Top Menu

Complacency and Firearms, a Dangerous Combination

Chances are, you have heard someone say, ‘complacency kills!' But this statement isn't meant for us to take literally… right? Well, I actually think complacency can lead to tragic outcomes. Therefore, we should guard against it in all aspects of our lives.

risk assesment

Complacency is common:

Complacency is insidious and creeps up without us recognizing it. Because we rationalize our actions, we often won't acknowledge our lack of attention until after a mishap. Only then do we say, “how could I have done that? I know better.”

It's all about risk assessment:

You don't have to know anything about firearms to know there is an inherent risk in handling them. However, correctly assessing the risk associated with firearms is what prevents mishaps.dangerous instruction

Several influences cause someone to misunderstand the risk associated with their actions. I'm not going to go into each one, as this post focuses explicitly on combatting the dangerous complacent mindset. However, here are some of these factors:

  1. Complacency (autopilot error)
  2. Underestimating the potential danger (flat out ignorance to the actual associated risks)
  3. Overestimating ability (Dunning-Kruger effect)
  4. The reality of failure (1st or 2nd hand experience to the danger is powerful)
  5. I know best (convincing ourselves what we are doing is safe)
  6. Lemming mentality (others do it, and nothing bad happened to them)

Where does complacency begin:

I've used firearms as a profession for close to 25 years. I don't know the number of rounds I've fired. I can't even come close to estimating how many times I've handled loaded and unloaded guns. And I have been fortunate enough to attend many hours of training and spent thousands of hours training others.

Looking back over that time, I know I've underestimated and disregarded the risk associated with my actions. So additionally, there must have been instances where I didn't even realize I exposed myself or someone else to more risk than was necessary.

Now not all risk has potentially deadly consequences. The point here is the underestimation or lack of awareness of risk, whatever level that may be.

However, even though I know I have done things without due regard to the potential risk, nothing terrible happened. So doesn't that mean maybe the safety rules are a little too restrictive? After all, I've admittedly made mistakes (conscious and unconscious) without negative results.

Clearly, the answer is no. The safety rules are there to guide us in understanding and mitigating the risk associated with handling firearms.

Lack of a negative outcome:

Some dangerous thinking often happens at this stage. Like number 5 above, we may associate the lack of negative consequences as proof that bad things don't really happen when you violate the rules. So we push the limits and underestimate the real, deadly risk of failure to follow the safety rules.

A poignant example would be a parent who leaves a loaded gun on the nightstand where the child can access it. I've remarked to gun owners that this practice is unnecessarily dangerous. Too often, the response is, ‘my dad kept a loaded gun in the house, and I survived.' Or the popular ‘I've been doing this for years, and my kid has never played with it.'

These experiences are no doubt truthful. However, they don't negate the very high risk they put their family in when they do it.

We may also experience the Dunning-Kreuger effect and begin to overestimate our skills and abilities. It isn't hard to believe that the safety rules are just for inexperienced gun owners. The more proficient I get, the more I can violate the rules and still be safe.

Again, handling firearms comes with a certain level of unavoidable risk. Experience doesn't change the unavoidable danger associated with firearm handling. Instead, it gives us a better ability to perform in ways that appropriately recognize and mitigate the risks.

 

Note about frequency or exposure to risk:

It stands to reason that the more often we are exposed to risk, the higher the probability something undesirable will happen. After all, we are humans, and one thing EVERY human does is make mistakes.

I mention this because I've been a part of several professions where it is necessary to handle guns for a living. These include my time in the Marine Corps infantry, law enforcement officer, and a firearm instructor. In each profession, I know of several people who have had unintended discharged a firearm or misidentified the condition of a gun.

The reality is no one who handles guns every single day for years and years has on at least one occasion realized they should have been safer in how they dealt with a firearm. What if we reflect on times when someone else did something unsafe? Did we always intervene or react quickly enough? After all, if someone else nearby isn't handling a firearm safely, doesn't that increase your risk?

I am not saying we should throw our hands up and accept unsafe behavior. My point is to look at this as a math problem. For instance, a person trains with a firearm for an hour. Say through research finds that during one hour of firearm training, the average person does 3 things that violate safety rules and are considered unnecessarily dangerous.

Now imagine if you've trained thousands of hours. And then add the house of exposure to other people training with firearms.

I am trying to say that even though we have more experience shooting guns, our risk does not necessarily decrease; instead, it likely increases.

Strategies to avoid complacency:

The first step is to recognize we are ALL subject to complacency. Think of it as being on autopilot. It can be momentarily or longer in adopting a lazy approach to firearm handling. Either way, we must guard against becoming unconsciously competent.

Building in systems and procedures by which you operate every time is one way to fight complacency. One such process is conducting a press check or chamber check of your everyday carry (EDC) gun before leaving the house. If you don't, how do you know the gun's condition? Isn't that one of the safety rules?

