During my time at the Safety Center, I’ve read about way too many mishaps involving firearms. Every single one of them should have been easy to prevent. In every case, just before the loud noise and the blood and the adrenalin and screaming, the victims should have known better than to do what they were doing when they fired their pistol, rifle or shotgun.
Sailors and Marines who own guns continue to learn the hard way that they aren’t quite as skillful and savvy as they thought. The basic rules of gun safety are extremely clear and simple. However, experienced people continue to flout them, acting like the first rule of gun safety is, “Treat every gun as if it is loaded, unless you aren’t sure, and then treat it like it’s unloaded, and then go ahead and aim it wherever you like.”
During the last eight years, 52 Sailors and 54 Marines shot themselves (or were shot by someone else) in off-duty firearm mishaps. In 10 of these mishaps (five for each service), the injuries proved fatal.
Some make the Friday Funnies is part of our long-running series called The Not-O.K. Corral. These mishaps are the minor ones, where someone perforates a nearby bulkhead or maybe just self-inflicts a flesh wound. The next step is the occasional issues of the Not-So-Funnies, which deal with fatalities. You don’t want to roll the dice and see where you end up on this spectrum. Ideally, you want to be (1) not leaking blood, and (2) saying, “Whew, glad I checked to make sure it wasn’t loaded,” or, “Whew, glad I was pointing into the clearing barrel.”
Of course, most gun owners don’t have their personal clearing barrels, but from my perspective, they ought to.
Most “victims” of self-inflicted gun violence claim that they had tons of experience with weapons and felt totally competent. However, their behavior showed that they couldn’t obey laws or follow basic gun-handling procedures. Many seemed unable to tell (as opposed to “guess” or “assume”) whether their weapons were even loaded.
According to a Navy poll, two-thirds of all Navy gun owners say they are “very familiar” with the four basic firearm-safety rules, but only 13% are “very confident” that their Navy peers are familiar with these safety rules. A quarter stored their firearms loaded.
So we end up with mishaps like the following, chosen at random. An E-2 was on admin leave. While trying to clean his loaded 12-gauge shotgun, he pulled the trigger while aiming at the bottom of his left leg. Later that day, doctors amputated the remains of his foot.
As is so often the case, the mishap report lacks most of the “how” and “why.” Why was the shotgun loaded when he tried to clean it? Why couldn’t he tell that it was loaded? Assuming he couldn’t tell whether it was loaded, why would he point it at his leg? Did he have to pull the trigger as part of the cleaning process?
If you read the fine print on that new weapon you bought, does it say, “Caution, impossible to tell when loaded, may go off at any time without warning”?
Most of these events (and there are more of them than you might imagine) end up in noisy near-misses that jack up the heart rate of the incompetent gun owners (as well as that of any innocent bystanders) and put holes in furniture, appliances, walls, floors or ceilings. Don’t plan on getting such a relatively harmless reminder.
• Don’t mess around with guns when you’ve been drinking, and don’t let your buddies do it, either.
• Don’t get too comfortable with weapons, and don’t overestimate your expertise.
• Assume the weapon is loaded, every time, even when you are “sure” that it isn’t. Don’t point it at something you don’t want to blow a hole in.
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