Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Trigger Weight and the Courts

This what they use to measure trigger weight

One topic always in vogue is trigger weight.  Every armchair commando, range rat and lying blogger has not only an opinion, but suspects you are a dupe and a drone if you don’t agree with him.  However, every once and awhile, somebody asks an intelligent question: “How light can a trigger be and still avoid the legal problems that are certain to be present in a self-defense shooting?” 

You know my standard warning.  This is not legal advice, just my limited understanding.

First realize that our legal system resembles theater.  Each attorney presents their view of what reality is.  If it is the prosecutor, the view will oppose the defendant.  If the attorney is representing the defendant, the view will support the defendant.  The judge’s job is to ensure both attorneys follow specific rules and but not to ensure the views reflect reality.

The jury finds which reality is most persuasive with their vote of guilty or not.

In 2014, Massad Ayoob wrote a column and an article for American Handgunner, I’m using this for source material and these are my opinions only. (American Handgunner Sept/Oct 2014, you can read it on line.)

The political and social repercussions of a shooting, especially by the police, are manifold.  Such shootings often erase the fragile truce between the police and the criminal subclass.  The police are required to protect members of this sub-class from each other with their powers to arrest.  Often an officer involved in a shooting will be used as a sacrifice by aspiring politicians attempting to restore that fragile truce and promote themselves.

One case was Florida v. Luis Alvarez, in which prosecutor Janet Reno alleged Officer Alvarez, thumb-cocked his .38 spl service revolver creating a “hair trigger” and was responsible by a predictable and negligent accident for the death of Neville Johnson.  While Alvarez was cleared of these charges, the LAPD of the 1970s, in response to both real unintended discharges as well as falsely alleged claims, altered all their service revolvers to double-action-only (DAO).

Seeing the storm Florida v. Luis Alvarez was about to create, the Miami PD altered all their revolvers to double-action-only in the time between the actual shooting and the beginning of the trial.  Clearly Miami PD wanted to get ahead of the legal storm on the horizon.  It cannot be doubted that cocked “hair trigger” issues had a serious impact on two major American police departments.

Transitioning to semi-autos doesn’t solve the problem, either.  Miami PD only transitioned to the much needed Glock after BATF defined the Glock as a DAO semi-auto.  Like NYPD, they insisted on a heaver than factory trigger, an 8 pound trigger.  NY, as many of you know, worked all the way to the NY-2 trigger, topping out at almost 12 pounds of force needed to discharge the weapon.  In other words, at least two national police departments felt legal ramifications required an officer’s gun to be the equivalent of a heavy, DOA revolver.

In the case of Eddy Satibanes v. City of Tomball, TX a great many things went wrong, but it was the installation of a 3.5 pound trigger connector in the privately-owned, but department-approved Glock 21 that caused Judge Holt to send the case to trial.  At that point Chief Rob Hauck, seeing the handwriting on the wall, settled out of court.  It is estimated the city of Tomball spent over a half million on the 3.5 pound Glock connector.  I suspect the Tomball City now required all officers’ firearms to be at or exceed factory specifications.

So does that mean you must only have factory settings in your defensive weapon set?  If only it was that simple.  In NY v. Magliato, the armed citizen was found guilty of manslaughter when his cocked colt revolver with a 4.5 pound trigger went off unintentionally.  The minority opinion of the judges ruling on this case point out that a gun with a trigger that light constitutes depraved indifference to human life.  Pay attention to the fact that 4.5 pounds was the measured trigger pull on the Glock 21 in the Santibanes case.  A 4.5 pound trigger is considered within the normal range of triggers weigh specified by manufacturers and common custom and practice for 1911s.

In the Magliato case, I suspect the judge felt that cocking the weapon, regardless of trigger pull was unnecessary and contributed to his outrage.   Clearly, location of the incident (anti-gun NY) and the gun (single or double action revolver) involved alter the legal outcome.

So yes, there are criminal cases that turn on the weight of the trigger pull.  I can only imagine the problems the armed citizen would face with his or her limited resources. 

Your claim that you kept your finger along the frame until you were forced to shoot will be countered with the claim that you unknowingly, under severe stress and fear for your life, put your finger in the trigger guard.  Your claim you were forced to shoot will be met with disbelief.  The counterclaim will be offered that if the trigger was just a little heavier, you would not have bumped the trigger and caused the gun to fire.  Your claim that you lightened the trigger so you could shoot more accurately and delay pulling the trigger until the last possible moment will be countered that you put a light trigger in so you could shoot faster and fire more rounds to inflict maximum pain before death.

Which of these realities will the jury believe?

Do I have a recommendation?  Hell, yes.

Stay with factory specifications.  Purchase the tactical/combat model and not the target model if you have the option.

FINGER OFF TRIGGER until you must shoot.  Leave the safety on until your finger enters the trigger guard.  ALWAYS IDENTIFY YOUR TARGET.

If you gun has a decocker, use it.

Don’t muck with the springs.  Have a professional gun smith smooth the action, not lighten the trigger.

Look, as a chemist, I know you can do everything right and still have a negative outcome.  Be careful.


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