I see it all the time, and much more frequently these “interesting” days. The police shoot someone, and whether it was clearly justified or not, talking heads, D/S/Cs, and others plaintively or angrily demand:
Why didn’t they just shoot him in the leg?
Why didn’t they shoot the gun out of his hand?
I know he had a gun, but why didn’t they do something other than shoot him?
Why didn’t they fire warning shots?
Why did they shoot him so many times?
Comments in this particularly inane category have taken on a life of their own with efforts to defund—abolish—the police. I’ll give some people making these comments credit for being well intentioned, but not most. “Reimagining policing” these days is essentially preventing the police from using force of any kind, which reduces them to targets. The same derailed train of thought would deny self-defense to the law-abiding, while giving criminals free reign. They do not, you see, obey the law, which is why they’re called “criminals,” and we put them in prison so they don’t prey on people while they’re locked up, which is why D/S/Cs want to get them out of prison.
Here’s the relatively simple answer to why we don’t shoot to wound: we are lawfully allowed to shoot at all only to stop an imminent threat of serious bodily harm or death to self or others. This may sound simple, but it’s not, and faced with such an imminent threat, police officers—and all others—must consider these factors–check off these boxes–before shooting, usually within fractions of a second while someone is actively trying to kill them:
Innocence: the defender must not be the initial or unlawful aggressor. People engaging in mutual combat can’t claim innocence. Innocence also means if deadly force is lawfully authorized, one must stop immediately when the threat ends. An innocent victim stops the deadly threat, they do not punish the attacker.
Avoidance: Are you doing all you reasonably can to avoid conflict? This factor is largely dependent on local laws. Some states require one to do everything reasonably possible, including running away, to avoid having to use force. Such states normally place the burden on the innocent citizen to prove they did everything they could to avoid hurting the criminal. Other states have “Stand Your Ground”–SYG—and “Castle Doctrine” laws that do not require, as long as one is lawfully present, one to run away. They can remain where they lawfully are and defend themselves. Often, they also benefit from the presumption they were acting in self-defense. The state has to prove otherwise. This is a very good thing.
Imminence: One can’t use deadly force against a possible attack, or against an attack that might happen at some time in the future. The danger must be real, clearly about to occur–within mere seconds of occurring–or already occurring.
Proportionality: the threat can’t be of humiliation or minor injury. If the only threat is loud obscenities, even a slap to the face might not be proportional. Spit in the face cannot be followed by a gunshot. A reasonable person must believe they’re facing a threat—an imminent threat–of serious bodily harm or death.
Reasonableness: A reasonable person in the same circumstances would be compelled to use deadly force. Responding to spitting with a gunshot would, absent other imminent threats, be inherently unreasonable.
That, gentle readers, is the basis of the law, with various differences in the various states, and woe betide any who don’t cross every “T” and dot every “i.”
A significant part of this horribly mistaken sensitivity for the welfare of predators is too much TV and movies. In those art forms—not real life—good guys drop bad guys from any distance with single shots, often to the shoulder. “Bang,” the bad guy drops his gun, falls to the ground, and we go to commercial. Or the good guy is shot in the shoulder, continues to function and down the bad guy, and has shrugged it off and is perfectly functional by the next episode. In reality, major blood vessels and nerves run through that area of the body, to say nothing of fragile bones. People shot there often lose major limb function, and never fully recover.
In addition, the police tend to be poor shots. Most are just not gun guys and girls, and many don’t bother to carry a handgun off duty. Don’t believe me? I wrote about this issue in Guns: Leave It To The Police, in October of 2017. I recommend you read the entire thing to really understand the issue, but this excerpt should help:
In 1990, NYPD officer hit potential was only 19%. That means 81% of the rounds they fired at criminals missed. At less than three yards, they hit only 38% of the time. From 3-7 yards, 11.5% and from 7-15 yards, only 9.4%
These statistics comport well with my personal experience, but not necessarily with other studies. Statistics from the Metro-Dade Police Department from 1988-1994 published in a Police Policy Studies Council report show officers fired app. 1300 rounds at suspects, missing more than 1,100 times, hitting about 15.4% of their shots, most of these from near-touching distance. During that period, using revolvers, they missed 65% of the time, but 75% of the time with semiautomatic handguns.
More data from the same report for the NYPD during 1994-2000 when the NYPD was far more semiautomatic heavy, are interesting, if frightening. At 0-2 yards, the officer hit rate was 69%, but from 3-7 yards, only 19%. The hit rate dropped precipitously from there, with only 2% from 16-25 yards and 1% at 25 yards and greater distance. This explains how two officers, shooting from only 6-15 feet–2-5 yards–could shoot nine innocents behind their target. [skip]
The more officers involved in a shooting the more likely a greater number of rounds will be fired and the higher the probability of misses. In such cases, we see ‘me too!’ shooting. One officer shoots, so every other officer tries to get in on the fun. The Dorner case, where eight LAPD officers–including a supervisor–unleashed 103 rounds at two innocent women doing nothing more threatening than delivering newspapers, is a case in point. Fortunately, they only wounded both women, but managed to shoot seven nearby homes and nine parked cars.
