 60 and with 50+ years of gun handling, I’m in the same boat. No NDs to date because Dad taught me right. Thanks Dad!

  3. All very important points and well presented.

    There is another type of error that sort of goes along with Rule 3 and resulted in the only UD/ND I have ever experienced. Interestingly it was as a result of a class being taught by an former SEAL.

    In the square indoor range getting down the basics before going outdoors to a tactical course he explained to us about “trigger reset” and how you should keep your finger lightly on the trigger and learn exactly where it reset after firing in order to speed up your next shot.

    He then had the class practice slow-fire to get the feel of their pistol’s trigger.

    The thing is, in order to do this you MUST keep a little bit of contact with the trigger or you cannot feel the reset and that violates Rule #3 during recoil when the pistol is NOT pointing at your intended target.

    And that’s what happened to me. I was firing my Ruger SR9c with a Glock-style safety in the trigger. The slightest pressure disengages that safety mechanism. Add that to the FACT that the SR9c has an extremely smooth trigger. I found it nearly impossible to feel the reset following a shot and with the pistol pointing at the ceiling and only slight pressure while returning the pistol to the target managed to put a round in the rafters.

    He chastised me for the ND, but when he tried the same maneuver with my pistol discovered that he could not feel the reset either! We agreed that with a trigger that smooth and light it might be better not to worry too much about it and just learn to keep pressure off the trigger after each shot in order to avoid shooting down any helicopters.

  4. Wow! One of the best articles I’ve read on the subject. Simple and to the point. I had a negligent discharge when I was twelve years old. Muzzle pointed in a safe direction. No harm, no foul. Except my Fruit of the Looms. They were fouled. A decade and a half later I had an accidental discharge. Slide locked to the rear on a Browning Hi-Power. Insert magazine. Finger off trigger. Drop slide. BANG! Steve witnessed it. Agreed I had done everything correctly. Again, muzzle pointed in a safe direction. Again, no harm, no foul. (Well, a small hole in the oriental rug and hardwood floor. After all, it was only a 9mm.) Steve and I went into the yard and tried to repeat. Repeatedly. Wouldn’t happen. Muzzle control. Finger off trigger until sights are on target. 99% of problems solved.

    • My negligent discharge was when I was a teenager, and so far that’s been the only one knock on wood. I was storing my dad‘s Marlin 60 from squirrel hunting earlier and was emptying the tube, thought I had counted and gotten all the ammo out. I release the action and pulled the trigger expected to go click, instead it went bang. It put a small hole in my parents ceiling which I quickly covered with a little piece of tape and paper, well over 30 years later you can’t tell that I put a hole in the ceiling with a 22.

      There was one time that I shot wildly, I wouldn’t call it negligent discharge because I had fully intended to empty the gun. Again I was squirrel hunting with my dad‘s Marlin 60, that was a beast knocking squirrels out of trees. I was walking and I scared a flock of quail, which exploded out of the leaves in front of me. 17 shots of 22 were gone before I could blink an eye. I was deep in the woods so I wasn’t concerned about random bullets anywhere, scared the hell out of me. Didnt manage to get any birds sadly 😇😬 between the marlin 60 and my grandfathers 22 bolt action I inherited as a kid I slaughtered most of the tree rats on our property. Iron sights all the way too.

    • I’m not sure if I had a ND or not. When I was 15 I was walking on the Eglin reservation down a rotted out fence line. I had a Star model L (I think – it was 40 odd years ago but it was a Star) 22LR on my hip. I paused for a minute to get my bearings and figure out where I was going next. I looked down and there was a rattlesnake in the hole next to my right foot where the fence post used to be. I drew and unloaded on it. When it was empty I saw 2 things. 1- It wasn’t a snake it was a snake skin. 2- There was a thin grey line down the outside of my
      sneaker and a hole right at the edge of where the sole met the upper. I meant to shoot but I shouldn’t have.

