Officer Richard Vankeuren had just come home from a day at the shooting range in April 2015 with a bag full of guns slung over his shoulder and his new duty pistol on his hip. The 20-year veteran of the Arizona Department of Public Safety was a firearms trainer and weapons expert, but he was about to experience a first.
As he lifted the bag off his shoulder, he heard a “boom” and smelled gunpowder. His first thought was that one of the guns in his bag had gone off.
Then he looked down.
Vankeuren’s Fabrique Nationale Herstal pistol had gone off in its holster, shooting him through the right leg.
The gun, an FNS 9, was one of the first Fabrique Nationale pistols purchased by DPS for use by its officers. Vankeuren was part of the Firearms Training Unit, the division within DPS that trains troopers and is also responsible for testing and evaluating new weapons for the force.
The investigation into Vankeuren’s accidental shooting determined that a key on the exterior of his bag had become wedged in the trigger.
But more than three years later, the Firearms Training Unit would discover an issue with the FNS 9 pistols that are the standard sidearm for every DPS trooper that causes them to fire unexpectedly – or not fire at all.
Shortly after the flaw was discovered, DPS began hurriedly replacing the roughly 1,500 FNS pistols it purchased over four years beginning in the 2015 fiscal year, when it ditched the SIG Sauer pistols that all troopers carried in the name of cost savings.
Faulty firearms ‘could cost people their lives’
In fiscal years 2015 through 2018, DPS spent about $281,000 to buy new FNS pistols, utilizing trade-ins to cut the costs of the new guns.
Dr. Michael Scott, a professor of criminology at Arizona State University who has worked with a number of law enforcement agencies across the country, said the problems DPS has discovered with the FNS pistols are concerning.
“This creates a higher risk for either accidental discharge or unintended failure to discharge, both of which could cost people their lives,” he said.
During testing of the weapons in 2018, DPS found that three Fabrique Nationale pistols – the FNS 9 Longslide, which was carried by troopers, and the FNS C and FNS 9 – all had two conditions that could cause them to either fire without pulling the trigger or not fire when the trigger was pulled.
It is unknown what prompted the additional testing some three years after DPS began arming troopers with the FNS pistols.
In a safety bulletin video released internally in August 2018 and obtained by the Arizona Mirror through a public records request, footage is shown of the weapons firing after being bumped or hit.
“A tap, rack, any side-to-side or up-and-down movement, a sharp jarring blow and even holstering and unholstering will cause the weapon to fire with no further contact with the trigger,” a narrator in the undated video says after explaining the conditions in which this malfunction can occur.
The malfunction happens when the slide of the gun is slightly pushed back and the trigger and action does not fully reset. This is called being “out of battery.”
When a pistol is out of battery, safety mechanisms initiate to ensure the gun does not fire. However, DPS found that, in some instances when the slide was put back into position, the FN pistols would fire.
DPS also discovered that sometimes the gun wouldn’t fire when the slide returned to its normal position – but if the weapon was bumped or hit, it would fire unexpectedly.
Scott, the ASU professor and law enforcement consultant, said if he had experienced something similar in his department, he’d likely suspend use of that firearm immediately.
It has been roughly eight months since DPS learned of the issue. DPS is in the process of switching from Fabrique Nationale to Glock pistols for duty weapons. So far this fiscal year, DPS has spent more than $160,000 on replacement pistols.
But the department still has 540 FNs in use, meaning nearly half of the agency’s troopers are carrying a weapon they know might accidentally discharge – or might not fire at all when they need it to.
There are no known incidents in which FNS guns carried by DPS troopers have failed to fire because the firearm was out of battery.
DPS spokesman Bart Graves said the agency is replacing the pistols not because of the defects that DPS discovered, but because FN notified DPS that it intends to “cease production” of the pistol.
DPS began testing out different pistols in 2014 to determine what might become the next duty sidearm for troopers. An evaluation of the FN pistols by the Firearms Training Unit found that the cost of FN pistols and their ammo would lead to “potential budget savings for the agency.”
The Baltimore connection
DPS isn’t the only agency replacing its officers FNS pistols. Some 2,000 miles away, the Baltimore County Police Department is replacing all of the Fabrique Nationale guns it bought in recent years after DPS shared its findings with the agency.
Why DPS never informed the general public that the FNS pistols, which are popular among recreational and competition shooters, were prone to malfunctioning is unknown.
Baltimore County is in the process of spending $1.4 million to replace more than 2,000 FNS pistols used not only by the police, but by correctional officers and sheriff’s deputies, according to the Baltimore Sun.
In August 2018, DPS sent Baltimore County its safety bulletin video, prompting the agency to conduct its own safety tests.
And Baltimore County discovered something more when examining the firearm.
Inside the trigger, the roll pin could fall out, which would cause the trigger to separate from the gun, making it impossible to fire. The department found three guns that experienced this issue in the past two years, the Baltimore Sun reported.
The company responded to media reports on the accidental discharges and issues found by Baltimore County, saying that the delayed fire would only happen in “unlikely circumstances” and that it “posted a Service Bulletin to the public with an offer of a free striker upgrade for those who wished to send their pistol in.”
The Mirror has requested all emails and memos between the two departments but was told the request will likely take up to 12 months.
In September 2018, a Baltimore County police officer carrying an FNS pistol shot himself while in training.
The officer was disassembling his sidearm when it misfired, the Baltimore Sun reported.
The series of pistols in question were created by Fabrique Nationale and are the company’s first striker pistols.
Striker pistols do not use a hammer as the main mechanism to fire the weapon, and are commonly used by law enforcement. Both Phoenix Police and Mesa Police use Glock’s line of striker pistols. DPS is also buying those Glock striker pistols to replace the FNS guns.
An internal striker mechanism is cocked when the slide of the gun is racked, or pulled back, which can only be undone by pulling the trigger. One reason DPS says it switched to striker pistols is that they allow troopers to shoot faster.
Fabrique Nationale has maintained that the weapons were thoroughly tested and that the situations that result in the misfires were unique and unlikely. The company did not respond to a request for comment from the Mirror.