Shooting To Wound and Selling Popcorn

Human target zones - torso

Robert recently posted an article on a question posed to a guest by CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer:

“On Thursday, CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer asked guest [lawyer] Jeffrey Toobin why police weren’t instructed to ‘shoot to injure, instead of kill,’ talkingpointsmemo.com reports. “Blitzer’s questions arose during a discussion on the unfurling conflict in Ferguson, Mo. over the fatal police shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown. ‘They often shoot to kill,’ Blitzer said of police. ‘Why do they have to shoot to kill? Why can’t they shoot a warning shot in the air, scare someone off if they think they’re in danger. Why can’t they shoot to, injure, shall we say? Why do they have to shoot to kill?’”

Blitzer’s question is, sadly, all too common . . .

Americans are treated to a steady stream of good guys purposely and casually wounding bad guys, usually in the shoulder. On TV and in the movies, such beyond-Olympic-level shooting always disarms and incapacitates the bad guy, and when the good guy is similarly wounded, they are barely inconvenienced and heal with amazing speed.

Not only is this sort of shooting incredibly dangerous to good guys and innocent bystanders, it’s almost always legally disastrous. In addition, any survivable gunshot wound may have life-long health implications.  As regular readers may remember from an earlier article, one shoots to stop an attacker, to immediately–to whatever degree that is possible–cause them to cease the hostile actions that made the use of deadly force legally permissible. For the purposes of this article, we’ll assume that all legal burdens have been met. The good guy, under the laws in force when and where he has to shoot, is legally in the right when he pulls the trigger. But how is he going to accomplish his purpose: stopping the bad guy?

There are three primary means of stopping a human being:

  1. Neural damage
  2. Breaking the skeleton
  3. Exsanguination

There are, however, many other considerations.

1) Neural Damage: causing trauma to the brain usually causes immediate cessation of hostile action. In fact, SWAT marksmen try for a brain stem shot whenever possible. They try to hit a hostage-taker exactly where the brain and brain stem meet, at the base of the rear of the skull. If properly placed, a bullet to this spot will cause the potential killer to drop as though a light switch had been thrown. Even if they have their finger on the trigger of a gun, they will not be able to pull it.

Unfortunately, this area is a very small target. In fact, relatively speaking, the human head is also a small target, particularly if it’s moving at all. Notice too that I’m talking about a highly trained marksman making the shot with a scoped, highly accurate rifle, almost always with the benefit of a spotter and from a supported position. 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 commonly have to estimate where that tiny spot is while shooting from the front, side, above or below, or various angles of the same.

2) Breaking the skeleton: while breaking a femur or the pelvis, for example, will cause most people to drop to the ground, they may very well still be capable of pulling a trigger. And if so, have merely been rendered less mobile, not stopped. Making such shots with any degree of reliability with a handgun is exceedingly difficult, not only because such targets are small, but also because 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’s also particularly difficult because, compared with rifle ammunition, most handgun ammunition lacks the power to reliably break large bones.

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. However, once sufficient blood is lost, the resulting drop in blood pressure will inevitably lead to unconsciousness and ultimately death.

Of course, a combination of these three primary effects may be more effective and faster in stopping hostile action.

Fortunately, such matters are not only physical, but psychological. Many people, upon receiving even an easily survivable gunshot wound, immediately drop and cease hostile action due to the “OMG! I’ve been shot!” response.  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. This is frequently assisted by drugs present in their system. Such people eventually succumb to one or more of these effects, 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. It’s the cumulative affect of blood vessel damage, neural shock, and psychological shock that will have the greatest effect, therefore more than one round may be necessary.

Keep in mind that it is always a good idea, even if you cannot avoid or escape a potential deadly force situation, to do your best to avoid shooting. Always remember that when the justification to shoot ends, the shooting immediately ends.

You must never think about “shooting to wound,” let alone try to do it.  The law doesn’t require it, and it will be highly likely to backfire for several significant reasons. 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 then press an attack he might have otherwise abandoned. The necessary physical damage and psychological effect is simply not there, and making such a shot accurately is highly unlikely.

In fight-or-flight situations, among the first abilities human beings lose–which accompany time distortion, tunneling 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’s simply physically impossible. There are many documented incidents of police officers–people supposedly highly trained in marksmanship and the use of deadly force–emptying their handguns at criminals doing the same from ridiculously close range. When the gunsmoke cleared, both weren’t touched; every round missed. Hitting center mass will be more than hard enough, but with proper training and practice, attainable.

An additional concern is that in the heat of battle, many 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 the bullets hit them. Some people may be so high on drugs they’re incapable of feeing anything. Shooting an arm or leg will likely do nothing more than make a dangerous felon who’s intent on killing you somewhat less mobile, but no less deadly. Hitting center mass will maximize the probability of quickly stopping a dangerous attacker—whether they feel it or not.

Also, substantial legal liability may attach. If you were so cool and detached that you could shoot someone in the knee, did you really have sufficient reason to shoot them in the first place? If you really thought that you were in mortal danger, why did you take the time to shoot them someplace that any reasonable person should know wouldn’t reliably stop them?

Yes, stopping them will likely result in their death, but you didn’t 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 aren’t the attacker, but an innocent victim who will be affected for the rest of your life by the action they brutally forced on you.

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.

At this point, you may find yourself experiencing some degree of revulsion. If so, good for you. You have a conscience. I can’t 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 someone cruel and inhuman enough to attack you? Which alternative would you prefer for those you love? Which of these outcomes is morally superior?

Deadly force encounters aren’t scripted scenes in movies. They’re as deadly serious as any human interaction can be, and the loser frequently winds up assuming ambient temperature. Leave shooting to wound to the movies. An action hero’s job is to sell popcorn, and they don’t have to aim and shoot under pressure. They can afford the luxury of shooting to wound. You can’t, regardless of what Wolf Blitzer thinks.