The Trayvon Martin case has provided the opportunity for a sort of national reflection, for a time to reconsider what we’ve long held to be true and what we believe ourselves to be. Unfortunately, much of that reflection has turned out to be ignorant demagoguery on a wide range of subjects including worsening race relations, attacking rational and necessary self-defense laws and yet another attempt to resurrect the fast-deteriorating corpse of gun control.
Another of the diversions stimulated by the case is the search for meaning, symbols and parallels. For some, a tragic 2012 Alabama case was touted as a parallel to the Martin case, but apart from someone getting shot in both cases, there is little similarity. Even a cursory look at the Alabama case should reveal little in common with the Martin case. There is, however, at least one worthwhile lesson.
In Alabama, three teenaged boys and a 17 year-old girl—Summer Moody—who finished high school in December and was referred to as a former high school “standout volleyball player,” were apparently burglarizing cabins on a remote island early one morning. Two men staying on the island, one of whom was a caretaker of a property the group was burglarizing, heard their burglary attempt, and knowing of recent burglaries in the area, took up a .22LR and a .17 caliber rifle and went to investigate.
At some point, they each fired one shot, according to some accounts “warning” shots, and Moody was struck in the head. Moody lay in a Mobile, Alabama hospital in critical condition for several days before dying. Her three companions were initially incarcerated in a juvenile detention center. Their names and ages were withheld because they were juveniles.
According to the Baldwin County Sheriff’s Office, the three teenaged boys accompanying Moody burglarized at least three cabins and were carrying a rifle and knife and possibly a handgun when confronted by William Hearn and Larry Dean Duncan who fired two warning shots away from the two weapon-carrying burglars they confronted into nearby woods. Unfortunately, Moody and another teenager were hiding in those woods and Moody was mortally wounded by one of the warning shorts.
What, then, is the lesson? Warning shots—and shooting to wound—are really, really bad ideas.
To understand the issue it’s important to review the general rules for the use of deadly force. Deadly force may be lawfully employed to prevent the imminent infliction of serious bodily injury or death to oneself or another. “Imminent” means immediate, about to happen, and virtually certain to happen within seconds. If something might happen, or might happen in minutes, hours, or days, it’s not imminent.
“Serious bodily injury” is somewhat more difficult to define. Any injury that might reasonably result in an amputation of any part of the body or which might cause its functional loss would surely qualify. But the definition must be broader. Crippling or paralyzing injuries qualify, and perhaps seriously disfiguring injuries too.
The problem is: how can one predict the nature of injuries not yet
inflicted? The legal standard is one of reasonableness. What would a reasonable man or woman believe and do under the same circumstances?
The law is, thankfully, generally reasonable in later judging the actions of those under great stress forced to make life or death decisions in seconds. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes famously wrote: “Detached reflection cannot be demanded in the presence of an upraised knife” (Brown v. United States, 256 U.S. 335 (1921). However, the criminal justice system may or may not assess desperate decisions correctly and may actually be biased against those compelled to use deadly force. In some parts of the nation, particularly Democrat-controlled cities and states, one can expect such bias. Even in places not so politically controlled, politics can have a disastrous effect. Note the politically inspired prosecution of George Zimmerman.
If the Trayvon Martin case teaches anything, it is the terrible and lasting consequences of shooting others, even if absolutely justified. If Zimmerman were convicted his long-term survival prospects in prison would have been very poor indeed. Even though acquitted, he will never again have a normal life and will spend it looking over his shoulder for a bounty seeker or for a racist killer hoping to get deranged “justice” for Trayvon Martin.
The best rule for the use of deadly force is to do everything possible to avoid ever having to use it. But when all attempts to avoid it have failed, how can one tell when deadly force is necessary and lawful? For a more in-depth treatment of this and related issues, you may wish to visit my seven-part series on the rationale for gun ownership (in the SMM Firearms archive), and specifically article 4 of that series.
What one must generally consider are means, opportunity and jeopardy. Others may use somewhat different terms, but these three are interchangeable with others.
* Means: Does the attacker have the means to inflict serious bodily injury or death?
* Opportunity: Do they have the opportunity to use that means?
