Negligent Discharge: The Shooter’s Story

think safety signThis story was told by a Marine, Private Johnathan T. Markert, while he was in the the Marine brig at Camp Hansen, Japan, for the negligent homicide of a friend. We believe that he has since been released from confinement on completion of his sentence.

You’ve heard the basic safety rules for handling weapons and undoubtedly will hear them again. Maybe you’ve heard them so many times you’re getting tired of them. But it’s vitally important that you understand these rules, accept their value, and, above all, follow them when you’re handling a weapon in any situation. Believe me, I know.

As we will see, his problem was not just a violation of common safety rules, but a complete lapse of self-discipline.

I graduated boot camp and infantry school with ease, and I was eager and motivated to hit the fleet. Being sent to Hawaii was a dream come true. Senior Marines were very encouraging and told me I was going to go places in the Corps. We went on our annual unit deployment program to Okinawa, Japan, and I couldn’t have been more excited. I was assigned to stand post as a sentry at the gates of Camp Hansen, which would involve handling loaded 9 mm pistols. Not a problem for me; I thought, “I’m a machine gunner and a pistol is my secondary weapon. I know this gun inside and out.” Unfortunately, I disregarded basic safety rules and ignored what a 9 mm round can do to a human being.

You wan to guess what comes next? If it were a crime, it would be “clowning with a firearm, First Degree, your honor.” But we’ll let Markert describe it:

On a quiet Sunday evening in June 2003, two Marines and I were scheduled for duty at one of Camp Hansen’s gates. We climbed into the back of a HMMWV to be driven to post. A quarter-mile ride to the gate was all it took for my life to change and a fellow Marine’s life to end.

toe tagA close friend and I pulled out our 9 mm pistols and began to play around with them. We pointed the weapons in all directions, including at each other; put them on “fire; ”and cocked the hammers. We then began a mock tussle, which was all it took for my pistol to fire.

My world stopped moving at that point, and a tragedy began for me, my friend, our families, and many others.  I went into shock and thought it couldn’t be happening, but it was happening right in front of me. I’d shot my friend and fellow Marine in the head.

I froze as he slumped to the floor of the HMMWV. Blood pooled on the floor as I scrambled to give him first aid. By this time other Marines had converged on the HMMWV. Someone said he was dead, but I found he still was breathing.

I thought I could stop the bleeding with my shirt. But as I wrapped the shirt around his head, I felt tissue and other matter near the wound. I feared for my friend’s life and was numb with despair by the time EMT personnel arrived and took him from my arms. They took him to the hospital, where he languished for 8 days before succumbing to the wound I’d inflicted.

And then, as the saying goes, his troubles began.

I was handcuffed and taken to the provost marshal’s office, where the investigation and the longest night of my life began. The investigators asked detailed questions and focused on our horseplay. The process was painstaking and added a helpless feeling of regret to my fear and despair. I couldn’t see—let alone accept—that a moment of foolishness could lead to something so horrible. I was placed under suicide watch after questioning and on legal hold and liberty risk upon my release.

We’d like to add at this point that the M9 is an extremely safe firearm, to the extent that such an oxymoron can ever be true. It has several positive safeties, including a heavy first-round double-action trigger pull; a positive visual and tactile loaded-chamber indicator; and a simple operating system that can be taught to a basic operator in a couple of hours. It has been operated safely by literally millions of troops since its 1980s introduction. (And some of us had our hands on M9 precursors in the late 70s).

M9-pistolBut even this idiot-proofed weapon can’t compete with the natural skills of the improvisational idiot. He ignored the passive safeties and defeated the active ones, including the double-action lockwork of the pistol. He never looked at or finger-swept the loaded chamber indicator. He put it in a state of readiness to fire, and then, according to all the survivors, engaged in some kind of tussle. His buddy was just as big an idiot for playing along with him.

This is a relatively rare example of someone being court-martialed for a negligent discharge. It’s understandable in the light of the consequences, and, not to put too fine a point on it, in the light of Markert’s lowly rank at the time (about to get lower, of course). People make excuses for higher ranking officers in similar circumstances, but the services land with both feet on a junior enlisted guy.

This kind of make-an-example-of-him approach is hard on the negligent shooter, but he’s damaged, probably irreparably, at that point, so why not use him to send a message pour encourager les aûtres?

Six months of agony and anguish passed before my court-martial, which was as heart-wrenching as a funeral and as bad as reliving your worst nightmare. Facing more than 20 years in prison and discharge from the Corps was very frightening and difficult. However, nothing was as hard as seeing and hearing what my friend’s mother, father, and sister had been through. I also had to face the effect my trial had on my own mother and brother-in-law, a former Marine who’d accompanied her to Okinawa for support.

I stood up at sentencing and told my friend’s family how sorry I was. Somehow they were able to graciously accept my apology. I believe they understand their son was my close friend and his death was an accident. Even so, I must live each day knowing I killed my friend and a good Marine.

