For over ten years, the Army has put its fatal mishaps online in the form of Preliminary Loss Reports. Initially, there seemed to be mostly aviation and privately-owned-vehicle (Army jargon: “POV”) reports. But for the last several years, the Army has included weapons-related accidents, both involving duty weapons and training, and POWs (you break out the acronym!). Guess which category seems to involve more mishaps? If you guessed privately-owned, personal weapons, you’re right, despite the millions of rounds Army soldiers fire annually in often risky exercises.
In the future, the Army Combat Readiness Center (the latest iteration of the frequently-renamed Safety Center, trimmed considerably from its overweening 90s days) hopes to incorporate more varieties of personnel loss, as explained by one paragraph of their FAQ.
As of 4 Mar 05, the PLRs that have been released are on accidental losses (deaths). However, as the process matures, PLRs will be dispatched on losses from hostile activity, crimes, suicide, and medical circumstances as well as accidents.
You can search the database here. It’s a typically lame Army IT implementation, 20 years behind industry; you can’t permalink results, and the actual facts are contained in gaudy (but illustration-free) .pdfs. But hey, you can get to the data if you’re willing to tabulate it yourself.
Significant Duty Weapon Incidents
Duty Weapon mishaps are about twice as common as POW mishaps in absolute numbers, which is interesting; because every soldier is supposed to fire his duty weapon at least once a year, and combat arms soldiers fire them with great regularity, but only some of them own personal weapons. (The Army makes it very difficult, for example, for single enlisted soldiers, who are usually required to live in barracks, to own personal firearms. The Military Police branch and most posts’ Provost Marshal (senior MP officer) are as anti-gun as anyone on Mike Bloomberg’s payroll).
In other words, in our opinion, the rate of negligent discharges of privately-owned weapons is much higher than the rate of NDs of service weapons, relative to the opportunities for those NDs.
In our opinion, the relative rarity of duty weapon mishaps results from the Army’s committed safety culture, to the point that safety rules sometime impinge on training realism and verisimilitude. (Every commander and leader has struggled with this balance).
Some units benefit from a sort of papal dispension that allows them to pursue more realism in training, at the price of more risk. Sometimes, that risk comes home to roost.
A 1st Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, Hunter Army Airfield, Georgia, Soldier was fatally injured on 9 December 2015 at approximately 2100 local, on Fort Stewart when he was struck by a 5.56 live round while conducting a live-fire exercise. The 21-year-old CPL
was pronounced dead at a local medical center.
And sometimes, complacency downrange bites a guy. Note that the fatality does not appear to be the guy responsible for the accident (it takes some care to read through it and sort out who’s who). Who wants to bear that kind of guilt?
A 3rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division, US Forces- Afghanistan Soldier was killed by the negligent discharge of a M72 Light anti-tank weapon (LAW) on 11 January 2012 at approximately 2100 local. Reportedly a 27-year-old SPC team leader was demonstrating the operation of the LAW to a subordinate team member (22-year-old PFC) who was standing in front of him when it fired striking him in the abdomen. The warhead impacted a wall behind him but did not detonate. Two other Soldiers standing nearby also were injured and all four were evacuated to a medical treatment center. The PFC was unable to be revived and was pronounced deceased.
It’s not clear but it seems like the fatality was caused by the rocket (the fuel is burned and the LAW fully accelerated inside the tube), and the other injuries caused by backblast. The LAW didn’t detonate because the warhead isn’t live right out of the muzzle — or this might have been multiple fatalities.
This actually is an early (Vietnam-era) LAW, but the current ones are externally similar enough. It takes (1) removing the end covers; (2) extending the tube; (3) extending the safety; and, (4) pressing down on the trigger in the rubber boot you can see in front of the rear sight (front is left in this image), to fire this weapon. Once you do, a 66mm rocket comes out of the tube at about 650 fps (A6/A7 version; VN era was 475 fps).
