Accidental Deaths from Firearms

In order to decide whether a death from gunshot wound is an accident, one should know the circumstances leading up to and surrounding the death: who was present, the findings at the scene, the type of weapon, the result of an examination of the weapon by a firearms examiner, the findings at autopsy, and the results of the toxicology study.

The number of deaths in the U.S. from accidental gunshot wounds has steadily declined since 1970. In 1970, there were 2406 such cases; in 1992, 1409.1 Even this number may be too high as suicides are not uncommonly labeled as accidents. This misclassification may result from a multitude of reasons: lack of knowledge concerning weapons or the circumstances surrounding the death, naivete, an attempt to "make things easier" for a surviving spouse or family, etc. Misclassification of suicides as accidents is more common in coroner systems than medical examiner systems.

It is the opinion of the author that, if an individual is holding a weapon and this weapon discharges killing another individual, this death should be classified as a homicide. This is true even if the individual who was holding the weapon alleges that they did not intend to kill the other individual. The decision as to intent is not for the medical examiner to make but is up to the Courts. Guns do not discharge by themselves while being held. Someone has to pull the trigger. A gun does not "magically" go off. The only exception to such a ruling of homicide would be if the individual holding the weapon was a very young child (? 8-9 years or younger) who did not realize the consequences of pulling the trigger. Unfortunately, in our society, "children" of 10, 11, and 12 yrs of age are committing murder for money, drugs, to gain a reputation, for gang initiation or out of plain "meanness." Twelve- and thirteen-year-old contract killers exist. Thus, one has to be very careful in classifying a death as an accident based on the shooter's age.

A firearms death should be labeled as an accident if the weapon falls to the ground and discharges. Such an accidental discharge is due to the design of the weapon or a defect in it.

Handguns that will discharge on dropping fall into five general categories:

1. Single-action revolvers

2. Old or cheaply made double-action revolvers

3. Derringers

4. Striker-operated automatics

5. Certain external hammer automatics

Single-action revolvers are involved in most instances of discharge of a dropped weapon.9 Unlike double-action revolvers, the hammer of a single-action revolver must be cocked manually before pressure on the trigger will release the hammer. The firing pin in this weapon may be either integral with the hammer or in the frame separate from the hammer. Whatever the case, single-action revolvers have traditionally been dangerous in that, when the hammer is down, the firing pin projects through the breech face, resting on the primer of the cartridge aligned with the barrel. If the weapon is accidentally dropped and lands on the hammer, the force transmitted through the hammer to the firing pin and then to the primer may be sufficient to discharge the weapon. Because of this characteristic, single-action revolvers traditionally have been carried with the hammer down on an empty chamber.

Ruger is the major manufacturer of single-action revolvers. In 1973, because of the large numbers of accidents reported from the dropping of single-action weapons, the design of their weapons was changed so that a safety lever permits discharge only when the trigger is held all the way back. The operation of a safety lever will be discussed later in this chapter.

Most revolvers now manufactured are double-action. Well-made double-action revolvers are equipped with safety devices that prevent contact between the firing pin and the trigger if the weapon is dropped. Smith & Wesson revolvers are equipped with two safety systems: the rebound slide and the hammer block (Figure 14.13). The older of these systems, the rebound slide, was introduced in 1896 and modified in 1908. It prevents forward rotation of the hammer unless the trigger is held to the rear. In 1915, Smith & Wesson added a second safety system to this revolver, the hammer block. This is an L-shaped metal rod whose foot is automatically interposed between the hammer and the frame except when the trigger is held to the rear.

Colt double-action revolvers are equipped with a rebound lever and a hammer block (Figure 14.14). The hammer of a Colt revolver lies in a cut in the rebound lever. The hammer cannot rotate forward because of the metal of the lever. Only when the trigger is pulled and the rebound lever elevated out of the way can the hammer rotate forward to fire the weapon. The Colt hammer block system was introduced in 1905 and has been standard with all double-action Colt revolvers since 1910. Its action is identical to that of the hammer block in the Smith & Wesson revolver.

Ruger double-action revolvers, the new version of the Ruger single-action revolvers, and Charter Arms revolvers all are equipped with a device called a "safety lever" (Figure 14.15). In these weapons, the hammer rests against the steel frame above the firing pin. When the trigger is pulled, the safety lever rises, interposing itself between the firing pin and the hammer. When the hammer falls, it strikes the safety lever, which transmits the force to the firing pin, which in turn strikes the primer, firing the cartridge. When the

Figure 14.13 Smith & Wesson revolver with rebound slide (a) and (b) hammer block. (Reprinted with permission from the Journal of Forensic Sciences, 19(4), 1974. Copyright ASTM, 1916 Race Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.)

trigger is released, the safety lever drops below the firing pin and the hammer again comes to rest against the frame. The safety lever is also present in Colt Mark III revolvers.

These safety systems are often not present in cheap double-action revolvers know as Saturday Night Specials. In these weapons, safety devices may vary from non-existent to excellent in concept but poor in execution. Some Saturday Night Special revolvers use a hammer block consisting of a thin steel wire. The metal of the hammer, however, may be so soft that a number of sharp blows to the hammer causes the wire to indent the soft metal of the frame of the weapon, thus permitting the hammer to strike the firing pin, discharging the weapon.