* Jeopardy: Are they placing you in imminent danger of serious bodily injury or death?
An attacker brandishing a knife, hatchet, hammer, gun or a variety of other potential weapons certainly has the means, but opportunity applies when range is taken into consideration. Anyone with a gun clearly has the opportunity at great distances. With a knife, an attacker must be considered deadly at a minimum of 21 feet and less, for even the average person can close that distance within mere seconds. Even a knife, hatchet, hammer, brick, rock or other implement thrown from some distance can be deadly.
Jeopardy speaks to the intent and actions of the attacker. A man holding a firearm may not represent the slightest threat while a man holding a screwdriver does. It is the demonstrated intention and actions of an attacker that put us in jeopardy.
A man wearing a holstered handgun standing 20 feet away clearly has the means and opportunity, but until he demonstrates the clear intent to do harm by word, deed or both there is no jeopardy. A woman holding a knife and screaming death threats from across a street has the means and is demonstrating her intention to place us in jeopardy, but until she closes the distance, until she is in range to use the knife, she doesn’t have the opportunity and we aren’t truly in jeopardy.
We must also consider disparity of force. A 5’2” 110 pound woman is at a deadly disadvantage when attacked by an unarmed 6’ 200 pound man. She could easily be seriously injured or killed despite the fact that he has no weapons other than his bare hands. Women are virtually always on the wrong side of this force equation, which is why being able to act on the right to keep and bear arms is of particular importance to women.
When means, opportunity and jeopardy are present, deadly force may be used, but for one purpose and to one end only: to stop the attacker from causing serious bodily injury or death. If stopping the attacker can be accomplished with a single bullet from a .22LR handgun, that’s great. If three rounds from a 12-gauge shotgun are required, that’s also fine. But when the attack stops—at that very second—you stop. Continuing to pour fire into an incapacitated attacker turns you into an attacker. The three part test of means, opportunity and jeopardy can obviously be quite fluid.
With this background in mind, we turn to the ultimate point of this article: the danger of shooting to wound and “warning” shots.
To put it as simply as possible: don’t do either; ever. You are absolutely responsible for each and every round you fire. Once fired, a bullet cannot be called back or its flight aborted. There are no “do overs.”
Shooting to wound is dangerous for three primary reasons:
(1) Under great stress, accuracy is difficult at best. This is why competent firearm instruction revolves around firing for center mass, the venerable “X” ring in the center of the chest. If you miss a few inches in any direction you’re still likely to have a significant effect on the target. Accurately shooting an attacker in a small, moving portion of the body is highly unlikely.
(2) A wounded attacker is not a stopped attacker. Shooting in the leg or the shoulder someone actively trying to kill you produces a somewhat less mobile killer, enraged and in pain, but still able to kill. Shooting someone in the leg or shoulder may eventually lead to their death through bleeding, infection or other complications, but “eventually” does not stop them when you need them to stop, which is the only reason you shoot in the first place.
(3) Shooting to wound will absolutely and clearly suggest to a prosecutor—and to a jury—that you doubted you were truly in deadly danger. Unless you doubted your justification to shoot to stop, why were you doing less? You may think you’re being kind or sporting, but you don’t shoot people to be kind or sporting. You shoot them to stop them from doing what they were doing that gave you the legal justification to shoot in the first place. If they die as a result of being stopped, bad for them, good for you, but that outcome is incidental to your immediate and desperate need to stop them.
“But can’t I say I really didn’t want to kill anyone and was trying to avoid it?” Again, the problem of intent remains. No rational person wants to kill another, but you shoot only to stop the imminent application of force likely to cause serious bodily injury or death to you or another. Ignore TV cops and good guys. In the heat of battle, people often take multiple bullets and continue to fight–and kill–not realizing they were wounded until the adrenaline rush wears off later. Good intentions don’t save innocent lives in deadly force encounters.
Warning shots have similar problems. In the days when the primary sidearm of the warrior and gentleman was the sword, the mere act of drawing the sword notified everyone within range of your immediate intention to use it and put them on guard. The same rules apply today. Generally, one must not draw a handgun unless they are prepared to use it and its imminent use is justified. The mere act of drawing a deadly weapon must be presumed to signal the intent to immediately use it unless it is unmistakably otherwise (training, etc.). There must be no doubt whatever about such things; the consequences are too severe and permanent.
