EXCLUSIVE FOR LEE JARRETT, SMITH & WESSON FORUM
THE LIGHT TRIGGER PULL ISSUE
By Massad Ayoob
A common thread topic on shooting forums is whether a defensive handgun with a lighter-than-factory-spec trigger pull can cause problems in court. Because this is something that most people don’t have experience with, the topic is particularly vulnerable to misinformation.
On a recent thread, the original poster opened with the following link, in which instructors and lawyers mentioned several cases of too-light pulls resulting in injuries and severe legal problems: Gun Modifications, Light Triggers and Reloaded Ammunition
It wasn’t long before someone posted to claim there had never been such a case. Others wrote in, citing cases where it had indeed been problematic; they were followed by a litany of posters parroting, “there has never been such a case.”
At that point, there was no way a discussion could meaningfully continue without posters of the latter stripe being made to feel insulted. A basic rule of internet posting, indeed of debate, is: read/listen to the other person’s argument. Partly because you can never defeat an argument you don’t understand, and partly because saying something you’ve just been presented evidence of, doesn’t exist, indicates willful ignorance at best and lying at worst.
The Scope of the Problem.
Extremely light trigger pulls are seen as “easier to shoot.” That’s the good news AND the bad news. Extremely light trigger pulls have long been associated with unintended or premature discharges, and we live in a time when both the gun culture and the firearms training industry – rightly or wrongly – have promoted the concept than any unintended discharge not caused by a mechanical defect is a “negligent discharge.”
In a self-defense shooting, both prosecutors in criminal cases and plaintiffs’ counsel in civil cases know that justified protection of self and other innocent victims is a very strong defense…but there’s no such thing as a “justifiable accident.” Whatever opposing counsel deems “their theory of the case” is customarily treated in court as if it could be every bit as plausible as the truth in a true self-defense case. However, if the issue of negligence can be raised, the hill they have to climb to convict you or win a large monetary judgment from you is much less steep. The element of negligence can sustain a Manslaughter charge in criminal court, and a Wrongful Death verdict in civil court.
Taking a criminal suspect at gunpoint with a “hair trigger gun” that “no police department would allow an officer to carry” feeds directly into their theory of negligence, now applied to YOUR case.
Before the last quarter of the 20th Century, and long before I did my first case as an expert witness, the nation’s third largest municipal police force – LAPD – had ordered all service revolvers modified to double action only (DAO). OIF2, a gun-savvy LAPD vet on the Smith & Wesson Forum, pegs the date of the change at 1971.
Before the sea change from the service revolver to the semiautomatic police service pistol was complete (more than 20 years ago) many other agencies had gone DAO. NYPD and Miami Police Department, among others. It was not a phenomenon limited to the USA; in Canada, the Montreal Police Department did the same. One reason for the Glock pistol’s rapid ascendance to dominance during the changeover was that early on, BATF declared the Glock to be a double action only semiautomatic pistol. (Miami went to the Glock with an 8-pound connector; NYPD famously went with DAO SIG P226 and S&W 5946, and the Glock 19 with the NY-2 trigger system created especially for that department with an 11 to 12 pound trigger pull.) When Chicago PD, our second largest department, first authorized semiautomatics, they didn’t allow even Glocks: only double action ONLY S&W, SIG, Beretta, and Ruger pistols were initially authorized. The US Border Patrol, our largest Federal law enforcement agency, adopted the Beretta 96D DAO as their first issue auto pistol in the mid-1990s, and went to the DAO HK P2000 (LEM trigger system) circa 2006.
Why the change? Because of the so-called “hair trigger” effect that was created when the hammer was cocked. Sometimes, under the tense conditions in which guns are drawn for defensive purposes, cocked guns DID go off unintentionally with tragic results. And, also, because if the gun COULD be cocked, an opening was created for opposing counsel to falsely claim that it WAS cocked and then negligently discharged.
Large police departments have a significant number of shootings, all of which are thoroughly investigated and most of which result in some sort of lawsuit. These incidents become parts of those agencies’ institutional history, and are considered when those agencies determine what guns will be approved or issued in the future.
When this topic is discussed in gun forums, certain themes predictably arise. Let’s discuss them now.
“They won’t know I had a light trigger.” MISCONCEPTION. Of course they ‘ll know. It is routine procedure for every firearm recovered after a shooting to be sent to the crime lab, where it will be intensively examined by a professional Firearms and Toolmark Examiner who is likely to be currently certified as an armorer with most common handguns. Trigger pulls are routinely weighed and cross-checked with manufacturer specifications to determine if they are within spec. All safety devices are checked. (The reason, among others, is to preclude a criminal from claiming that a murder weapon was defective and went off by itself.)
“I’ll just say I shot him intentionally, and that will be that.” MISCONCEPTION. News flash: if everyone was accepting what you say, even if you speak the truth, you wouldn’t be in court. I would expect the opposing counsel’s opening statement to include something like, “The defendant is so reckless and arrogant he can’t admit he made a deadly mistake. He’ll probably tell you something like ‘I, like Inspector Clouseau, meant to do that.’”
