There Is No Problem with the Term “Accidental Discharge”

    Accidents are sad, so let's look at guns instead.

    This is a matter that I don’t see a good reason to spend much time on, so I’ll keep it brief. One thing that I find curious in the firearms world is the rejection of the term “accidental discharge” (often shortened “AD”) referring to a an unintentional discharge of a firearm in favor of the variant “negligent discharge” (ND). Under most circumstances this would seem like just a quirk of the community and its own specific vocabulary, but we see something a little stranger than that. Often, we see policing within the firearms sphere which demands the use of the word “negligent” in lieu of “accidental”, as if the latter were for some reason damaging or improper.

    I completely fail to see why, honestly. Outside of the firearms world, the term “accidental” is almost always used to describe situations involving negligence on the part of one party or another, and yet this use doesn’t cause hate and discontent there. When we see a wreck involving a drunk driver, we still call this a car “accident” even though there is an obvious source of negligence. To some, “accident” implies a mechanical problem with the firearm, while “negligent” implies a human failure, but these two are virtually never so easily untangled. For example, If a part wears out and breaks, causing the gun to go off, is that not the result of negligence on the part of the person whose job it is to maintain the firearm? It seems to me that it’s the nature of accidents that they are to some degree preventable, which implies negligence somewhere down the line.

    So then, why in the firearms world is “accidental” not just less common or not preferred, but often vocally shunned as an appropriate term for incidents involving firearms? I honestly do not know, but this strong reaction makes me think that there is worry that the term “accidental” implies some kind of absolution or a clearance of guilt for the actions of the negligent parties – something that for me hasn’t been true of any accidental incident I have caused or been involved in since I was a very young child. “Accidents” are, to an adult, unfortunate circumstances that always require reflection and often require changes in behavior and even policy to prevent their re-occurrence.

    For a brief time, I attended school as an engineering student. In my first semester, one of my classes took great pains to reflect on the great engineering accidents of the past, to drive home to the students just how serious a job it is to design something that others would have to rely on. The teacher told us in great detail stories of bridge collapses, spacecraft that were lost due to unit conversion errors, and of one nuclear powerplant that may as well have scattered blame all over the Soviet Union, along with the radiation. These are all “accidents”, but in being accidents they don’t absolve anyone of guilt. Indeed, in many of these cases those responsible were fired or even stripped of their license to practice engineering. Far from forgetting these accidents and letting the problems that caused them perpetuate, engineers take them very, very seriously from Day 1 of their careers.

    Finally, does the word “negligent” really do us any good? I don’t see how. To me, it zooms in on the guilty and ignores everything else, and lacks an implied acknowledgement that people aren’t perfect angels and therefore should never be expected to screw up. Others may feel differently, but there’s something about using that word that to me tries to separate the flawed from the un-flawed, without accounting for the fact that we’re all flawed, and we all could one day have an accident (indeed, statistically we all will have an accident, if we live long enough). Turning this logic around, have we confused the element of empathy for the negligent that “accident” implies with an implied absolution of their guilt? Maybe.

    I realize that might be my particular read of the problem, and I’m sure plenty of my readers have a different take. Let me know what you think in the comments.

    Nathaniel F

    Nathaniel is a history enthusiast and firearms hobbyist whose primary interest lies in military small arms technological developments beginning with the smokeless powder era. He can be reached via email at [email protected]