JAN BROGAN: One of the most intimidating things for me as a mystery writer was the whole "weapons" thing. Not only were guns completely foreign to me, I had so many preconceived notions, I didn't even want to learn about them. I had to get over that for Teaser, and the way I did was spend a morning at a shooting range(where I learned a lot of respect for gun owners.) But there are easier ways, and Bill Chipman, police sergeant, firearms instructor, and mystery author, has agreed to give us a primer.
Bill Chipman: Ever read or watched a scene and realized that the author has described or depicted something that’s impossible? He’s talking about a city where you lived for a few years or went to college, and you realize that those streets he’s talking about don’t exist, or traffic travels in the opposite direction?
Depending on your suspension of disbelief, your reaction can range from wanting to scream and throw the book out the window to a mild bump in the smooth path of your enjoyment of the story. It’s about attention to detail and research, and it happens all the time with guns, on the screen and the page.
Ever read in a book about how someone’s just fired ten shots from a revolver? Doesn’t happen. Revolvers carry six shots. Yeah, sure, a tiny number of specialized revolvers carry five, and fewer still eight, but a revolver is a six shot gun. Once you fire six, you have to open it up and reload the bullets into each chamber, and then it can fire six shots again. And revolvers are not ‘pistols.’
‘Pistols,’ or ‘Automatics’ are common names for the Semi-Automatic Pistol. They are not fully automatic. They cannot fire multiple rounds from one trigger pull. The trigger must be depressed each time a round is fired. The ‘Semi-Automatic’ part refers to the way the gun reloads the chamber to fire again.
When a Semi-Automatic Pistol is fired, the explosion from the charge creates rapidly expanding gas, generating recoil energy, just like a revolver. The difference is, the Semi-Automatic makes use of that energy to push the long part on the top of the gun, known as the ‘slide,’ along rails to the rear (hence the name), held in place by those rails and a big spring.
The spring then stops the motion to the rear, reverses it, and brings the slide back forward to the firing position. As it does, it scoops another bullet from a spring-loaded magazine (often incorrectly referred to as the ‘clip’) and deposits that bullet in the chamber, so that the pistol is ready to be fired again. All of that happens in a fraction of a second, mechanically and ‘automatically.’
The Semi-Automatic Pistol was designed so that it could carry and fire more bullets in a shorter period of time, giving its carrier a tactical advantage over the revolver. And then it can be reloaded easily by carrying extra magazines. The revolver and the pistol are markedly different weapons, a fact often overlooked, both in our writing and in TV shows and movies.
And there are no guns made of plastic that can pass through metal detectors without setting them off. Some guns have parts made of polymer plastic. Incorporating the polymer prevents corrosion and reduces weight. Both good things.
But there is no plastic that can withstand the heat and trauma associated with the explosive charge of a bullet. It melts and deforms. So even guns with plastic parts have enough metal, necessary to the function of the weapon, to set off a metal detector or bein an x-ray.
Ever read a newspaper story where they talk about someone having an ‘accidental discharge,’ and how ‘the gun just went off?’ Guns don’t just go off, even if dropped. Unless there’s something mechanically wrong, the trigger has to be pulled.
Now that can happen, for instance, when someone’s sticking a gun into their waistband, and the trigger catches in clothing, or if something else gets caught in the trigger guard as a cop is holstering the weapon. But guns do not just go off. Accidental discharge is a neutral way of saying that someone screwed up.
The fact that the trigger has to be pulled itself points to another common inconsistency on the screen: Cops running around with their fingers on the trigger. Cops don’t do that, because it’s proven to be one of the precursors to accidental discharge. Imagine that something startles the officer, and she tenses up. Her fingers tense too, it’s an instinctive reaction. Fight or flight stuff. You get scared, your whole body tenses up. And cops get scared.
But say it’s not something dangerous, just something unexpected, in an already tense situation. The cop tenses and pulls the trigger instinctively, without making a decision based on the threat level. Bang goes the gun, the bullet finds whatever stands in front of it, and an innocent or unarmed person is shot without cause. Cops are trained not to place their finger on the trigger until a rising threat creates the need to fire the gun.
And the whole dramatic approach, with the gun up by the protagonist’s ear. I know it looks great, because you can do a tense facial close up, and still see the gun. But not in the real world. Guns are kept pointed at the ground unless they’re about to be fired. This is because if you have an accidental discharge while the gun is pointed up, well, what goes up, comes down. And, while rare, there are documented cases of innocent citizens, miles away, being injured by a stray round fired into the air. Think Third World celebratory gunfire. Scares the hell out of me every time I see it on TV.
The gun is kept in the ‘low-ready position’ until there is an identifiable threat. That means pointed at the ground, never up, and never ‘lasering’ the cop in front of you. Imagine a laser attached to the front of the gun, on all the time. Any time that laser crosses another person, you either intended to shoot that person, or you made a mistake. That’s gun safety 101.
Every gun manufacturer has a schematic of its weapons on the internet, and will send them to prospective customers upon request. And there’s no shortage of gun enthusiasts posting how to use them, and what they’re capable of, on Youtube and similar sites. Not to mention the helpful enthusiasts at your local firing range. The guns in our dramas deserve the same attention to craft that gardening, or racecar driving, deserves.
JAN: In the spirit of holiday giving, Bill has generously agreed to try to answer any gun questions you may have, so.... pardon the pun....shoot away! And if you want more information on his new mystery, Sucker's Dance, check out his website at www.billchipman.com