breaking the skeleton, Castle doctrine, center mass, deadly force, exsanguination, Guns and Liberty, neural damage, ready position, shooting to stop, shooting to wound, stand your ground, tachypsychia, the mechanisms of stopping, Trayvon Martin
Part 8 of this series spoke to the mindset changes necessary for those taking personal responsibility for the protection of themselves and those they love. All the articles in this 2020 series may be found by entering “guns and liberty” into the SMM homepage search bar. This article deals with more practical—and gritty–issues:
The Mechanisms of Stopping: There are three primary means of reliably and rapidly stopping a human being:
(1) Neural damage;
(2) Breaking the skeleton;
(3) Exsanguination (reducing blood pressure through bleeding).
There are, however, many other considerations.
Credit: National Geographic
(1) Neural Damage: causing trauma to the brain usually causes immediate cessation of hostile activity. SWAT marksmen try for a brain stem shot whenever possible. They try to hit a hostage taker where the brain and brain stem meet, at the base of the rear of the skull. Properly placed, a bullet to this junction will cause the potential killer to drop as though a light switch had been flicked off. Even if they have their finger on the trigger of a gun, they generally will not be able to pull it. The problem is this area is a very small target. Relatively speaking, the human head is also a small target, particularly if it is moving at all. Notice too that I am talking about a well trained marksman (most cops aren’t skilled with firearms) making the shot with a scoped, highly accurate rifle, usually with the benefit of a spotter and from a supported position. The ranges for urban sniper shots also tend to be less than 100 yards. Accurately shooting a handgun at the same target, even at close range, is much more demanding. In addition, the target will seldom present the back of his skull to the shooter and stand still long enough for a perfect shot to be made. Marksmen often have to estimate where the spot is while shooting from the front, side or various angles.
(2) Breaking the skeleton: while breaking a femur, or the pelvis, for example, will cause most people to drop to the ground, they may still be capable of pulling a trigger, and if so, have merely been rendered less mobile, not stopped. And again, making such shots with any degree of reliability with a handgun is exceedingly difficult. This is so not only because such targets are rather small in diameter, but people move more or less constantly, and the precise location of a major, load-bearing bone in a given person’s leg may be difficult at best to determine. It is also difficult because, compared to rifle ammunition, most common handgun calibers lack the power to reliably break large bones, particularly with single shots.
(3) Exsanguination: someone shot in an artery, or even the heart, may have up to three minutes of useful consciousness if they are truly determined to kill you regardless of the damage they suffer in the attempt and their likely death. However, if sufficient blood is lost, the resulting drop in blood pressure will inevitably lead to unconsciousness.
Of course, a combination of these three primary effects may be more effective and faster in stopping hostile action.
If by now you’re wondering how people are stopped at all, good for you. You’re paying attention and really thinking. You’ve likely been infected by Hollywood, but what you’re reading is part of the cure.
Fortunately, such matters are not only physical, but psychological. Many people, upon receiving even a survivable gunshot wound, immediately drop and cease hostile action because of the “OMG! I’ve been shot!” response. Choice obscenities or invocations of God are usually employed. Others–thankfully relatively few–may absorb ridiculous numbers of bullets which might slow, but not stop them, as they try to continue their deadly attacks. Such people eventually succumb to one or more of the effects I’ve mentioned, but “eventually” is not helpful or comforting if they are attacking you.
The best course of action is to aim for “center mass,” or the part of the torso at or around the sternum, and fire enough rounds to force the attacker to stop. If a single round of .22 LR ammunition will accomplish this, great. If ten rounds of 12 gauge shotgun ammunition are required, that’s fine–-and legally permissible–-too (assuming one is justified in shooting in the first place). It is the cumulative effect of blood vessel damage, neural shock, and psychological shock that will have the greatest effect, therefore more than one round may almost always be necessary. Do not expect anyone, even if shot with a shotgun, to fly ten feet backward. If any small arm possessed the power, solely through the energy imparted by the impact of its projectile, to fling a 200 pound man ten feet backward, similar energy, in one way or another, would be imparted to the person shooting the weapon. It looks very dramatic in the movies, but drama is the point of movies. Reality is often optional.
