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In what should have been just another day in his near 50-year career in law enforcement, Bob Northrop was on patrol at a high school baseball game when he heard the unmistakable sound of a gunshot.
Within seconds, Northrop realized the bullet had come from his own service weapon, a Sig Sauer P320 handgun. And it had hit him in his left ankle.
“I looked around thinking, ‘I might have just been shot,’” Northrop said. “When I went to take a step after hearing that shot, I was unable to do so. Some folks out of the bleachers came over to my assistance and helped me over to a place to sit down.”
Northrop is no novice gunman; he’s spent the last 18 years as a Tampa Police Department reserve officer, following 30 years of full-time service with the department. Yet his gun had gone off that night in February 2020 in his holster, when his hand just brushed it as he clipped his keys to his belt, according to a lawsuit he filed against Sig Sauer. In fact, nearly 30 law enforcement officials have had their Sig service weapons fire without them pulling the trigger, sometimes injuring themselves or others, the lawsuit alleges. In Pennsylvania, a state trooper firearms instructor even killed another officer in 2015 when his gun went off while he was conducting safety training, according to the suit.
Since then, several police departments have discontinued use of the P320.
“Bottom line, it's a public safety issue,” Northrop’s attorney Nicholas Gurney told VICE News. “Based on what we’ve learned and uncovered and alleged, this firearm, make and model, by design is capable of firing when the trigger isn’t pulled.”
Sig Sauer specifically markets its guns to law enforcement teams and has become a prominent supplier for police across the country, including large departments like Dallas, Cincinnati, and Tampa, as well as smaller, more rural ones in states like Georgia, Connecticut, and New Jersey. In 2018, the company even started making a “special addition thin blue line” P320 pistol. Sig also has multimillion-dollar contracts to provide the Army and Marines with variations of the handgun.
The gun’s popularity comes from its accuracy, ergonomic design, and lightweight trigger, experts told VICE News. But making a trigger more sensitive—and thus easier to pull—can have its downsides.
“My sister bought one, and she had three accidental discharges the first time we took it to the range,” Steve Howard, a Michigan-based gunsmithing and weapons expert and former federal police officer with the Department of Defense, told VICE News. “They’re the most goddamn unsafe thing on the planet.”
“Anything touches that trigger, and it goes,” he added. “When someone goes to stuff the thing in their holster and their shirt hits the trigger, that’s all it takes.”
In a video cited in the lawsuit and published by Omaha Outdoor in August 2017, tests of several models of the P320 line show the trigger can be pushed in when the pistol is dropped with the handle facing down. The lawsuit alleges that can also happen with any kind of “inertial force,” like a tap or a bump.
Sig Sauer did not respond to multiple attempts for comment. In company literature such as the weapon’s user manual, however, Sig faults the weapon’s apparent malfunctions to “careless and improper handling.”
“Mechanical safeties are designed to augment and not replace safe handling practices,” a warning included in the weapon’s manual reads.
Northrop isn’t the only law enforcement official to go after the gun giant for accidental discharges. In February, a former Marine and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent filed a $10 million lawsuit against the gun manufacturer after his holstered P320 discharged into his leg. The gun manufacturer has yet to respond to the suit.
In June, a Cambridge, Massachusetts police officer filed a civil suit in federal court after his service weapon fired on its own while in a SWAT team van with six other officers. No one was injured during the incident. Sig Sauer filed to have the case dismissed this month and argued that the pistol has been tested thoroughly and “meets or exceeds all relevant safety standards.”
Law enforcement officers started reporting issues with the P320 to the company as early as February 2016, according to Northrop’s lawsuit. For example, several lawsuits filed against Sig Sauer, including Northrop’s, reference an officer in Roscommon, Michigan, who’s department-issued P320 discharged while driving in his car. The bullet didn’t strike the officer and instead hit the driver’s seat.
In a response to at least one of these lawsuits citing the incident, Sig Sauer denied that the Michigan officer’s weapon fired on its own and alleges an internal investigation conducted by the Roscommon County Sheriff’s Office’s condcluded the officer’s seatbelt caused the discharge.
David Lombardo, a consultant and expert in firearms and firearms safety and founder of the consulting group SAFER USA, told VICE News that the popularity of Sig Sauer’s P320s are due to its size.
