Arizona’s history of being part of the “Wild West” has existed for over 100 years, and, from Jerome to Tombstone, characters like Wyatt Earp and Doc Holiday still influence Arizona’s culture. That “Wild West” feel is something that makes Arizona unique and cherished by many people inside and outside our community. It comes as no surprise that last August, Guns and Ammo magazine ranked Arizona as the best state in the nation for gun owners, for the third straight year. Arizona was recognized and commended for its combination of “strong laws and an unmatched shooting culture.” We agree that Arizona’s gun laws are a commendable distinction, it is a distinction that comes with a cost for some, nonetheless. For example, Brady’s Campaign ranked Arizona as the Number 1 State for people to get access to guns. Arizona continually scores among the lowest for gun safety due to its unique approach to gun control. Easy access to guns and poor gun safety can be a recipe for disaster.
Most gun owners are law abiding, upstanding citizens, many of whom do amazing things for the environment, community and economy. I remember the first day I went shooting, white knuckled and confident I was going to hate the experience. My previous perception of gun owners was based on what I heard on the news and read in the paper which tended to be negative. However, I was pleasantly surprised by the experience, and I actually had a good time. Most of the people I was with were veteran shooters who took the time to teach me about the proper way to handle a firearm. With much attention to detail, they created and maintained an extremely safe environment for me and those around me.
Despite my positive experience and those of countless others, gun safety is still a problem in Arizona. Simply put, some gun owners never receive proper gun handling instruction. Failure to obtain proper gun handling instruction can result in being thrown into the criminal justice system, and unfortunately, a lot of times people land there by complete accident or negligence. One of the first rules learned in gun safety is to keep your finger off the trigger. Yet, accidental discharges are an all too frequent reason why people “accidentally” wind up facing criminal charges. Naturally, using a gun is in itself an extremely delicate practice, between aiming for a target and squeezing the trigger. Accidental discharge often comes from instances where a gun user rests their finger on the trigger and, in a time of heightened adrenaline, tenses up his/her whole hand and accidentally discharges. One explanation for an accidental discharge is referred to as the sympathetic squeeze.
The sympathetic squeeze is a muscle response, or reflex, that your body uses as a defense mechanism in times of danger, distress, anger, or any instance where your adrenaline is pumping. This reflex is part of your autonomic nervous system, meaning you have little to no control over this natural reaction. In times of stress or harm, usually you are not thinking about which body part is doing what, you’re only trying to survive the given situation. The body is trained to flinch, react, or brace itself from harm. Therefore, the body will not articulate subtle movements, and it will usually react in the simplest way possible. Even in situations where a person did not have their finger on the trigger, in stressful situations, a muscle response may include unintentionally readjusting the finger onto the trigger and pulling. This is why martial arts and other defense classes use large sweeping, full body movements, instead of little precise body articulations.
In order to better understand the sympathetic squeeze, you might try this: squeeze your whole hand without squeezing your trigger finger. You’re going to find that it’s extremely hard, if not impossible, to squeeze your hand without squeezing your trigger finger as well. This is essentially the sympathetic squeeze. Because sympathetic squeeze is a fairly new theory, it is rarely raised as a defense by attorneys litigating cases involving guns. However, the defense has been raised in a few noteworthy accidental police shootings.
An experienced and well-trained gun owner knows that it should always take conscious effort to put your finger on the trigger when you intend to shoot a gun. You should never find yourself resting your finger on the trigger or within the trigger guard. When you take your finger off the trigger, you should index it high on the frame of the gun, well away from the trigger guard. Most importantly, a weapon should be deliberately pointed at its target until the shooter is fully satisfied on where he/she will be targeting a bullet. It’s only at that time that a finger should be put on the trigger.
Unfortunately, we see more instances than we care to, where someone accidentally fires their weapon in the wrong place at the wrong time and they find themselves being charged criminally. In Arizona, officers and prosecutors have the ability to charge accidental discharges several different ways, depending on the circumstances including: Unlawfully Discharge of a Firearm within the limits of any municipality (A.R.S. §13-3107); Endangerment (A.R.S. §13-1201); Disorderly Conduct with a Weapon (A.R.S. §13-2904); Aggravated Assault (A.R.S. §13-1204), and Murder (A.R.S. §13-1105), all of which are felonies and are considered dangerous felonies under the criminal code.
Unfortunately, prosecutors do not always distinguish between accidental discharge and intentional discharge cases. In Maricopa County, it is common for individuals facing these charges regardless of their intention to wind up with designated felonies and even jail and/or prison time upon conviction. Once you fire the trigger, you can’t change what happens next. It is for this reason that more people need to be aware of the sympathetic squeeze and the causes of negligent discharge because nobody wants to face the same charges as those that do purchase and carry guns intending to use them criminally.
Arizona will always have a little piece of the Wild West and will continue to embrace its shooting culture. It’s something that makes Arizona unique and a great place to live. Being an informed gun owner and teaching others the proper method of gun handling will help to keep the Wild West in Arizona. If you do find yourself in need of an attorney, Cindy Castillo is experienced in gun related criminal defense and is available to take your call 24/7 at 480-206-5204.