No matter how skilled or comfortable you are with a weapon, the basic safety rules still apply. Remember “Treat, Never, Keep, Keep:”

  • Treat every weapon as if it’s loaded
  • Never point your weapon at anything you don’t intend to shoot
  • Keep your finger straight and off the trigger until you’re ready to fire
  • Keep your weapon on safe until you intend to fire

I write this from the brig as a discharged Marine with the belief I can be of some help to anyone who reads or hears my story. This tragedy, with all its pain and suffering, could’ve been avoided if I’d simply followed the above rules. Weapons don’t care if you’re just playing around and have no regard for you, your skill, intentions, or brother Marines. It’s you who must think and act with care and purpose.

What a tragic story. And what a price paid by all concerned — including Markert and his Marine buddy — for two young men’s carelessness.

Sure, he seems to have matured considerably while in prison. But as he observed, his life has taken on a new direction. May he make the best of it.

14 thoughts on “Negligent Discharge: The Shooter’s Story

  1. Boat Guy

    Complacency is a killer. I had my negligent discharge in my Armory, by myself and hit nothing more animate than a mount-out box. My NCO made sure I paid for my stupidity but in a manner that kept my record clean, one of many instances in my life and career where I’ve been far more fortunate than I deserved.
    Like the lad above, I was “motivated” , hard-charging and an EXPERT. Yet when one of my fellows left the duty pistol in condition II (against policy, regs and expectations) instead of condition IV I had a very nasty surprise after supposedly “clearing” the pistol to the point of dropping the hammer on a chamber I “ASSUMED” to be empty.
    I still have the deformed bullet. I have been VERY fortunate. I have never horsed around with weapons, but have known of several Marines killed by doing so. There, but for the Grace of God and at least observing Rule 2 go I.

  2. Bert

    You know how kids played army, cowboys and indians, etc. with toy guns?

    We did not on our property. If dad saw you point a toy gun at someone, it was taken away and broken to pieces in front of you.

    On the other hand, we got to shoot real guns starting at 8 years old. More than made up for the other thing.

  3. Larry Kaiser

    As a gunners mate on an ammunition ship, I had the responsibility of arming and training night time deck watches. The weapon issued was a Winchester M97 riot gun and 00 buck brass cased ammo. I went over the procedure for loading and unloading the weapon and told the watches to keep the hammer down on an empty chamber and that if they needed to fire a shot all they had to do was pump the slide and pull the trigger. They were given 6 rounds of ammo and turned loose to patrol the deck in case of swimmers trying to come aboard. The next morning when I retrieved the gun and shells nearly every one of the rounds had been pried open to see what 00 buck looked like and the primer of every shell showed many little indentations where that big ole ’97 hammer had been lowered too smartly on a chambered round.
    As a retired teacher I can see a number of things I could have done to keep these near accidents to a minimum. I consider myself very lucky that I do not have a death or injury on my conscience or a court martial on my record. There is an expression in the navy “nothing is sailor proof”. Probably applies to all branches.

  4. Docduracoat

    I never understand ” playing around” by pointing a gun at a friend
    I hear these stories all the time.
    What is fun about that?
    You scare your friend if it really is unloaded, and kill him if it isn’t
    Either way you have just lost a friend.
    You want to shoot at friends? Play paintball/airsoft

  5. Keith

    All of the safety features on the M9 is why I carry my 92FS on my job. The company issues Gen 4 Glock 17’s but I’m just not comfortable with carrying a loaded pistol in public without the loaded chamber indicator, decocker and manual safety.

    Even still, gun safety starts with the person holding it or storing it.

    1. John M.

      My Gen3 Glock has a loaded chamber indicator: the extractor protrudes from the side of the frame when it has a round engaged. It’s not very visual, but you can feel it in a heartbeat, even with your trigger finger.

      -John M.

    2. TRX

      I never have any problem telling when one of my guns is loaded.

      Unless it’s being taken down for cleaning, it’s loaded.

  6. staghounds

    He is brave to write about it and he may save some lives. There but for luck and following most of the rules could be any one of us.

    1. TF-BA

      INCORRECT. He’s writing about it to make himself feel better about being a teamkiller. Fuck that noise.

      My best friend ND’d a M40 in camp prior to movement. AS HE SHOULD HAVE, he was batallion NJP’d from SGT to CPL. With a severe quickness. Still part of STA he was KIA later during the operation. I fucking love that guy; but would have never let him forget how fundamentally retarded he was that day.

      Luck has ABSOLUTELY NOTHING TO DO WITH ANYTHING. Only asshole team killers follow MOST of the rules. It could totally be any of us – KILLED BY DIPSHITS.

      That Marine is just as brave as a condom full of swimmers getting flushed.

      The Brig is where he belongs. I would bet that some treeline, gearlocker or wall to wall counseling probably would have got him squared away but I’m not a psychic.

  7. bloke_from_ohio

    And we wonder why the DoD keeps us all disarmed whenever they can conceivably do so.

  8. Buckaroo

    All the “safety” features of the M9 don’t add up to squat if you disable them.

    People complain that Glocks aren’t “safe” but what’s the difference? User-operated safeties are subject to user defeat. At least the Glock’s passive safeties can’t be purposefully defeated.

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