“The gun is a little bit smaller than a Glock-19,” Lombardo said, mentioning gun manufacturer Glock’s comparable pistol. “There are some minor differences, but realistically, from an operational perspective, there’s not much of a difference.”
“They’re the most goddamn unsafe thing on the planet.”
When the Army considered Sig Sauer for its contract, it specifically asked that the company change several aspects of the weapon's internal firing system to make it less susceptible to firing without warning, according to an engineering change proposal submitted to Sig Sauer by the U.S. Army. The document was obtaind through a Freedom of Information Act request by Gurney and shared with VICE News.
Sig Sauer complied with the request and changed the Army’s version of the weapon by adding additional safeties to the weapon, according to Howard.
“When they adopted it, they did so with the addition of a thumb safety,” Howard said. “The thumb safety makes it a great gun because then it’s very safe, it’s got that beautiful trigger pull and they shoot quite well.”
Army spokesperson Ltc. Brandon Kelley confirmed to VICE News that the Army’s version of the weapon is altered from the original model and includes a trigger safety that prevents any issue with the weapon discharging from happening.
But Gurney told VICE News that the company did nothing to warn the rest of its consumers.
“While Sig Sauer was outside the view of the public renegotiating with and redesigning the firearm platform at the request of the military, they were continuing to sell the non-redesigned, non-upgraded firearm to the general public, to domestic law enforcement officers, and they were doing so without saying a word about what was going on with the testing process,” Gurney said.
The malfunctions were taking place as the company continued to market the line of handguns under its advertising slogan, “Safety Without Compromise,” and even went as far as to say “The P320 won’t fire unless you want it to” in marketing materials included in the lawsuit.
“Sig Sauer knew this statement was false or, at least, very carefully crafted in order to mislead the recipient members of the general public at the time,” Northrop’s lawsuit alleges. “As early as 2016, members of Sig Sauer’s management team began ‘investigating’ defective discharge events.”
The problems have become so widespread that police departments have discontinued the use of Sig’s P320 in some cases. In January 2017, the Stamford Police Department Special Response Team stopped using the weapons shortly after one of its officers’ holstered P320 fell to the ground, fired, and shot him in the leg. The officer filed a $6 million lawsuit against the gun manufacturer later that year. Sig settled the case in June 2018.
Seven months later in August, the Dallas Police Department decided to temporarily suspend the weapon while investigating its alleged trigger defect. In a statement, Sig Sauer referred to the unwanted discharges as “social media rumors.”
“There have been zero (0) reported drop-related P320 incidents in the U.S. commercial market, with hundreds of thousands of guns delivered to date,” Sig Sauer’s statement said at the time.
“The P320 meets and exceeds all U.S. standards for safety, including the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers’ Institute, Inc. (SAAMI), as well as rigorous testing protocols for global military and law enforcement agencies.”
Just three days later, the company began a voluntary product exchange program for the product. But Sig Sauer maintains it was designed to enhance performance, not correct a safety issue.
The exchange program, which gives customers the option of sending in their P320’s to Sig Sauer, who will apply the lighter trigger, as well as other parts developed with the help of feedback it got from the military, was proposed as voluntary.
“If you have a car that exploded, and you said just send it back if you want and we’ll make it better, but you don’t want to send it back you don’t have to, that’s a problem from a public safety standpoint,” Gurney said. “It has the effect of diminishing the perceived risk.”
When Northrop shot himself, he fractured and shattered multiple bones in his ankle, all of which required surgery to repair the damage. Though he’s rehabilitated the injured leg as much as he can in hopes of regaining the mobility he once had, he says 18 months later the pain hasn’t subsided.
“I’m still working hard to get to the point where I can pass the physical fitness, running and climbing, but it doesn’t appear that I’m making a lot of progress in that direction,” he said. “I used to go out there and play all the time with my kids, chasing them through the yard. At my vacation home I used to love to plant trees, I’ve planted about 800 of them. My whole daily life has been affected in a lot of ways.”
And the dangers of the P320 models purchased by law enforcement agencies around the country and issues to men and women in his line of work make him deeply concerned.
“I continue to hear of other officers that have had this happen after me, and yet nothing has been done to address this,” he told VICE News. “We’re out in public every single day, and anybody that we respond to at their house for a burglary or an accident up on the interstate. they’re just as subject to risk as we are.”