Rule number one when handling firearms is “Treat every weapon as if it were loaded.”
This rule has been hammered in with tales of negligent discharges, property damage and death. In every range I have been to, I have seen holes in the ceiling, grooves in the concrete and other signs of bullets going where they shouldn’t. Is it because of ignorance? Bad technique? Complacency? Why do we find bullet holes in cleaning benches and locker rooms in police stations and military facilities? Surely cops and soldiers know the importance of a chamber check and how to properly execute them.
“Familiarity breeds complacency.”
Often we perform a task so often, that we no longer think about performing that task.
Professional shooters handle their firearms several times a day. Most of us have developed rituals that over time become subconscious. I know that when I strap on my gun belt, I have to check to make sure there is a loaded magazine in the weapon and a round in the chamber. After doing this for many years, it is an automatic action to draw my handgun, check the chamber and check the mag. When we come off of the range and begin to clean our weapons, we rack the slide and check the chamber before disassembly. I have watched Officers do this while talking to someone else and not even pause in the cadence of their conversation.
If this skill becomes so automatic, then why do negligent discharges occur?
I believe the key issue is that while the physical aspect of a chamber check has become automatic, we are not processing what we see. When we draw back that slide or open the action, we expect to see an empty chamber. We may go through the motions so fast, that we didn’t actually SEE an open chamber, but since our brain has already processed what an empty chamber looks like hundreds of times, we believe we saw an empty chamber.
How do we fix this?
The fist step to preventing a negligent discharge is to SLOW DOWN. There is no reason to rush through a chamber check. Lock that slide or bolt back and actually LOOK. Don’t expect to see an empty chamber. LOOK for brass. If the light is dim, break out a flashlight. Then when you are sure that the chamber is empty, stick your finger in there and physically verify. Don’t worry, carbon washes off. It’s not going to kill you. The action is not going to eat your finger. When you are done, you can be sure that the weapon is clear. If you are running a class or acting as a RO, have someone else also verify the weapon is clear. Buddy checks are a great way to build in redundancy.
I have heard people say that if you handle weapons long enough, you will have a negligent discharge. I call BS on that. We are giving people an excuse before it occurs. Short of a mechanical failure, there is no excuse for a negligent discharge of a firearm. Don’t be that guy.
The Four Commandments of Firearms Safety:
- Treat every firearm as if it were loaded.
- Never point a firearm at anything you do not intend to shoot.
- Keep your finger straight and off the trigger until you intend to shoot.
- Know your target and what lies beyond.