Baldwin's Negligent Discharge: It Could Never Happen to Me, Right?
Updated: Dec 5, 2021
Actor Alec Baldwin shot and killed his director of photography and wounded the director on a movie set in New Mexico.
During a recent interview Baldwin denies pulling the trigger on the fully functional revolver. But his story clearly falls into the context of this post. His negligence in the handling of the firearm is clear, but it's something that can be avoided with awareness and training.
Baldwin told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos that he was aiming the gun at Hutchins because she told him to do so for the rehearsal. He said that he was told later that it was “aimed right below her armpit." He shot her in the stomach, and the bullet went through her and lodged in Souza’s shoulder.
Baldwin described his back and forth with Hutchins:
In this scene, I am going to cock the gun. I said, “Do you want to see that?’” And she said “Yes.” So I take the gun, and I start to cock the gun. I’m not going to pull the trigger. I said, “Did you see that?” She said, “Well just cheat it down and tilt it down a little bit like that.” And I cocked the gun, “Can you see that? Can you see that?” And then I let go of the hammer of the gun, and the gun goes off.
The news media is calling this various versions of the phrase "accidental discharge".
Alec Baldwin is at the centre of a police investigation after shooting and killing his director of photography with a prop gun on the set of a movie in New Mexico in what appeared to be an accidental misfire.
The same article above notes:
A spokesperson for Baldwin said there was an accident on the set involving the misfire of a prop gun with blanks.
Here's another take from another larger media outlet:
A distraught Baldwin repeatedly asked why he was given a "hot gun" after his prop weapon discharged on his New Mexico film set Thursday, accidentally killing a cinematographer and injuring the director, witnesses have claimed
Negligent Discharge vs. Accidental Discharge
The term "negligent discharge" used to be called "accidental discharge". It describes anytime – any time – you shoot your firearm when you did not intend to -- or should not have. The term was probably changed because firearms rarely discharge accidentally. They don't just "go off ". The overwhelming cause of a negligent discharge is caused by you or something pulling or pushing on the trigger.
It went off accidentally! You pulled the trigger, whether you were aware of it or not.
But, I didn't know it was loaded! Why didn't you check to make sure it wasn't?
I didn't mean to shoot! But you pointed the muzzle at someone or something and had your finger inside of the trigger guard.
Negligence: Failure To Use Reasonable Care That Would Be Expected Of Any Other Person In A Similar Situation.
To protect ourselves and others we need to be hyper-vigilant about guarding the trigger and controlling your muzzle --- two of the four safety rules we religiously follow.
We are going to count out any situations that would be overtly negligent:
Drinking and handling firearms
Pointing the muzzle at someone and pulling the trigger
Having live ammunition around while dry firing
Horseplay and joking around with firearms.
Let's concentrate on how to avoid negligent discharges during self-defense situations.
By the time you have retrieved or drawn your handgun you are in a serious self-defense situation. The violent and tumultuous nature of attacks makes for a chaotic environment. This can cause you to discharge your weapon unintentionally and -- sometimes -- without your knowledge.
We all will likely agree the fear you will feel when you are being assaulted can affect your judgement, fine motor skills, and memory. Add into the mix a handgun which requires find motor skills to manipulate and good judgment for when to deploy, and we have a recipe for accidental or negligent discharges.
Automatic Reflexes and Firearms
We need to be conscious of what we are trying to do with our hands and our body when we have our handgun drawn because there are generally three events which cause our hands to tighten reflexively:
1. Startle response or flinch. This is defensive reaction to sudden and threatening stimuli. This reflex allows us to instantly protect our vulnerable parts. We blink to protect our eyes, we crouch to protect our thorax, and our hands either come up to cover our head or they stretch out forward to ward off the incoming threat.
2. Falling or stumble reflex. Our postural control system wants to keep us positioned upright and prevent us from falling. We are designed to stay on our feet for fight or flight. When falling, we instinctively reach out and grab something to "catch" our balance.
