News: Negligent discharge: Don’t be that guy
Story by Tech. Sgt. Vernon Cunningham
JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska - After registering a weapon on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, the responsibility of the gun owner is far from over. All owners have the responsibility to handle, transport and secure their weapon as safely as possible to ensure total control over when it discharges a round.
Although many gun owners tend to build up great experience handling their personal weapons, accidentally or negligently firing a weapon can happen to anyone.
A negligent discharge occurs when a weapon is fired due to either operator error or a lack of attention to basic safety rules.
Air Force Staff Sgt. Rogelio Diaz, 673d Security Forces Squadron training noncommissioned officer, said the most important thing people need to do before handling a weapon is to be familiar with the operation of that weapon.
“They need to really know that weapon before they decide to go out and use it on the range or carry it off post for any reason,” Diaz said. “The best way to become familiar with your weapon is to read the manual and do some research. Also, people should take some type of civilian course if they are going to carry.”
Diaz said due to legal concerns, there are no gun safety classes on JBER covering anything other than military-issued weapons. He said there are a lot of concealed-carry classes in Anchorage and a weapon owner can go to any gun shop to get more information.
He said knowing your weapon and having the appropriate training are integral components of preventing negligent discharges. But having the tools to be a responsible weapon owner does not guarantee safety.
“Complacency is a big thing,” Diaz said. “If you start carrying enough, daily and such, then you tend to get complacent. If you get too complacent, negligent discharges start to happen for a variety of reasons. For instance, some weapons don’t have a safety on them and, God forbid, it gets snagged on clothing as you are trying to holster; you might shoot yourself in the leg.”
Negligent discharges can result in a variety of injuries, from a lethal shot to the head or torso to other lesser, but quite as serious, injuries.
Dr. Benjamin Kam Jr., 673d Surgical Operations Squadron commander, is a staff orthopedic surgeon and subject-matter expert on musculoskeletal injuries. Orthopedic surgeons not only work on sports injuries, but are also on the front lines taking care of combat casualties.
The colonel said a non-lethal gunshot from negligent discharge can actually have more severe impact on a person’s life than one would typically think.
“Most people that get caught in an accidental discharge in their own house don’t die from it,” Kam said. “Usually they are wounded by it, but the disability that comes from that can sometimes be pretty extensive.”
One example of an injury that may be undervalued is if the gun owner or person nearby is shot in the hand.
“Hand surgery is complex enough that it has its own sub-specialist who dedicates a whole year of additional training to learn how the hand functions,” Kam said. “A single gunshot wound through the hand, if you hit the right place, can disable most of the function of the hand.”
Kam said he treated an Afghan soldier who shot himself in the hand due to a negligent discharge. Kam then witnessed the ill effects of the soldier’s injury.
“We took care of him, but it significantly altered his ability to provide for his family,” Kam said. “There were also significant punitive repercussions for what happened to him in his service in his own country. In addition, he had to suffer the stigma of having shot himself.”
Kam also served on staff with other surgeons for a U.S. service member who accidentally shot himself in the foot, and needed three operations to repair the damage. Kam said the service member was not able to continue on with active-duty service because he could never run again, and was eventually discharged.
“That person, beyond the active duty service, has to find a way of life for himself and his family,” Kam said. “It will be hard to provide care if you can’t do regular activities. You can’t carry anything because you are limping. You can’t run.”
Suffering a wound to a limb may cost a weapon owner more than just a harsh limp.
“I have had people so significantly disabled from a shot to the ankle they couldn’t walk,” Kam said. “The pain is so severe that even though the foot and ankle are still physically there, they beg for an amputation. Sometimes it’s the only way to get their lives back. The only way to get them off narcotics and get them back to doing things again is to remove a severely traumatized foot or ankle. There are some significant disabling things that could happen. Even though you took a small hole, it can traumatize a limb severely and ruin your life for sure.”
Diaz said JBER had more cases of adults, not children, who have fired their weapons by accident. He said the adults are usually either trying to clean their weapons, come home from firing and forget to take a round out, or returned from hunting and forget to clear their weapon due to fatigue.
He said safety needs to always be on a gun owner’s mind.
“I’m from Texas … I grew up around guns,” Diaz said. “Any kind of training I have had, on base or off, it’s all been the same: safety, safety, safety. Be familiar with your weapon and don’t point at anything you don’t intend to shoot.”
For information on weapon registration and child access prevention policies on JBER, read JBER Instruction 31-107.