In the aftermath of the Ferguson, Missouri shooting, Wolf Blitzer on CNN asked an officer why police can’t shoot warning shots in the air, and why officers can’t be trained to shoot to wound instead of shooting “to kill.” (His words.) And this morning, in the aftermath of a man with a knife being shot by two officers in St. Louis, Ashleigh Banfield asked an officer essentially the same question about shooting “to kill,” along with questioning why a stun gun wasn’t used instead.
Both of these questions by veteran reporters come on the heels of a reporter for the Huffington Post tweeting a photograph of foam ear plugs and inquiring if they were rubber bullets.
It is easy to poke fun at people trying to make sense of things about which they are ignorant. God knows most of the questions I ask about computer and internet issues must make me seem like a nineteenth century moron to the vast bulk of computer users out there. No one can know everything about everything; no one can know even a little about everything. We all do the best we can, and the Wolf Blitzers and Ashleigh Banfields do a hell of a lot better job than most journalists could ever dream of doing.
But their questions reflect a tremendous misunderstanding about a topic that is red hot with emotion right now.
Approximately one hundred million Americans own guns. That mean that the other almost two hundred and twenty million Americans who do not own guns are going to have no idea of the reality or the use or effect of firearms. Unfortunately, those who are unfamiliar with firearms will have completely unrealistic perceptions (consciously or unconsciously influenced by popular entertainment) of what can or cannot be done with a gun, or the effect being shot will have.
Consider Mr. Blitzer’s first question. Where will the bullet from that warning shot come down? A hundred years ago, in a rural area, the odds were very good that bullet would come down harmlessly in a field. Now, in an urban or even a suburban area like Ferguson, those odds are greatly diminished, and the odds of it killing someone are greatly increased.
Consider Mr. Blitzer’s second question. No offense to Mr. Blitzer, who is a very capable journalist, but practically every single time a law enforcement officer shoots someone, the “shoot to wound” question will be trotted out, and if that isn’t a reflection of too many John Wayne movies, nothing is.
A handgun is a defensive weapon intended for use at close range and the best of them are nowhere near as accurate as non-shooters believe. Out to fifty yards, from a stationary position, a good shot, taking his time, can consistently hit a human-sized target, but there are problems even with that scenario. A bad guy isn’t necessarily stationary, and even hitting a target as large as a human being is far more difficult if that target is moving. The police officer frequently doesn’t have the luxury of standing still and aiming carefully, and shooting a moving target while you are in motion is very, very difficult. Now reduce that target to the size of a shoulder say, or a leg, or—always a popular choice with those who learn from television shows—a handgun that will be shot beautifully out of the hand of the bad guy without even seriously injuring said hand. Go to a range and try those things someday and let me know how it works for you.
Those are just the simple mechanics of the thing. There are other issues involved. Emotions, for one. A bad guy, the worst bad guy in the world, is still a human being, not a target, and it takes a lot—a lot—of training and mental preparation for a normal human being to shoot another.
Which brings me to the officer who might have to shoot someone. Cops are not Hollywood super heroes following a script where they know they’re going to live happily and get the girl, the gold watch and everything at the end. They have all the same emotions you or I would have when they are being shot at or confronted, and that includes fear. What do you think happens when you are terrified and have adrenaline pumping through you by the gallon? You get tunnel vision for one thing. You lose all sense of time. You cease to hear normally or even at all. Your extremities, in particular your hands (including the one holding the gun) become icy cold. You begin to tremble. You have trouble breathing, and breath control is critical to shooting with any degree of accuracy. And perhaps most significant of all, you lose fine motor control, i.e. the small muscle control necessary to perform precise actions. No matter what anyone tells you, or what you see in the movies, these things happen to everyone, no matter how well-trained or how experienced. Fear is normal. The only difference between a cop and you or me is that the cop has to saddle up anyway, no matter how scared he might be.
As for Ashleigh Banfield’s question about the police shooting of the man with a knife in St. Louis., consider a stun gun, or Taser, as they’re known. They are not always effective. On an unarmed suspect, a Taser would have been the wise choice; on a man armed with a knife, not so, and this is why:
The rule of thumb, depending on which law enforcement agency is doing the talking and training, is usually either twenty-one feet, or twenty-five feet as being the closest you should ever allow a potential assailant with a knife to get to you. At Scott Reitz’s International Tactical Training Seminars in Los Angeles, Scott has rigged up a track with a human silhouette target on it. The track is twenty-one feet long. The drill is for students to draw, fire, and hit the target before Scott can pull that target close to them. Before the first students step up to the line, Scott does a demonstration where a young man runs the same distance. The day I was there the young man was a stunt man, and he was able to cover the twenty-one feet in the same time it took Scott to pull his target along the track, approximately one and a half seconds. The difference was that the target stopped; the young man’s momentum carried him on and would have carried him right over anyone standing in front of him. So twenty-one feet is a damned critical distance even if you are a trained shooter, with very fast reflexes, and advance warning of the attack. Most people can’t do it.
But now consider that assailant with a knife. Do you really think a bad guy high on drugs or adrenaline or both is going to be stopped by a single bullet? It is impossible to predict how a man will react when hit by a bullet, never mind a man who is high on rage or chemicals or both. When I was shot, the first bullet spun me around, but it certainly didn’t knock me down or drop me or incapacitate me. Even after a second bullet (where I did go down on my own volition to play dead) I was able to get up and walk home. Every hunter knows it is impossible to predict how an animal will react even when shot fatally. Elmer Keith (a famous writer about firearms and hunting back in the old days) told a story about shooting three bullets, all perfectly placed into the heart of grizzly bear, three bullets that turned the bear’s heart into hamburger, but the bear still charged him, running over a hundred yards so quickly that Keith had to dive out of the way. I spoke to a highway patrol officer many years ago who emptied his handgun into an assailant, with at least three of the bullets being fatal, and the assailant still picked him up and threw him over his own squad car. You cannot predict or be certain.
As an historical note, John Browning developed the M1911 .45 at the request of the Army precisely because so many soldiers were being killed by Moro Islanders armed with a kalis (think either short sword or long knife) even after the Islander had been shot six times with a .38 caliber revolver.
But the basic fallacy of Mr. Blitzer and Ms. Banleigh and so many journalists and non-gun owners is that police are taught to “shoot to kill.” No one teaches that. All training schools, whether for law enforcement or for civilians, teach you to shoot to stop the threat. If one bullet does that, fine. If, like that highway patrolman, you have to empty your gun, so be it. If stopping the threat means the bad guy runs away in fear, uninjured, great: the threat has been stopped. If he’s still trying to shoot you as he lies bleeding to death on the ground, you haven’t stopped the threat. But stopping the threat is the goal, not killing.
Finally, in response to a lot of police bashing by a lot of people (and I am most outraged by politicians currying favor and sewing dissent by pandering over this issue) I would point out that the percentage of bad cops to good cops is the same as the percentage of bad guys to good guys generally. If a politician were fool enough to judge all black residents of Ferguson by the actions of the opportunistic criminals in the crowd, that politician would be rightly run out of office, but condemning cops and police departments generally has become a national pastime. The average cop is no better or worse than the average citizen, but there is a crucial difference, and that is that the average citizen doesn’t have the courage, the physical skills, the necessary mental skills, the disposition, or the rudimentary understanding of human psychology of the average cop. The police do hard, dangerous work that the rest of us won’t and mostly can’t do, and they deserve better than to have political curs and jackals snapping at their heels in times of trouble.