3. Sympathetic or inter-limb reflex. The very real effect of sympathetic grip reflex is that both of our hands are wired to work together. In other words, when your empty hand grasps and pulls your other hand is wired to grasp and pull. This reflex is designed for your body to recruit the maximum amount of muscle fibers at the same time for superhuman strength.
All three of these instinctive actions can, and do, contribute to unintentional pulling of the trigger when you are holding a gun.
I've seen it hypothesized that babies only have two innate fears:
fear of loud noises
fear of falling
These fears seem to be found in all species. These are thought to be a brainstem reflex that serves to protect you. In other words, these are programmed into your primitive brain. They are instinctive. That's why we are all susceptible to clacking off a shot when we are startled, stumble, or are grabbing someone.
The video below shows a good example of how this can happen even with a trained police officer. Here's the set up for what we are going to see in the video:
First we see a police officer from Haddon Township, New Jersey, making a fairly routine traffic stop.
At this point of the stop (time code here) the driver decides he's going to flee the scene and as he starts moving the officer jumps up to lean into the driver's compartment.
The truck accelerates but veers sharply to the left and crashes into a parked car on the other side of the street. The officer wisely jumps off of the truck right before the crash.
The officer draws his duty weapon and repeatedly commands the driver to exit the vehicle. The driver does comply and gets out of the vehicle and gets prone on the ground facedown momentarily. But then the driver moves to kneeling with his hands up against the bed of the truck.
As the officer moves to make contact with the driver to control him, the driver stands up and begins to resist. At this point you can see the size disparity between the driver and the police officer.
The driver makes a break and begins to run from the officer who is attempting to control and take down the driver.
At this time code of the video you probably won't be able to tell, but the officer discharges of his weapon as he is trying to reach in front to pull and stop the driver.
Both men are temporarily stopped when they are pushed up against a citizen's car who has blindly driven into the scene and now inexplicably stops in the middle of the action.
The officer now seems to be gaining momentum in the fight and is starting to control the driver and starts pushing him towards the side of the road. Both of them trip over the curb and scramble for position as they hit the grass.
The officer takes the top position with the driver turtling up on his knees before the officer flattens the driver and the fight is essentially over.
It's only at this time code of the video when the driver is being rolled over to in a sitting position that he says that he's been shot.
(SIDE NOTE: Controlling someone through grappling is especially preferable for law enforcement officers because there is little to no striking going on. It is more effective than striking and more humane for citizens. This example shows a decidedly smaller officer controlling a larger suspect. To be fair in this case, the suspect did have a gunshot wound to the thigh which might have affected his ability to resist. Yet, it doesn't appear that the driver even acknowledges his injury until he is rolled over).
This sets the stage for a very interesting time period on the video where the officer initially seems to deny shooting the suspect but then responds adequately to begin coordinating medical attention on the driver. It seems as though the officers on scene gradually begin to realize that the first officer did shoot the suspect after they begin to confirm the wound is from a gunshot.
The point I'm making is that the officer unintentionally shot the suspect without realizing it. Ironically, the officer deftly re-holsters his pistol while still struggling with the suspect. I'm going to chalk that up to an adequate amount of training and repetitions to make that movement competent during the crisis. However, even with this amount of expertise, he still fell into an unconscious action driven by our body's hardwiring when he discharged the shot without realizing it.
Even though we think we will never put our finger on the trigger or point our muzzle at anything we don't intend to destroy, in the frenzy of a fight it is predictable that our base biology is going to be stronger than our intellect.
We have to be able to override these base reflexes as much as possible through:
1. Awareness of this very real response and it's propensity to happen during a fight;
2. Constant and ritualistic training to keep our finger straight and off of the trigger until we are on target and ready to shoot.
Learn from the Alec Baldwin shooting and the above video. Make your firearms handling a ritual that you follow the same way. Every. Time.