“That’s only a concern if you shot someone by accident.” MISCONCEPTION. All they have to do is ALLEGE that you fired by accident due to the hair trigger effect. A classic example is Florida v. Luis Alvarez, where the cornerstone of the state’s case against the officer was that he had (A) cocked the hammer of his Smith & Wesson, which (B) had two coils removed from the trigger return spring. Yes, he was ultimately acquitted…after a fourteen-month ordeal that included an eight-to-nine-week trial. A detailed account of this case can be found in the autobiography of one of his attorneys, Roy Black, titled “Black’s Law.”
“I always keep my booger hooker off the bang switch, so this will never be an issue for me.” MISCONCEPTION. First, even if you HAVE kept your finger off the trigger until you intentionally fired, remember the point made earlier: you can’t count on what you SAY in court automatically being BELIEVED in court. Second, a seasoned cross-examiner would simply reply, “We all know you’re supposed to keep your finger off the trigger until you’re in the act of intentionally firing…AND WE’RE SAYING THAT YOU DIDN’T! WE CONTEND THAT YOU MADE A MISTAKE! Are you telling this jury that you’re an absolutely perfect human being who is INCAPABLE of making a mistake?”
Tell us how you’re going to answer that, without sounding like the personification of reckless arrogance the cross-examiner is portraying you to be?
Second, you can expect opposing counsel to discover the European study found HERE Force Science News #3: Can You Really Prevent Unintentional Discharges?
in which it was discovered that even well-trained cops did not realize their fingers were touching their triggers in high-stress simulated danger situations. It’s called “trigger affirmation” by training expert Tom Aveni, and also “trigger confirmation” or “trigger verification.” And it can happen even with the most highly trained personnel.
“There has never been a conviction resulting from the hair trigger allegation!” MISCONCEPTION. Here are two, just from my personal experience. NY v. Magliato, where Frank Magliato unintentionally discharged the cocked revolver he had pointed at his assailant, killing him. Sent to prison originally for Depraved Murder, the appellate court reduced the conviction only to Manslaughter, with the majority opinion holding that it was reckless and negligent to aim a gun with such a light trigger pull at a man one obviously did not intend to shoot at that moment. (The minority opinion held that doing so did indeed constitute Depraved Murder under NY law.) And in Canada there was Crown v. Gossett, a criminal trial involving a cop whose service revolver probably was cocked when it unintentionally discharged, killing an unarmed suspect. Gossett was convicted of Manslaughter in his first trial, but thankfully, acquitted in his second trial.
“I’ll just tell the Court that I had the light trigger so I wouldn’t miss and hit an innocent bystander.” MISCONCEPTION. Whether you say that in a gun forum discussion or in court, you can expect the opposing side to say, “So, you ADMIT your competence with a gun was so poor that you realized EVEN BEFOREHAND that you were likely to hit an innocent bystander instead of your intended target if you didn’t have your special ‘orthopedic trigger’? Why weren’t you honest enough to admit that you weren’t ready to be carrying or even keeping a loaded gun for self defense in public yet?” That argument HELPS anyone trying to paint you as incompetent and negligent.
What Exactly Constitutes a ‘Hair Trigger’?
That will generally be determined by manufacturer spec for “duty trigger” pull weight, and “common custom and practice” WITH THAT PARTICULAR FIREARM. With the popular Glock, the manufacturer’s position is that the nominal 5.5-lb. pull weight of the standard model is minimum for duty. Pistols like their Tactical/Practical G34 and G35 come standard with 4.5 pound triggers, but are also listed in the Glock website and catalog under “sport” (i.e., “target”) pistols rather than law enforcement or self-defense guns. When ordered by police departments, it is Glock policy to install the 5.5-lb. trigger in those models. (The 3.5/4.5-lb. connector is factory approved for serious use only in conjunction with the NY-1 trigger module, which brings pull weight up into the 6-lb. range.) On the other hand, with the 1911, a pistol equipped with thumb safety and grip safety, the 4.5-lb. trigger is much more defensible. NRA’s minimum pull weight on a 1911 in the Distinguished match is 4.0-lb. This seems to be the minimum pull weight for a duty 1911 recommended by most of its many manufacturers, including Colt.
A cocked double action revolver is generally seen as having a “hair trigger,” and was presented as such in trial or at grand jury in Florida v. Alvarez S&W Model 64, NY v. Magliato (Colt Detective Special), Michigan v. Chase (S&W Model 15), Georgia v. Crumbley (S&W Model 686), and Crown v. Gossett (S&W Model 10) among others.
This writer is speaking as a police firearms instructor since 1972, a trainer of law-abiding armed citizens since 1981, and more than four decades of researching why police make the firearms training decisions they do, and how they investigate shootings. Those decades include 19 years as chair of the firearms/deadly force training committee of the American Society of Law Enforcement Trainers, 11 years on the advisory board of the International Association of Law Enforcement Trainers Association, and 35 years as an expert witness in weapons/use of force cases. Having been involved personally in several cases involving lighter-than-factory-spec triggers presented as “hair trigger cases,” including the Alvarez, Gossett, and Magliato cases mentioned above, I think that the collective law enforcement experience in countless such cases speaks to the wisdom of keeping “factory ‘duty spec’ trigger pulls” on any firearm one is likely to use for self-defense purposes.