Keep in mind that it is always a good idea, even if you cannot reasonably avoid or escape a potential deadly force situation, to try to avoid shooting. If there is time, you should clearly display your weapon in the “ready” position–pointing it at your attacker, but roughly at the belt line–and loudly and clearly say “don’t move.” Fortunately, many criminals, confronted with an armed and obviously prepared victim, will choose the better part of valor and promptly display the rear of their sagging pants and the soles of their flying athletic shoes. And if they do not, you’re in the proper stance to fire and have established your intention not to fire unless absolutely necessary to any bystanders and potential witnesses. “Yeah Officer, that guy told him not to move and wasn’t pointing his gun right at him at first.”
The General Rule (please keep in mind I am not an attorney. You are responsible for knowing the law where you live and wherever you may travel): if you have legitimate cause/legal grounds to shoot, you may shoot as many rounds as necessary, with as large a firearm as necessary, to stop the imminent threat. However, once any of the necessary conditions for the use of deadly force are no longer operative, you immediately stop shooting. If the attacker is writhing on the ground and has dropped his gun, which is out of his reach, he no longer has the means or opportunity, and is no longer placing you in jeopardy. However, if he is down, but is still holding his gun, you are still in jeopardy, and the moment he looks like he is about to move it toward you, jeopardy is clearly and absolutely present, and you shoot until he is stopped, whether that takes an additional round or ten rounds.
When the justification to shoot—to use deadly force–ends, the shooting immediately ends.
Even though some states allow it, never shoot a fleeing criminal in the back. If they’re fleeing, there is no jeopardy–-at least not to you. If they should suddenly stop and turn toward you with their gun, jeopardy is again present. While there are a few imaginable circumstances in which shooting a fleeing attacker might be reasonable, and some states allow it, they are sufficiently rare so as to be nothing about which you should worry.
You must never think about “shooting to wound,” let alone try to do it. This is yet another area where Hollywood has done a grave disservice. Given lawful cause, the law does not require it, and it will be likely to backfire. Obtaining the desired stopping effect with a shot that inflicts only a non-mortal wound is highly unlikely and could conceivably enrage an attacker, who will press an attack he might have otherwise abandoned. The necessary physical damage and psychological effect is generally not there–though shooting people in the legs and arms can strike arteries (see “Exanguination” above)–and making such a shot accurately while under great stress is highly unlikely.
In fight or flight situations, among the first abilities human beings lose–-which accompanies time distortion (Tachypsychia), tunnel vision and hearing loss–-is fine muscle control. This makes it very difficult, perhaps even impossible, to formulate the intention to shoot someone effectively in a small portion of the body so as to immediately disable them, to say nothing of actually carrying out that intention. For most people, it is physically impossible. Hitting center mass will be more than hard enough, but with proper training and practice, absolutely attainable.
An additional concern is that in the heat of battle, some people suffer serious wounds, but are unaware of it until the danger has passed. Despite suffering multiple gunshot wounds that might eventually kill them, they didn’t so much as feel bullets hitting them. Some people may be so high on drugs they’re incapable of feeing anything. Hitting center mass will maximize the probability of quickly stopping a dangerous attacker—whether they feel it or not.
In addition, substantial legal liability may attach. If you were so cool and detached that you could take the time to aim so exactly as to shoot someone in the knee, did you really have sufficient reason to shoot in the first place? If you really thought that you were in deadly danger, why did you take the time to shoot them someplace any reasonable person should know wouldn’t reliably stop them? Your good intentions don’t matter, and will bite you in the posterior. Stopping them might result in their death, but you did not intend to cause their death. You intended only to stop them from causing yours. That they subsequently died is regrettable, but they made that choice and forced it upon you. You did not; you are not the attacker.
In all cases, if you shoot at all, you shoot to stop, and you accomplish this by delivering a sufficient volume of accurate fire to that part of the body most likely to cause them to stop. When the threat has stopped, you immediately stop.
Remember: the difference between “shoot to stop” and “shoot to kill” is not mere semantics. The correct term reflects your intentions, your state of mind at the time you were forced to shoot, and may be the difference between a hefty attorney bill and freedom, or life in prison.
At this point, you may find yourself experiencing some degree of revulsion. If so, good for you. You have a conscience. I cannot say often enough that no moral, rational human being wants to harm or kill another. Violence is cruel, nasty, hateful and bloody, but the choice is simple and stark: do you prefer to be alive and unharmed, or bleeding, perhaps dying on the ground, at the mercy of those cruel and inhuman enough to attack you? Which alternative would you prefer for those you love? Which of these outcomes is morally superior? Which is preferable to a just society under the rule of law?