If one is justified in drawing their handgun and in using deadly force, this is so—again—because of the overwhelming and imminent need to stop an attacker. Warning shots don’t do that and directly suggest that you thought you had the time to waste on a warning shot rather than stopping the attack by the most rapid and effective means possible.
The prosecutor and the attorney representing the subhuman thug you had to shoot will surely be asking you why you were shooting the ground or sky if you really needed to immediately stop the dear, saintly departed from maiming or killing you. Again, perhaps you thought you were being kind or sporting, but when lives are seconds from being extinguished—particularly yours—being kind and sporting should be the thoughts furthest from your mind.
The other primary issue is illustrated by an almost certainly apocryphal story of a New York City cop, one hot summer night, chasing a criminal down an alley on foot. Unable to run down the fleet-footed thug, the officer drew his revolver (it’s a rather old but venerable story) and fired two warning shots, straight up. Rather than stopping, the panicked thug only ran faster, and twenty steps down the alley the hapless cop heard two sickening thumps behind him, and with an equally sickening feeling in the pit of his stomach, stopped and turned to see the crumpled bodies of two citizens who had been leaning out their windows, many stories up, watching the chase.
I doubt this much-told story is true, but it makes an important point: there is no way to know where un-aimed bullets will come to rest—or in whom. One of the basic rules of shooting is never to shoot unless you are absolutely certain of your target and backstop. Firing into the ground may be safe, unless the bullet strikes something, even something under the dirt, something invisible at the moment of firing, and ricochets. I’ve actually been hit by ricochets inside a police firing range. Fortunately, after hitting the steel backstop and nearly completely effective bullet trap, they had little velocity and were pancake thin, but they left bruises.
Firing into the air is never safe. In the Middle East and the rest of the third world, people routinely shoot into the air for little or no reason. I’m sure you’ve seen video of idiots emptying AK-47’s into the sky to celebrate a military victory, some religious occasion or even a wedding. What these videos never show is that bullets lack escape velocity. They are not going to make it into space, and when they return to Earth, they kill people.
Brandishing a handgun might be an effective means of deterring or stopping a deadly attack, and statistics indicate that violent criminals are stopped or deterred as often as two million times a year, usually without a shot being fired. But these statistics presume that you have the time to draw and present your weapon and time for the attacker to recognize and respond to the threat. They also presume that your attacker will not be so crazed or drugged out that they don’t realize they’re facing their death.
If, for instance, you draw your handgun on a knife-wielding attacker and go to low ready (photo above), if they continue the attack not only have they unmistakably demonstrated their deadly intent and clearly put you in jeopardy, you’re prepared to immediately stop them and can reasonably argue that you gave them the best and most effective possible warning, which they obviously ignored.
But again, you may not have time to provide a visual or verbal warning, and where means, opportunity and jeopardy are present, none are required. If that’s the case, why are you wasting precious fractions of a second, fractions of a second that will make the difference between life and death, with warning shots or shots to parts of the body not calculated to have the best possible chance to immediately stop the attacker?
In the Trayvon Martin case, self-defense was proved–ironically by the state–beyond a reasonable doubt. George Zimmerman reasonably employed it. In the Alabama case, self-defense was not obviously involved, and rounds that should not have been fired were fired.
Shooting another, even when morally and legally justified, is a life-altering event with permanent consequences. Making a mistake with a firearm may also fall into that category. Even though Summer Moody may have been involved in multiple burglaries—felonies—how can the shot that killed her be explained or justified? “I didn’t mean it?” “I wasn’t aiming at her?” And if Moody merely had the bad judgment to accompany the young men who were committing burglary, that would make her death, and its impact on the man who fired, even more tragic and disturbing.
The young men who fired the shots were not charged with a crime, but they will surely be sued. To avoid having the need to mouth such lame excuses, and to avoid having to live with an unintentional death, warning shots–and shooting to wound–must be removed from every shooter’s list of possible actions.