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Rethinking Gun Safety Rules 
                     Based on Accidental Discharges

                 by Chris Bird

Recently, when I was revising my book The Concealed Handgun Manual for its fourth edition, I called Emanuel Kapelsohn of Peregrine Corporation. Kapelsohn is certified as a firearms instructor by the FBI, NRA, Glock, Heckler & Koch, and others. He is a vice president of the International Association of Law Enforcement Firearms Instructors and a charter member of the American Society of Law Enforcement Trainers. He has trained and certified firearms instructors for major police departments nationwide. In addition to law enforcement officers, he trains qualified civilians in self-defense.

Kapelsohn is also a lawyer and an expert witness in cases involving firearms and the use of force. I outline his qualifications to show that when Kapelsohn says something about firearms, he is worth listening to.

I was calling him while updating the section on firearms training schools to make sure my information about him and Peregrine Corp. was current. He told me that he had been meaning to call me. He had read the third edition of The Concealed Handgun Manual and had some feedback for me. His most important suggestions concern the basic firearms safety rules. This is how they have appeared in previous editions of the book:

  • Treat all guns as though they are loaded.
  • Never point a gun at anything you are not willing to shoot.
  • Keep your finger outside the trigger guard until you are ready to shoot.
  • Be sure of what your bullet will hit before you shoot.

The wording may vary a little—for example in the second rule, “destroy” often replaces “shoot”—but these basic rules are widely taught by instructors.

Kapelsohn took issue with the second and the third of these rules. Firstly, let’s look at the third rule: “Keep your finger outside the trigger guard until you are ready to shoot.”

“Ready is such a vague term,” Kapelsohn says. “When we are holding the pistol downward in front of us at a 45-degree angle—a so-called ‘ready position’—should we have our fingers on the trigger because we’re ‘ready to shoot’? I don’t think so!

“When we’re in our bedroom, calling the police because we’ve heard what sounds like someone breaking in downstairs, we certainly want to be ‘ready to shoot.’ So should we have our fingers on the trigger then? I don’t think so!”

Kapelsohn was involved in one case in Knoxville, TN, that illustrates the dangers of having your finger on the trigger when you are “ready to shoot.” A police officer was chasing a female drug suspect. He admitted to the court that he had his finger on the trigger because he wanted to be ready to shoot. He reached out to grab the woman with his left hand. She swung her arm backwards. He accidentally jerked the trigger firing a shot that hit her in the back of the head killing her. As the officer holstered his gun, he still had his finger on the trigger. Another officer appeared out of the darkness, startling him, and causing him to fire another accidental shot, hitting the pavement. The bullet kicked up shards of the pavement that hit the other officer in the face.

The officer testified that he had his finger on the trigger because he would only draw his gun if he felt his life was in danger and, if he felt his life was in danger, he wanted to be ready to shoot. Obviously, he was too “ready” to shoot, as he was unable to keep from firing when affected by the stimuli that cause sympathetic grip and startle response.

Another rule that has been taught by some law enforcement agencies is: “On target, on trigger; off target, off trigger.”

 Kapelsohn says this rule also can have disastrous results as a case involving a Florida sheriff’s department shows.

After a car chase, a suspect stopped and was getting out of his car when several deputies approached the car. All but one had their guns holstered. The suspect had his hands in plain view; it was daylight and he appeared to be unarmed. The officer with his gun out was covering the suspect with his gun held in a weapon retention stance at about waist level as he grabbed the suspect with his non-dominant hand, so he was “on target.” Accordingly, he had his finger on the trigger (“on target, on trigger”) and accidentally fired a shot, killing the suspect, as a result of an involuntary muscular contraction (“sympathetic grip”) as the suspect was taken down to the ground.

Ironically, the firearms instructor for the department had attended a course given by Kapelsohn a couple of years previously and had been warned about the dangers of “on target, on trigger.” Kapelsohn says, the sheriff would not agree to the change in the wording of the rule. Today, of course, the rule is changed, as a result of the accidental killing.

Kapelsohn advises keeping the safety on (with thumb riding on top of it) and keeping the finger out of the trigger guard when using a single-action pistol, like the 1911 or Browning Hi-Power to search a building or cover a suspect, until you have made the decision to shoot. This is also true of a shotgun like the Remington 870 pump. Treat it like a single-action handgun. Same goes for the AR-15 and similar single-action firearms. Kapelsohn participated in two cases involving a police department in New York state. A SWAT team member fired an accidental shot from a Remington 870 while serving a warrant. The shot hit an individual in the upper arm at close range. The officer said he slipped on something on the ground. At the time Kapelsohn said that if the department didn’t change its training it would be only a matter of time before someone else got shot.

The department ignored his advice and sure enough the same type of accident happened again. This time an officer was covering a suspect with a shotgun equipped with a weapon-mounted flashlight. The officer testified the suspect posed no threat to him at the time, Kapelsohn says. However, the gun went off and the pellets hit the suspect in the center of his chest killing him.

The other rule Kapelsohn takes issue with is: “Never point your gun at anything you are not willing to shoot.” He says that rule is impossible to follow. When you put your gun on in the morning, are cleaning it, or dry firing it, you cannot avoid pointing it at something you are not “willing to shoot” whether it be the bedroom wall, the mirror, or the picture of your mother-in-law that you use as a dry-firing target (just joking).

As a result of Kapelsohn’s input, I have changed the two rules in the fourth edition of The Concealed Handgun Manual to:

  • Always keep the muzzle pointed in a safe direction, unless you are defending yourself or others. A “safe direction” is defined as one in which, if the gun goes off, there will be no injury to man, woman, or beast and there will be minimal property damage.
  • Keep your finger outside the trigger guard until you are on target and have decided to shoot.

I have also altered my practice and dry fire routines so that unless I have decided to shoot, my thumb rests on the safety without depressing it and, of course, my finger stays outside the trigger guard.

Food for thought: should you change your safety habits?

Chris Bird is a Texas certified firearms licensed safety instructor and the author of The Concealed Handgun Safety Manual now in its fourth edition.

Reprinted from THE NEW GUN WEEK ( www.gunweek.com ) Vol. 39 Issue 1799 Sept. 1, 2004
Used by Permission





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