      It was a lesson either way. It was fun growing up at the edge of the reservation and less than a mile where the Ranger Florida phase concluded. I must have had 200 20 round Colt mags by the time I graduated HS. They threw them away.

  5. This one time, I half cocked an M240, that got some people moving. Lucky me, the range went hot shortly after, blew my load, then dusted out of there in a hurry before anyone showed up. A few moments later while I was munching some of that awesome MCX Teriyaki, I overhead some people wanting to know who half-cocked.

    Naturally, I continued to mind my snack.

  6. I should have had one, and was damn lucky I didn’t.

    Digging in my safe looking for something and I hit the trigger of my Mini-14, cocked but not chambered…

    • I have a rule: guns in the safe are unloaded. I fear catching one gun on another and setting something off.

      I clear every gun before it goes in and as soon as it comes out, just to be sure. Habit acquired from living in apartments for many years, where even a non-injurious indoor ND has ten times the liability as in a single family home.

  7. We all know about instances when a police officer is startled and accidentally shoots someone. How does that happen? It’s because these officers had their fingers on the trigger.

    Keep your finger off the trigger until you intend to shoot.

  8. … unintentional discharge … through carelessness, lack of attention or deliberate indifference …

    I include three caveats to the safety rules when I am training/advising someone:
    First caveat — inspect chambers and magazine wells with your eyes AND your fingers.
    Second caveat — bright lighting is critical for effective visual inspection.
    Third caveat — do not handle/train with your firearm if you are fatigued.

    • By the way, I learned the above through experience.

      One day I was seriously fatigued from overworking and insufficient sleep. I decided to give myself a short mental break and spend a few minutes on some dry-fire practice with a Kel-Tec SUB-2000 carbine that I packed away in a computer bag over a year ago. (For those of you who are unaware, SUB-2000 carbines are hinged at the chamber — receiver interface and allow you to fold them in half for extremely compact storage. When folded in half, the chamber is plainly visible.) I pulled the carbine out of the bag, looked at the plainly visible and empty chamber, looked at the pistol grip to see that there was no magazine inserted, folded it into the closed position, pulled the charging handle, pointed it in a safe direction, and pulled the trigger.

      Imagine my surprise when it fired. Fortunately, all that did was put a hole in my couch and break a glass panel on another piece of furniture before the bullet came to rest on my carpet.

      What went wrong in that case? I was mentally and physically tired which degraded my cognitive ability. Lighting in the room was very poor — so poor that I could not see the tiny bit of dark gray magazine that just barely extended below the dark gray pistol grip when I visually looked to see if there was a magazine inserted into the carbine. And I failed to check the magazine well with my finger which would have compensated for the poor lighting and failed visual inspection.

      As the author of the article stated, pointing the muzzle in a safe direction is the king of the safety rules.

    • I forgot to add another action to the first caveat: after inspecting the chamber and magazine well with you eyes and fingers to make sure your firearm is unloaded, cycle the action a few times as well before pointing the firearm in a safe direction and pulling the trigger.

      In all but the most bizarre and unlikely of situations, those three actions should ensure that your firearm is unloaded before handling, cleaning, or practicing (dry-fire) with your firearm.

    • Okay, clearly I am fatigued today and have not had enough exercise or caffeine to be anywhere near 100% mental ability. Implied in my comments above is actually pulling the trigger to ensure that a firearm is unloaded AFTERinspecting the chamber and magazine well with your eyes and fingers and cycling the action a few times.

      Of course you must point your firearm in a safe direction for that final step — pulling the trigger — to ensure that your firearm is unloaded.

      I know, if you inspected the chamber and magazine well with your eyes and fingers AND cycled the action a few times, it is for all intents and purposes impossible for your firearm to still be loaded. Nevertheless, pointing in a safe direction and pulling the trigger absolutely and concretely confirms that fact.

      • “Okay, clearly I am fatigued today and have not had enough exercise or caffeine to be anywhere near 100% mental ability.”