THE CASTLE DOCTRINE
One of the most laudable developments of recent years has been the passage of a growing number of state “Castle Doctrine” laws. Based on the common law principle that “a man’s home is his castle,” these laws create the legal presumption that if you are in your home, or any other place you are legally allowed to be, such as your car, on your property, in a store, etc., you have no duty to run away or otherwise retreat if a deadly force confrontation is forced on you. You may stay where you are—“stand your ground”–and defend yourself and it is up to the state to affirmatively prove you acted in bad faith. The state must prove your guilt, you don’t have to prove your innocence, which is as it should and must be. In fact, most such laws include the presumption that when you are attacked in your home or other place you are legally present, you are justified in using force against an attacker. This is important in that some states and jurisdictions have historically badly treated law-abiding citizens who legitimately used deadly force. Some states had and have laws that require you to try to run away or retreat, even within your own home, if attacked by a burglar in the middle of the night, before using deadly force. Some essentially make you prove that you did try to run away or retreat before using force. Similar are “Stand Your Ground” laws.
NOTE: There is a movement to do away with stand your ground and castle doctrine laws. This movement always misrepresents such laws. No SYG law in any way alters the elements necessary for the lawful application of deadly force in self-defense. They only remove any duty to retreat.
Castle Doctrine laws are only common sense. If someone breaks into your home or car and tries to attack you, it makes no sense at all to run away, surrendering your vehicle or home to them, if such retreat were even possible. Because such idiotic laws actually put families in danger rather than deterring criminals, castle doctrine laws are welcome and rational. Who would retreat from their home, leaving their wife or children at the mercy of criminals deranged enough to break into an occupied home? Who would oppose such laws?
Unfortunately, many. Take the prior link to further explore the issue.
In fact, following the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting of Trayvon Martin, Martin’s Mother–-Sybrina Fulton-–has been exploited, probably willingly, by those who want to do away with stand your ground or castle doctrine laws, in essence giving the advantage to criminals. Fortunately, no legislature has taken the bait and repealed or meaningfully altered their laws–-yet. See Updates 52-57 in the Trayvon Martin archive to explore a recent Trayvon Martin crockumentary that obsessed, irrationally and inaccurately, over SYG laws in general, despite the fact they had no application whatever in the Martin case. They were not invoked by the prosecution or the defense.
A related issue is the old–-and completely wrong–-advice that if you are forced to shoot a criminal in your yard, you should drag his body inside your home. If you have lawful cause to shoot, it does not matter where the criminal is standing or where they fall when shot. When the criminal is stopped, you stop, and do nothing–-absolutely nothing-–to alter the scene in any way (with the possible exception of rendering medical aid if it is possible and safe to do so). Anything you do, no matter how innocuous, may be taken by police and prosecutors as evidence of a guilty mind or evil intent. It is legally and morally unnecessary and tactically dangerous; don’t do it.
You have been forced to defend your life. Walking back to your car with your wife after a movie, you were approached by a criminal who told you he had a gun and demanded your money. He threatened your life and began to pull his hand out of his baggy coat pocket. You were in condition yellow. You were faster. You drew, went to ready and ordered him, loudly and repeatedly not to move, but he kept trying to pull his gun out of his pocket, and now he is face down on the ground and not moving.
The entire confrontation has taken only seven seconds, but it felt like an eternity. At this point, your head may be swimming. Your breath is coming in shallow gasps, and your muscles ache. Suddenly, sound rushes back in and you’re aware of the world around you. You’re in shock and your wife is shaking and crying. You suddenly realize you’re shaking too. What should you do?
First be sure that the criminal is truly stopped and not faking. If it’s not obvious, keep him covered, but avoid approaching or touching him. Keep your distance! The last thing you want is to become involved in a wrestling match with a wounded, crazed criminal desperate to get his hands on your handgun. If his weapon is near him on the ground and you can safely move it out of his reach, do so, but again, do not place yourself within lunging reach of the person who just tried to kill you.
Immediately call the police: Tell them there has been a shooting, the shooter is down, and you’re keeping them at gunpoint. Tell them they need to send an ambulance. Tell the police as little as possible. Know that they are recording what you say and will use it against you. Do not blurt out “I just killed a guy!” or anything remotely like it. Ideally, you will tell them no more than I’ve suggested here, with the exception of the exact location, your name, etc.
Be sure to specifically describe what you are wearing and make the dispatcher repeat it, along with the understanding that you have described the good guy, not the bad guy. It would be a good idea to ask the dispatcher to confirm this more than once.