The Army actually has an excellent page of advice on avoiding and (from a leadership point of view) preventing firearms (and explosives) mishaps. Do Read The Whole Thing™, but we’ll pull two lists from there. First, some causative and contributing factors.
Negligent discharges most commonly occur when:
- cleaning, clearing or performing a functions check on their weapons.
- entering or exiting vehicles.
- retrieving, uploading, or emplacing weapons.
- following a change of mission, duty, or weapon’s status.
- joking or playing around pointing a weapon at themselves or someone else.
- handling a foreign weapon they are unfamiliar with.
- soldiers become distracted and fiddle with a weapon and unmindfully pull the trigger.
The old bugbear of mis-set headspace and timing, and accident ricochet and fragmentation accidents also come in for a dishonorable mention. But the bottom line is this:
As with negligent discharges, these mishaps are often a result of inadequate training, overconfidence, complacency, and indiscipline.
Amen. They also have some positive suggestions. We’ll discuss any of these in the comments, if you like.
Steps to reduce weapons handling risk:
- Assist leaders in ensuring personnel have adequate training for their assigned weapons.
- Do not allow personnel to use weapons they have not been trained on or that have not been inspected for serviceability.
- As one of the first steps in clearing a weapon, ensure personnel remove the source of ammunition (magazine, belt, etc.). Do not allow personnel to clean weapons with a magazine in the weapon.
- Ensure there is adequate command policy in place regarding authorized holsters. Avoid holsters that orient muzzles towards personnel.
- Ensure there is adequate policy regarding handling and use of foreign weapons and ammunition.
- Ensure soldiers use the proper gauge. The M2 and M3 are not interchangeable.
- Remind soldiers when firing an individual weapon from the gunner’s station to ensure the muzzle has cleared the turret. A good way to do this is to have them put the barrel over the turret.
- Partner with unit leaders to aggressively change the way soldiers THINK about weapons safety!
We’re not in love with the suggestions that imply that if you make a rule, or a policy, or make some command like an ancient potentate in a fifties’ sword-and-sandal epic, that you have Done Your Bit for safety and can now retire.
Significant Private Weapon Incidents
The database contains at least six accidents from 2013 through 2016. In one, a Fort Carson soldier was shot dead by his 13-year-old son, who mistook Dad for an intruder.
A 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, Fort Carson, Colorado, Soldier was struck by a round fired from a privately owned weapon (POW) on 2 March 2013 at approximately 2200 local in Colorado Springs. The 36- year-old SGT was entering his residence when he was mistaken for an intruder and shot by his 13-year-old son. The SGT was pronounced deceased at a local medical center.
This accident, though, was more typical. Note two things that frequently show up here: an audience, and Judgment Juice (together they add up to, “Hold m’beer an’ watch this!”):
4/3rd Infantry Regiment, (The Old Guard), Fort Myer, Virginia, Soldier was killed as the result of a gunshot wound from a privately owned weapon (POW) on 19 August 2014 at approximately 0300 local in Omaha, Nebraska. The 26-year-old SPC was on PCS leave and was handling a .45 caliber handgun in the presence of friends when he discharged a round which struck him in the head. The Soldier had been consuming alcohol.
Audience and alcohol, again:
A 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division, Fort Bliss, Texas, Soldier was killed as the result of a fatal privately owned weapon (POW) gunshot wound on 4 April 2014 at approximately 2030 local in El Paso. The 29-year-old SGT was handling his pistol in his apartment with another Soldier when it discharged. The SGT had been holding it to his temple when the round discharged. He was pronounced deceased at a local medical center. Both Soldiers had been consuming alcohol.
And this one:
A 1st Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division (AA), Fort Campbell, Kentucky, Soldier was struck by a round fired from a privately owned weapon (POW) on 12 July 2013 at approximately 0100 local in Oak Grove. The 31-year-old SPC was handling his newly purchased 40 Caliber handgun, while sitting in a POV at an off post residence with three other Soldiers. The SPC fired a round that struck him in the head.
Here’s another, more recent one. You may see a pattern emerging here.
