The Real Cause of Negligent Discharges

discharge of gun

It can be very difficult but wherever possible I attempt to ignore all my emotions and feelings and try to use the cool logic of the human brain to consider the problem at hand. Recently I was discussing with some other firearm instructors the topic of how much training can or should be required for gun owners to carry a firearm. That conversation is the topic of another article but as part of our chat we did talk about the fact that trained shooters and officers are just as likely to be found in news articles about negligent discharges as are novices and untrained gun owners.

I didn't do a deep dive research piece on the topic but I did review several news stories I could find around the country of a firearm going off on “accident” and I did my best to glean if that individual was a novice, intermediate shooter, or a professional. You may not be surprised to learn that based on my simple and fast research any shooter is just as likely as any other to negligently discharge a firearm.

If we were to interview an economist or statistician about this they wouldn't be surprised. Emotionally we want to believe that all the news stories of accidents out there are either from people with less training or people who are statistically stupid. Thinking that way makes ourselves feel better and our brain tends to be wired around how to make our own selves feel better.

So with that said, let me suggest the following as the real factors that lead to the negligent discharge of a firearm:

Hours of Use Creates Opportunity for Negligence

I believe that the single greatest factor is the number of hours in which we handle firearms but in the opposite way you may expect. Statistically, the more time you spend handling a firearm the greater your odds are of having a negligent discharge. Its a simple piece of logic even if it goes against everything we want to believe. The shooter who has spent 100 hours holding guns is far more likely to have experienced a discharge than the shooter who has spent 10 hours. There isn't any way around this.

Does this mean we should spend less time with our guns? No, but it does mean that we have to exercise great caution all the time. It also means that we shouldn't be led into a false sense of security just because we have experience. Which leads me to my next factor…


Complacency is when we justify doing things we know we shouldn't because we feel that our own level of skill or experience, based on the current circumstances, allow for it. Complacency is a natural bi-product of comfort and confidence. We have to be vigilant in watching out for self-justifications that we might tell ourselves to justify any ideas we may have about why it is ok to do something that goes against the safety rules.

Core Knowledge

Based on my limited research it would be unfair if I didn't concede that some negligent discharges, particularly those by young children, are due to a general lack of core gun knowledge. I'm not talking about a lack of training as we would generally reference in our industry, but a just outright lack of knowing about triggers, hammers, and core operations and functions of a firearm.


The single most common thread of the negligent discharges I hear about and those I researched was the environment. I couldn't really find any stories of negligent discharges at a gun range despite that being the place where guns are more often handled than any other location. Negligent discharges tend to take place when one or more of the following things are part of the environment:

  • Drinking
  • Being alone
  • Late at night
  • When driving
  • When cleaning the firearm
  • When boasting or showing off

In Summary

In summary I would submit that if we want to avoid negligent discharges we should start by removing any thought from our mind about how our training or experience may protect us. Next, we need to ask ourselves if in any way we have become complacent. We need to make sure all those in our influence have the basic core knowledge of firearm operations. Lastly we need to avoid handling firearms in environments that we know to be dangerous and thus greatly decrease our changes of ending up in a news story.

RESOURCE: Read our In Depth Study About 300 US Negligent Discharges

About Jacob Paulsen

Jacob S. Paulsen is the President of provides in-person and online firearm training for American gun owners. The Company is currently teaching in-person classes in 25+ states with a team of more than 55 instructors. Jacob is a NRA certified instructor & Range Safety Officer, USCCA certified instructor and training counselor, Utah BCI instructor, Affiliate instructor for Next Level Training, Graduate and certified instructor for The Law of Self Defense, and a Glock and Sig Sauer Certified Armorer. He resides in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado with his wife and children.


  1. Don R. Shaw, Jr. on February 11, 2016 at 4:56 am

    Very good article. I think prevention, as applied to teens or older should be simple to prevent. I was, I believe 12 and we were at the lake cabin. There were a number of .22’s, pistols and rifles, and an 1911 .45 Automatic with a .22 conversion kit. I did get to try it with the .45 ammo and it was stronger than I was. End of that. But I do remember sitting at a table on the porch, and my father’s friend handing me an automatic of some sort, but it was not the .45. I recall watching him clear it and then take the mag out. I don’t recall if he put it back in or not. Then he put in on the table in front of me and said I could take it, see what I thought of it and fire off a few rounds.

    I reached out and picked it up and right that second he shouted at me, “Stop, don’t move!” and that exactly what I did. He told me to put it back down on the table and take my hand off it for the moment and I did that. Then he told me, “EVEN IF YOU’VE JUST WATCHED YOUR FATHER OR BEST FRIEND UNLOAD A WEAPON, NEVER, EVER, ASSUME IT IS

    i was then told I might pick it up, I should check it, and we could proceed. I’m now 70 years older that then, but I’ve never forgotten what Dale told me, and I father said was good advice. I shot a lot a guns over time, including in the Army, hunting and for fun, but never
    ever forgotten what Dale told me that day, “Don’t take anyone’s word that a gun’s clear or even what you think you just saw, you check it yourself.” I may or may not make some difference in this, but I loved my father, and tended to idolized Mr. Howard, but for whatever the reason I’ve never forgotten that advice. And I’ve never had an ‘accidental discharge of a firearm’.