In derringers with external hammers, just as in single-action revolvers, the firing pin rests on the primer of the chambered round. Dropping a derringer on the hammer will cause it to discharge. This does not happen with the hammerless derringer manufactured by High-Standard.

With automatic pistols, the firing mechanism is of two possible designs: striker-operated or hammer-operated. The cheaper automatic pistols are

Figure 14.14 Colt revolver with (a) rebound lever and (b) hammer block.
Figure 14.15 Revolver with safety lever.

usually striker-operated. Here a rod-like firing pin travels inside the breech block propelled by a coiled spring. When the weapon is cocked, the slide is pulled back and the striker is engaged by the sear and held in a rearward position. On pulling the trigger, the sear disengages the striker, and the spring drives it forward, firing the cartridge. With poorly made, cheap weapons, the internal tolerances of the parts may be such that if the weapon is dropped, the striker may jar loose from the sear, go forward, and fire the weapon.

Hammer-operated automatic pistols may have either an internal or an external hammer. For all practical purposes, accidental discharge of a dropped automatic pistol involves only external hammer weapons. Whether an automatic with an external hammer is safe or dangerous depends on the presence or absence of safety devices as well as the position of the hammer at the time of fall. Thus, both the Colt Model 1911A1 and the Browning Hi-Power are generally safe if dropped on their hammer when it is down. These weapons, at a minimum, are equipped with a "flying firing pin." The pin is shorter than the length it has to travel in the breech block. To propel the pin forward far enough to strike the primer, the hammer has to fall a great enough distance to impart sufficient inertia to the firing pin. If the hammer is down, a blow to it cannot be transmitted to the primer. If the weapon is at half cock when dropped, discharge can occur. The blow to the hammer, however, has to be sufficient to break off the half-cock notch or the tip of the sear engaging the notch. The forward travel of the hammer then may be sufficient to fire the weapon. If the weapon is at full cock and is dropped, it theoretically can discharge. Discharge is unlikely, however, because the force would have to be sufficient to break not only the full-cock notch but the half-cock notch. If only the full-cock notch was broken off, the half-cock notch would catch the hammer and the weapon would not discharge. The author is unaware of any Colt Model 1911A1 having discharged when dropped on a fully cocked hammer as long as the weapon had not been tampered with. Thus, weapons such as the Colt M1911A1 or Browning should be carried only with the hammer all the way down or at full cock.

There is one way a weapon such as the Colt M1911A1, theoretically, can discharge if dropped, even if the hammer is down. This occurs if the gun falls on its muzzle from a distance of 6 ft. or more. The inertia given to the firing pin by a fall of this height may be sufficient to discharge a primer. Since the gun would have fallen on its muzzle, the bullet would go into the floor or ground.

Some pistols, such as the Walther PPK are equipped with a hammer block that performs the same function as in a double-action revolver. Newer semiautomatic pistols designs e.g. the Sig-Sauers as well as modernized versions of traditional design pistols e.g. the Browning Hi-Power have a firing pin safety block that prevents the firing pin from moving forward unless the trigger is pulled. Thus, the weapon cannot fire if dropped.

Rifles and Shotguns

Just as for handguns, it is possible under certain circumstances for a rifle or shotgun to discharge when dropped. This can be due to the intrinsic design of the weapon, poor workmanship, alteration of internal parts or broken parts. With some bolt-action rifles, if (1) the trigger is held back as, (2) the action is opened, (3) a round is chambered, and (4) the action closed, while the rifle is not cocked, the firing pin is resting on the primer. If the rifle is then dropped a few feet, it may discharge. What the advantage is in carrying a rifle in this condition eludes the author.

Accidental discharges of rifles and shotguns are rare compared with discharge of handguns. In all alleged cases of accidental discharge of a long arm, as for a handgun, the weapon should be examined by an experienced firearms examiner for defects in design or construction, broken parts, or wear.

Occasionally an individual will put a loaded rifle or shotgun in the back of a vehicle. When they attempt to take it out, they grab it by the muzzle and pull it toward them. A projection in the vehicle may catch the trigger, discharging the weapon. This is an accidental death. One must be sure, however, that this is not a staged suicide.

Another category of death that may be considered accidental are "hunting accidents" in which one individual shoots another. One has to be careful that the death is not a homicide. Each case has to be examined individually and decided on its own merits. Personally, the author prefers to call these cases homicide and let the District Attorney or judicial system decide intent.

Slam-Fires

A slam-fire is the discharge of a firearm upon closing the action without the pulling of the trigger. They may be caused by a protruding or overly sensitive primer; a firing pin that protrudes because it is either stuck or failed to retract; a weak, broken or absent firing pin spring; inadequate headspace. Slam-fires are most commonly associated with self-loading military rifles in which civilian ammunition is being used as civilian primers are generally more sensitive to detonation than military primers. A protruding primer can cause a slam-fire from the closing bolt driving the primer cup against the anvil. A weak, broken or absent firing pin spring may fail to overcome the forward inertia imparted to the firing pin as the action closes. This permits the firing pin to impact the primer with sufficient force to discharge the primer.

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