A 100th Brigade Support Battalion, Fort Sill, Oklahoma, soldier was killed by an accidental discharge on 12 December 2015 at approximately 0145 local in Lawton. The 20-year-old SPC was at a gathering at another soldier’s residence when one of the soldiers began handling a firearm. The SPC was fatally injured when he was struck in the chest by a round fired from the weapon. The soldiers had been consuming alcohol. The SPC was pronounced deceased in route to the hospital. News Article
In that case, the negligent triggerman was arrested for manslaughter.
Not all the mishaps come up as “privately owned weapon” or “POW” in a search. For example, this one is listed along with many others as a “negligent discharge.”
A U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School, Fort Bragg, North Carolina, Soldier was killed instantly by a negligent discharge on 23 November 2011 at approximately 0130 local in Fayetteville. The 27- year-old SGT was handling a semi-automatic pistol and showing it to two fellow students (both SPC) when he discharged a round up through his chin killing him. Alcohol use is reported to be a contributing factor in this accident. The SGT redeployed from OEF in November 2009
Alcohol is a causal factor in many of these accidents, as the Safety Center’s Tracey Russell wrote in an article yclept, “Armed and Hammered.”
Six Soldiers lost their lives in fiscal 2012 to off-duty negligent discharge accidents involving privately owned weapons. Alcohol was involved in at least four of the six accidents. In one case, a group of Soldiers consumed alcohol over an extended period one evening at several locations, taking care to use a designated driver or taxi. Then, upon returning to his residence, one of the Soldiers decided to handle his privately owned weapon. While doing so, he inadvertently disengaged the safety mechanism and discharged a bullet into his head.
In another case, a Soldier reportedly pointed a weapon at his friend, a fellow Soldier, to scare him to cure his hiccups. Sadly, his cure worked, and his friend will never have the hiccups again. The Soldier now faces manslaughter charges because he accidently discharged the weapon, killing his friend.
As a citizen of the United States, you have a constitutional right under the Second Amendment to keep and bear arms for lawful purposes. You also have a legal right to consume alcohol if you are 21 or older. However, conventional wisdom and Army statistics indicate that exercising both of these rights at the same time has the serious potential of resulting in a wrong that may be fatal. If you are handling a firearm, wait until you have safely stored your weapon before enjoying that “adult” beverage. If you are already enjoying that beverage, handle your weapons some other time.
That’s pretty mild scolding, compared to past Army anti-gun messaging. And it’s just common sense. But as these mishaps show, soldiers could do with common sense being a smidgen more common.
The capitalized THINK is a reference to the Army’s acronym for its current five-rule version of the three or four Basic Gun Safety Rules. Its principle value is that it comes with a nifty, mnemonic acronym, and we’ll break it out in the Conclusions below.
Unfortunately, this reinforces our old mantra: “There are no new accidents, just new guys having the same old accidents.” Few of the duty accidents, and none of the privately owned weapon accidents, would have occurred if soldiers just had their heads out of their fourth point of contact.
Some factors we saw in accident after accident:
- Several junior personnel together in the absence of adult leadership.
- Alcohol. It’s OK to love firearms and Judgment Juice, but they are both jealous lovers and out to be enjoyed in series, not in parallel.
- A new (to Joe, anyway) firearm.
- Guns at parties (and this can bring #1, #2, and #3 into play all at once).
The Army has been promoting a five-rule alternative to the three (or four) Rules of Gun Safety. It includes a superfluous rule, but in true .mil fashion, does so in the interests of creating an acronym: THINK.
- Treat every weapon as if it were loaded;
- Handle every weapon with care;
- Identify the target before you fire;
- Never point the weapon at anything you don’t intend to shoot;
- Keep the weapon off safe and your finger off the trigger until you intend to fire.
(For example, see this hunter safety poster, or this one on POWs. But another version used only three rules).
If you like the idea of a THINK poster, here’s one in PDF form that you can have printed at any local print shop, Kinkos, etc. As a US Government document it is not encumbered with copyright.