So a simple procedure of a press check, establishes the gun's condition and ensures it's ready for use. It also keeps us from just grabbing our EDC and not switching gears to recognize the heightened risk level we're now operating under.

Another strategy is to question why you do something a certain way routinely. If you unload or load your firearm in a particular place of the house, why? Maybe it's less convenient, but is there a better location limiting risk? Is there something you can do to improve even the least dangerous place you choose to load and unload?

Consider our FREE ONLINE course called Gun Safety

gun safety

For example, if you live in an apartment with folks on all sides of you, which direction is the least risky direction? Consider positioning a large bucket of sand somewhere in your apartment. When loading or unloading, ensure you point the muzzle toward the bucket of sand.

Routinely evaluating to see if you're still appropriately assessing and respecting the risk associated with firearms is wise. There may be a safer way to do something, or maybe you've just become lazy in actually adhering to what you know to be safe.

Routinely considering safer ways to do something can help us guard against complacency and laziness.

Dealing with others:

There isn't just a risk to us when we handle firearms but other people also. Therefore, if you observe something unsafe, you should address it appropriately. Similarly, you should consider the words of someone who points out something dangerous that you are doing. If there is a range safety officer, let him know and, if necessary, leave the range.

 

Gun Safety Mistakes Others

Understand the ‘why':

Don't just recite safety rules, but understand their purpose. We took some time to rephrase the well-known safety rules to give them context. We felt many people failed to grasp how the safety rules apply off the range. Additionally, the rules as written are more administrative guidelines, and it can be unclear how to conform to the rules practically.

 

Finally:

Again, no human is perfect. We can only try our best to do what is right. It's easy to point fingers and say that you would never commit the error someone else has. I hope you're right. But we should learn from others' mistakes.

Furthermore, if we catch ourselves or someone pointing out an unsafe habit or action, analyze not only how to fix it, but why were you doing it? Was it for one of the 5 reasons listed above? These are incredibly impactful moments in our lives that may shape how we handle firearms moving forward.

Being safe doesn't make you a newbie or less experienced. On the contrary, being safe makes you well, safe!

I genuinely value your feedback. Share any instances of complacency you have experienced or tips you use to fight complacency that I may have left out.

Becoming complacent is one mindset we want to avoid. Check out this list of 55 other concealed carry mistakes and how to avoid them.

*This post has been updated from a post originally published on 9/26/2017.

complacency and firearms training

, , , , , , , ,

7 Responses to Complacency and Firearms, a Dangerous Combination

  1. Jacob Paulsen September 27, 2017 at 1:15 pm #

    Great piece Matthew. I have a personal policy that I don’t go shooting alone and that those who are with me are part of my anti-complacency team. We have a mutual and spoken agreement that everyone will watch everyone and not let anything slide!

  2. Doug October 4, 2017 at 9:58 am #

    Whenever I take someone to the range at my gun club (we ride in one vehicle due to access control), I make the topic of conversation the 5 safety rules. You might be thinking, I thought there were only 4 or 3, depending on where you learned, but I always include “Don’t try to catch a falling/dropped gun.” With newbies, I print out the list and hand them a copy. By adding the 5th rule it creates discussion, as well as thoughts of personal experience.

  3. George Bollhorst October 4, 2017 at 1:07 pm #

    Thank you. You are never too old to learn something new or over…

  4. Mike October 4, 2017 at 5:12 pm #

    You are right about not being complacent with firearms. Hundreds and thousands of times
    we all remind ourselves point gun in a safe place
    then remove magazine first, then rack the slide back
    to retrieve remaining ammo but also rack slide more
    to make sure gun is empty and finally point gun in a safe direction and squeeze trigger. However, I got home one late afternoon, took pistol out of the holster
    racked slide back to retrieve ammo then took magazine off but immediately I realized something was not right, my mind and hands froze and within
    nano seconds I racked slide back again and one final
    ammo came out in which to be triple sure, pulled slide back several more times to be sure before pulling trigger and be empty. I now have a reminder
    stuck on the basement door before opening,
    MG FIRST (magazine first)!!! I thank you for your article regarding complacency which affects even us
    veterans in the firearms world. Be safe.

  5. Ward Gutknecht December 8, 2021 at 10:20 am #

    If you drop the hammer/striker on a “ empty chamber” you will potentially set yourself up for a ND. I have observed 9 negligent discharges over the years and all were caused by dropping the hammer on a “ empty chamber”. I have been instructing for many years and have never had a ND in any class and will not allow students to drop their hammer after unloading and showing clear.
    Ward Gutknecht
    NRA Instructor

    • Eldred December 11, 2021 at 4:07 pm #

      One problem is those of us who do competition may develop muscle memory and automatically drop the hammer after unloading. Although if you’re instructing less experienced shooters then it’s probably easier because they likely don’t have the same habits…
      Keep up the good work!

Leave a Reply

All comments are moderated to ensure compliance with our community guidelines