        You intentionally did that to point out the importance of your third caveat, right? Brilliant! 😉

  9. My ND was in cleaning a Glock after shooting. You need to pull the trigger before you can field strip them. So, I ejected the round in the chamber, made sure it was clear, ejected the magazine, then pulled the trigger. Whoops. Obviously – releasing the slide stripped the top bullet off the top of the magazine, and loaded it into the just checked chamber. Luckily, I had conscientiously followed Rule #2, so no harm, no foul.

  10. I shot my TV with a Weatherby .300, I was practice dry firing aiming at things on TV, I knew the gun was loaded, but just lifted the bolt to recock, then for some reason? I cycled the action and BOOM, there went the Trinitron. Powdered glass was all over the couch and me. I thought “Oh sht, Oh sht,now I’ve got to fix a whole in the wall.” But nope the hollow points I made to blow the guts out of deer blew up and didn’t go through the wall. From then on I never bought another TV. That was when I lived in the country with no neighbors and my gunm handling was pretty sloppy, now that I live in this gawddam apartment with people all around I get nervous just unloading my gunm to clean it.

  11. I’m an old codger who’s been shooting for 60 years, and haven’t had a ND, and I plan to keep it that way. A few precautions I take:
    1. I remember that rounds can penetrate walls, bounce, and travel a long way, so I’m even pickier than most about muzzle direction. Even in a tactical or hunting situation, I usually prefer muzzle down instead of up, when possible. Usually, a floor or the ground should absorb some bullet energy, better than a wall or ceiling. Usually, I point in a safe direction and angled down when loading or unloading.
    2. When I’m asleep in bed, I prefer to not have a round chambered. I keep my weapon within reach, but I’ve taken measures in my house to allow me an extra half of a second or so to wake up and assess the situation and chamber, before I have to pull the trigger.
    3. I’m consistent in my carry and storage locations.
    4. I try to avoid carrying unholstered in a pocket.
    5. If I’m in a crowded area and can’t find a safe muzzle direction, I wait til I can go elsewhere before any action such as unloading or adjustment.
    6.With my arthritis and “trigger finger” syndrome, I try to work my hands to gain smooth function before I need to handle my gun.
    7. I’ve stopped being embarrassed to ask a hunting or shooting partner about his or her safety measures.

  12. My ND was the first year I got my first real gun, a 20guage at age 12 I think, couldn’t’ve been more than 13. I’d got comfortable with it, broke several clay pigeons and bagged a couple ducks. Was walking across a field with Dad and he was explaining how to ignore the commotion of a whole flock taking off and just pick out one of the farther away ducks and focus on that one. Gun up quick, good follow through, make a good shot, then you pick out one of the closer ducks (that’s now about as far away as the far one you just got), focus on that one and bring down two before they get out of range.

    So I just up and pick out an imaginary duck in the sky without saying that’s what I was doing, gun up, start my swing and Boom. We were walking side by side but I had stopped to do this while he took a step or 2 forward and then stopped. My finger automatically went to the trigger without thinking and I hit it when starting my swing.
    The muzzle was above and to the left of him when the ND happened but was only a few feet from his ear. Was not happy, but turned it into a teachable moment and at almost 50 years old have not had an ND since.
    That doesn’t mean I’m immune to them but I’ll never forget that shot going off when it wasn’t supposed to.

    Stuff like that is why I don’t like the mantra “don’t draw your pistol unless you’re gonna use it”. It trains in if you do draw it you must fire. Not all that different than my ND on that practice imaginary duck all those years ago. Trained in habit.

    3 times in my life so far I’ve had to draw my carry pistol on someone and all 3 times the act of drawing it ended the problem. If I had trained in “it’s drawn so it must be fired”, I’d’ve been out of bounds all 3 times and probably in prison by now.
    Pulling the trigger is not part of a draw stroke (or shouldering any arm). It’s a completely separate and unique act. Dynamics of a situation can change in a blink of an eye.


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