    • Frank on December 30, 2018 at 11:47 am

      In all my years of training I experienced a neglect discharge after cleaning my pistol. It was in my workshop and no one was hurt but it was completely my fault. I had just chambered a round in my Colt Mustang and you have to let the hammer down slowly. I had gun oil on my hands and did not clean my hands of the oil properly and the hammer slipped discharging the weapon. No one was hurt but I neglected a critical safety step and learned a valuable lesson in the process. NEVER GET TOO SURE ABOUT YOUR SKILLS. This can happen to the best if safety steps are skipped.

  2. Chuck on February 11, 2016 at 5:54 pm

    I can tell you from years working in the Emergency department that you are exactly right. In addition every other “dangerous” activity will tell you that complacency is the biggest killer. You should be most scared when the “I’ve done this a thousand times what could go wrong” thought enters your mind.

  3. LEE DISBURY on December 13, 2016 at 7:44 pm

    Mr Shaw- Perfect advice.

    1) Always assume any weapon is loaded and ready to fire.
    2) Complacency kills and causes injury to people not only with weapons, motor vehicles, airplanes, boats, trade work and the list goes on.

    Youth should have the opportunity to learn weapon safety in a professional manner.Adults must comply with responsible gun ownership by following the law and common sense. Ammo and weapons kept separate, etc.You cannot trust a child to do what is best, no child should have any access to weapons without a responsible adult in control.

    Avoid any situation which starts out with “Hey, hold my beer and watch this…”

    • A J. Folger on March 4, 2018 at 5:21 pm

      I agree. Been there, done that, survived.

  4. 2-Gun Pete on July 24, 2017 at 7:29 pm

    90% of all ‘accidental discharges occur when a FINGER accidentally comes in contact with a TRIGGER; the other 10% occur when a TRIGGER accidentally comes in contact with a FINGER!!

  5. Nate S on August 1, 2017 at 5:40 pm

    OK , in practice run in the bay, the command for the squad was to shoot weak hand at three torso targets while moving with two rounds each from 7 yards .I hit the first target twice and kept moving ,got to the second and hit that too but I rode the reset and shot it twice instead of the once ,re-aim and then again because my WEAK HAND FINGER was dumber then my strong hand finger and with moving as well …….I ran out of brain cells to use …….I finished the last target and started breathing again, I did not confess either …….And No One Knew I did it ……….!Because it was two hits each and all three targets were hit and they just thought it was quite fast !…Lesson for me… Train the weak hand and finger more !

  6. Jim Edwards on December 27, 2017 at 11:53 am

    NEVER pick it up unless you are mentally fully engaged in your actions. Half-assed fooling around w/ it while not 100% invested can and will result in making a dumbass mistake like shooting a hole in your brand new comforter/matress, ruining a perfectly good pair of boxer shorts. It has resulted in my own mental evaluation that is both painful and necessary. I’ve handled weapons for more than five decades and if it can happen to me, it can happen to anyone. I now question my personal ability; am I safe to be around? am I getting scatterbrained ? should I begin to dispose of all but the essential personal protection piece? It’s been a wonderful Christmas and it’s been a painful one. Nothing like blunt force impact of discharging a weapon in one’s bed to bring home the holiday clarity. Be 100% in or put it down.

  7. Cameron Bernadsky on January 21, 2018 at 3:54 pm


    Great article and a needed topic that every gunnowner needs to think through. My only comment is that I would have divided complacency and comfort into two separate topics as I think they are equally deadly.

    Complacency – the feeling that we train a lot and are “experts” so we don’t need to think about it as much as a “novice”

    Comfort – that feeljng of comfort you have with your gun that causes you to be less attentive while handling your gun. I was just talking to my class yesterday about how you develop almost a “relatinship” with your CCW gun. It becomes very familiar to you. But that familiarity causes you to forget that it is a deadly weapon they can do harm if not treated with respect and attentiveness.

  8. Dan Bourque on February 24, 2019 at 11:00 am

    I know of a well renowned instructor who had a ND during a class at the range. Many factors played a roll. A fast coming thunder storm; they decided to continue through lunch in order to compete the lesson on the range. He borrowed a revolver from another instructor to give his example. The other instructor checked their weapon to be sure it was cleared, likewise the instructor also cleared the weapon. Then he pressed the trigger in his lesson and onhis horror the revolver discharged. No one was hurt. Later it was believed that the reason they both thought the weapon was cleared is because in their haste, their mind, filled in the blank, so to speak, allowing them to see what was expected to be seen as countless times before. This is another way a negligent discharge can and most certainly will happen when a person doesn’t double check a weapon that is to be cleared, firing the weapon pointed safely down range as a further precaution.

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