Let us say you’re a police officer, and called to the scene of a burglary in progress at a local pharmacy, you confront a burglar coming out the back door, his arms loaded with boxes. As he drops the boxes, he reaches for a holstered handgun on his right hip. He’s drawing it, and is looking directly into your eyes with a very crazy look in his.
Let’s run the criteria checklist, and remember, you have less than a second to do this before bullets start flying—at you. You’re certainly innocent. You’re acting under color of law, doing what the public pays you to do because in a million years, they’d never want to do it. Avoidance doesn’t apply. You have to be there, and if you don’t do your job, you may be fired, even prosecuted for negligence—and you might get killed in the next second or two. Imminence? Hoo boy does that apply, and that gun is moving very quickly out of the holster and starting to rotate toward you. Proportionality definitely applies. What means do you have hanging on your belt or in your pockets to stop the guy who is actively trying to kill you, to keep him from lining up on your head and giving you a permanent nose job? If you say anything but “your handgun,” you can stop reading, because you’re dead. Finally, would it be reasonable to shoot the person intent on killing you? Would any reasonable police officer, faced with the same circumstances, do the same thing? Any surviving one would, and they would all shoot to stop, shoot to stop the bad guy from doing what allowed them to check the five boxes.
We shoot to stop because human beings are at once terribly fragile, and amazingly resilient. I’ve seen people die from a minor blow to the head, and others walk away from car accidents with barely a scratch when their vehicle looks like it was run through a car crusher. You, facing that burglar, have no idea which of these extremes you’re facing, so you shoot to stop, every time, without exception.
There are three primary means of stopping someone: (1) neural damage, (2) exsanguination (massive and rapid blood loss) and (3) breaking the skeleton. A well-placed shot to the brain, particularly the brain stem, will virtually always immediately end the confrontation, but the head is a small target, it’s usually moving, and shooting accurately under stress is fiendishly hard, as you now know. Clipping an artery will usually result in unconsciousness, perhaps even death within about three minutes, but that’s three minutes of at least partially useful consciousness, which means during that three minutes, the bad guy can still kill you. He may not even feel the bullet hit him, may not even realize you’ve killed him until he falls over from plummeting blood pressure while looking down on your corpse. Shooting him in the leg, if you’re lucky enough to break his femur or a smaller bone in the lower leg will only render him less mobile, not end the threat. He might even eventually lose the leg, but you won’t know or care because you’re dead.
Shooting to wound will also be guaranteed to put you in prison. If you’re such a great shot you can take the time to shoot the bad guy somewhere non-mortal, were you really in fear of imminent serious bodily injury or death? If you thought you didn’t really need to immediately stop them, why did you shoot at all? Doing that might make a prosecutor reassess your innocence, might make him think you were looking for an opportunity to shoot someone.
So what do you do? Do you make Hollywood verbal commands? The gun has cleared the holster and you can see the muzzle—which looks as big as a cannon—rotating up toward you. Less than a second has elapsed, though it seems like forever. Within the next half-second or so, the shooting starts. Do you really have the time do bark commands at the guy, and are they likely to do any good? “Any good” being defined as keeping him from killing you?
If you want to live, you draw and fire as many rounds as necessary into his center mass—the middle of the chest where you’re likely to hit the heart, lungs, major vessels and nerves, possibly even the spine– the area where you have the best chance of immediately ending the threat. It’s a big target at close range, and will move less than the other body parts. If you can honestly check the boxes, you’re lawfully authorized to use whatever force is necessary, not to wound, not to scare, not to kill, but to stop the threat. If you shoot better than most police officers, you have a good chance of stopping the threat, and you get to live. You shoot to stop, and if the bad guy dies as a result, too bad, but he forced you to act.
So why do police officers fire more than one shot? Because absent a solid brain hit, seldom does one shot immediately stop someone. Handgun ammunition just isn’t that powerful. There are many cases of bad guys absorbing incredible amounts of bullets—20 and more—and continuing to fight, even to survive. Even a hit in the heart may give the bad guy up to 90 seconds of useful consciousness before they drop dead. You must keep shooting until the threat is over, and those shots will usually be expended in fractions of a second.
Here’s an important point: as soon as the threat ends, you stop shooting, but don’t stop keeping the bad guy covered.
But what about warning shots? Police officers are responsible for every round they fire. They have to be aware of the backstop, the area behind and around their target. There’s a probably apocryphal story about a New York City cop chasing a crook down an alley. The crook is faster and getting away, so he draws his revolver and fires two shots, straight up, yelling: “halt! Police!” Suddenly, he hears “thump!” “Thump!” behind him, and turns to see the two citizens who had been leaning out their apartment windows, watching the action, now splattered on the pavement. Basic physics means bullets will travel a very, very long way, and you can’t call them back. Police officers never, NEVER, make warning shots, and you’d be wise to follow their example.
Now you know, but consider this: if you don’t want the police to have the authority to shoot to stop, if you want to take away their ability to use violence when necessary and lawful, are you willing to take their place? Or perhaps you think a social worker will suffice? Perhaps call an Antifa or BLM member? They’re all about justice and peace, aren’t they? What’s that you say, they were marching through your suburb the other day, breaking windows, damaging cars, waking everyone up and screaming about racism and white privilege?
Oh. You want justice, justice then? Actual law and order? Equal justice for all? Due process, the whole Bill of Rights thing? Choose carefully, and always shoot to stop.