It is not at all uncommon for dispatchers to make mistakes, sending multiple, hyped police officers to the scene of the shooting thinking that the guy in the jeans and green shirt with a blue ball cap is the shooter rather than the victim. The dispatcher will pepper you with questions, but say only the minimum necessary to inform the officers who will shortly be arriving and no more. You will feel like blurting out your feelings–-don’t. Dispatchers are not police officers. You have no legal obligation to answer their questions.
Immediately call your attorney: the attorney whose number is stored on your cell phone. If your wife or another responsible, stable person can make this call as you are calling the police, even better. Explain what has happened and get his advice. In many states and even nationally, law firms specialize in these cases, providing on-call legal help for a reasonable yearly fee. Such fees are reasonable because such shootings are relatively rare—up to two million violent crimes are stopped by armed citizens every year, most without having to fire a shot. The media studiously avoids such stories.
Part of that attorney’s advice will almost certainly be to call the police, which you will have done. Everything I’ve suggested thus far should take place within the first few minutes after the shooting stops and you can safely use a phone.
Before the officers arrive, if possible, move behind cover while keeping the attacker covered. As they arrive, unless you think you remain in imminent, mortal danger, holster your weapon, putting it out of sight, and position yourself so the arriving officers can clearly see you. Keep your hands in the open and immobile, so the officers can see them. Tell the officers, repeatedly and clearly that you’re the victim and obey their commands, moving slowly, deliberately, and only when and how they tell you to move. They are unsure what has happened and who is the bad guy. They’re going to be wary of a possible ambush. Don’t give them any reason to see you as a threat.
The officers will try to question you as much as possible. Follow your attorney’s advice and say as little as possible. If you were unable to contact your attorney by phone, tell them that you were forced to defend your life against a robbery or other criminal attempt. In either case, assure them that you will cooperate fully as soon as you have had the opportunity to speak with your attorney, who should be on the way to speak with you, and shut up.
They will want to take your handgun. Do not resist, and do not touch it or move to touch it unless and until they tell you. Do what they say when they say and exactly as they say. They don’t know you; they don’t trust you; they shouldn’t trust you.
Expect to be arrested and do not argue or resist if they do arrest you. Expect to be taken to a police station where other officers and detectives will try to question you. If they do not arrest you but ask you to come to the police department to make a statement, agree to go, but again, tell them only that you will cooperate fully as soon as you’ve had the chance to speak with your attorney. Do not be hostile or argumentative. Be polite, but firm in your resolve not to say anything that can be used against you. Do not expect the police to understand, to be your friend or to be on your side. You have no idea who you’re dealing with, nor do they. They will assume you’ve broken the law until they can prove otherwise. Some will be interested in proving only that. Some–thankfully, few–will hate guns and gun owners more than they hate criminals. How do you know which of these is questioning you?
As long as you have obviously acted within the law, it is possible that no charges will be pursued against you, though they may initially be filed and you may end up spending some time in jail until bond is set. This is no fun, but is not unusual. Your time for argument is always later, in court. Do not harangue or insult the police. Even if they deserve it, it will never look good later, and will not in any way help your case. It might make an undecided prosecutor charge you.
Thereafter, expect that the robber’s relatives will suddenly discover that the robber, regardless of a rap sheet a mile long, was spending his life helping little old ladies across busy intersections while waiting for an imminent letter from the Vatican announcing his sainthood. Expect to be sued. It’s insane, but unless you live in a Castle Doctrine/Stand Your Ground state that prohibits it, expect it will happen. Even in a Castle Doctrine/SYG state, expect that they’ll try to sue you. The good news is that you’ll probably eventually win–-and that you and your wife are alive to be sued. That’s the point.
Next week’s article will focus on hardware aspects, particularly the advantages and disadvantages of revolvers and semiautomatic pistols. I hope to see you there.
Re shooting to wound.
1. As you point out, in the stress of a life-threatening situation, the victim’s hands will shake badly. (Joseph Wambaugh described it as “when the adrenaline turns your arms to licorice.”) In the heat of combat, it would be hard enough (but not impossible) to shoot a person in the torso. Forget about shooting a limb, or shooting the weapon out of his hand.
2. Any bullet wound is potentially fatal, even in the arm or leg. A bullet through the thigh could sever an artery. Or, the person could go into shock. The open wound could get infected. Any time you shoot someone, in any part of his body, there is a possibility that he will die of the wound, whether that was your intention or not.
Mike McDaniel said:
Indeed, which is why I always advise doing everything reasonably possible to avoid ever having to fire a shot.