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Gun's "hair trigger' under fire

Published Oct. 16, 2005

The weapon a Tampa police officer was using when he accidentally shot himself last week, inflicting a life-threatening wound, is a controversial handgun that has been involved in several accidental fatal shootings. To some, the Austrian-made 9mm Glock 17 is a lifesaver for police officers. It can fire 17 shots without having to be reloaded, putting officers on fairly equal footing with drug dealers, who often carry high-tech weapons.

To others, the handgun is a hazard. Critics say it has an overly sensitive trigger _ sometimes called a "hair trigger" _ and has been known to fire without warning. Because of the gun's unpredictability, several Florida law enforcement agencies do not allow their officers to use it.

Two weeks ago, Officer Douglas E. Maxwell, a member of the Tampa department's "quad squad," a unit that fights street drug crimes, was trying to arrest a suspect in the Ponce de Leon Courts public housing complex.

As he approached a 16-year-old boy suspected of dealing in heroin and cocaine, the boy resisted and the two ended up in a scuffle. Maxwell had his gun, a Glock, out as he tried to subdue the boy.

The details of what happened next are not clear, but, according to Chief A.C. McLane, Maxwell was holding the boy with one arm while trying to put his revolver back into his waistband.

At that point, the gun fired. No one knows exactly why, whether the trigger got snagged or the suspect knocked the gun.

In any event, a bullet tore through Maxwell's groin, shattering when it hit bone and narrowly missing his femoral artery.

"This is nothing to scoff at. I've seen people die from this injury," said Dr. Catherine L. Carrubba of Tampa General Hospital.

Despite the seriousness of the injury and the history of accidental Glock shootings, Tampa police officials say they are not considering banning the pistol from their department.

"This is the first time we've ever had this happen," said Vernon Schlechty, range master and chief firearm instructor. "This could have happened with any gun, not just this particular gun."

Metro-Dade police officers almost carried the Glock. When the department wanted to issue its officers a 9mm semiautomatic, officials did studies on several types, said Lt. Grace O'Donnell of the department's training bureau.

"Originally we approved the Glock," she said.

The Glock is a durable, lightweight, sturdy gun. It is easy to train people to use a Glock, the least expensive 9mm on the market.

"Don't get me wrong. It's a very good gun," O'Donnell said. "Until we found out about these shootings."

FBI studies showed that while all guns will fire accidentally at times, the Glock does so more often than most, O'Donnell said. Joining the Orange County Sheriff's Office and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the Metro-Dade Police Department decided against the Glock.

In Florida, the Glock has been involved in at least two accidental fatal shootings: A Jacksonville sheriff's deputy shot and killed a teen-ager he was trying to handcuff, and a Miami Police Department sergeant shot and killed a 24-year-old man.

The problem with the Glock, critics say, is that it takes less pressure than most guns to pull the trigger. And O'Donnell said the trigger on a Glock is pulled a shorter distance than on other 9mm handguns.

Locally, the Tampa police, Hillsborough Sheriff's Office, the St. Petersburg police and the Pinellas County Sheriff's Department let officers carry Glocks.

It is preferred, Schlechty said, because it feels most like the old .38-caliber Smith & Wesson and is easier to train officers to use. The greatest advantage, officers say, is the firing power.

Tampa officers take 56 hours of basic firearms training. Those who carry the .38-caliber and want to switch to the 9mm must train an additional 17{ hours and qualify on the shooting range. Officers are taught never to touch the trigger except in a dangerous situation, Schlechty said.