People don’t need guns! They’re more likely to shoot themselves or a member of their family. Leave it to the police, the professionals. They’re highly trained! This is a common claim, and interestingly enough, those who make it are often making it in good faith. Most people assume the police are well trained in the use of firearms. Most, raised on a steady diet of TV and movie law enforcement, think the good guys are capable or dropping bad guys with a single well-placed shot from any distance, and often, they shoot to wound, which reliably stops just about any bad guy . . .
Unfortunately, reality is often very different. Police officers, for the most part, are not expert shots; many citizens greatly surpass cops in firearm training and skill.
It is little known that most police officers are not gun guys and girls. Some police officers own not a single firearm, only their issued duty handgun, and rarely, if ever, carry it off duty. Others, recognizing the necessity of at least basic firearm competence, do take the responsibility seriously. Relatively rare is the officer that spends their own time and money to buy firearms, ammunition, and training to develop a high level of skill.
In some places, police officers are significantly hampered by the very bad political choices of their agencies. New York City is a prime example. As I noted in a September, 2013 article—New York City Police Shoot Up the Citizenry Again–where I wrote about one of several shootings where the police, in legitimately (mostly) trying to shoot bad guys, accidently shot citizens instead, in one case, shooting not only the bad guy, but nine innocent bystanders.
A primary reason for those fiascos is surely the fact that the NYPD requires 12-pound triggers on their officer’s issued handguns. By way of comparison, Glocks available to any purchaser come with standard 5.5 pound triggers. Twelve-pound triggers greatly complicate accurate shooting, particularly when repeat shots are required. The heavier and longer the trigger pull, the more difficult it is to obtain consistent shot to shot accuracy. Triggers in the 12-pound range predictably cause officers to miss, and to miss badly, as the incidents linked in that article chronicle. Combine this factor with the kind of mediocre training that is all too common in police work, and it’s a miracle the police are able to hit anything at which they shoot.
Why would any law enforcement organization (LEO) mandate triggers that all but ensure their officers will miss and shoot innocents? They are inherently anti-gun, and they do not trust their officers. In many cases, such LEOs are more worried about their officers having a negligent discharge (ND) than any other potential danger. If this is their primary concern, it’s easy to understand why they might mandate a very heavy trigger.
There are certainly LEOs that provide good training, continually upgraded, and that schedule regular and well-planned qualifications, but that is not the case for most. Full-agency qualifications are very expensive, not only in ammunition costs, but in manpower costs. Officers must be taken off the street, normally for an entire shift, which requires multiple trainings over multiple days. This requires assigning other officers, usually at overtime rates, to replace missing street officers, as well as the officers administering the training/qualification.
Most people undertake a police career with relatively little firearm experience, and that usually only with long arms such as shotguns or .22LR rifles. They are introduced to their duty handguns at some point during either their basic agency academy or basic state academy. Many states require a common basic academy for all certified officers, and virtually all agencies require their own in-house academy and a field-training program. In most cases, officers won’t be driving a car solo for nearly a year from their hire date.
Whether their first handgun experience takes place at their agency or at a state academy, it will normally consist of basic handgun safety, marksmanship and maintenance. They may be exposed to some sort of shoot/don’t shoot training, but it is uncommon for anyone to shoot more than 300 rounds in such training. Usually, they fire light-loaded training ammunition, which is much less expensive than duty ammo. This saves money, but is unrealistic as training ammo’s report, recoil and accuracy characteristics differ–sometimes dramatically–from duty ammo.
During their first year, an officer will usually have shot for score–qualified–at least twice, sometimes, three times. Such qualifications will normally consist of shooting only standard, stationary silhouette targets out to 25 yards on a range. If an indoor range, fifteen yards may be the outer limit. No more than 50 rounds will normally be fired, and passing scores are generous, as low as 70%. Some agencies require at least an 80% score, but all allow reshooting as many times as necessary to pass, and some officers will have to reshoot many times.
Thereafter, officers will usually shoot for score no more than twice a year, but many will shoot no more than once a year. Some agencies will combine some sort of training with qualification shooting. This training may involve practice at clearing a building, but that normally requires modified weapons and ammunition as few agencies can afford facilities of that kind where live ammunition can be safely used. Some trainings may involve moving targets, or perhaps shooting multiple targets or targets rigged to simulate someone hiding behind a hostage.
If they carry shotguns–many agencies still do–qualification will normally be done no more than once a year. The shotguns used will not be those carried by officers in their cars, but a few spare armory guns. Courses of fire usually consist of firing a few rounds of buckshot at a silhouette target. If most of the pattern is properly centered at 15 yards or so, and if an officer can put a few rounds of slugs on the paper at 25 yards, that’s normally considered sufficient. Of course, this means officers have no idea where the shotguns they may have to use will pattern.
The agencies that carry carbines–usually AR-15 pattern rifles–will also usually qualify no more than once a year. Courses of fire commonly use stationary silhouette targets at known distances, usually no greater than 100 yards and often no more than 50 yards, and usually require no more than 50 rounds, though often no more than 30. Rifle ammunition is expensive.
Some agencies provide cleaning equipment and require cleaning after qualification, but most do not. Some officers rarely, if ever, clean their weapons. A good number don’t own cleaning equipment and don’t know how to properly clean their handguns.
Apart from agency-mandated training/qualification, most officers will not fire their weapons. Relatively few will take the time and spend the money necessary to regularly practice. Fewer still will actually attend schools like Gunsite to improve their skills.
The agency where I last served may be illustrative. I was given my handgun, a S&W Model 686 in .357 magnum, at my basic state academy. Training consisted of a single day of handling and qualification. I was told my weapon was “sighted in,” but the sights were badly misaligned for me, and I qualified–barely–by employing the kind of Kentucky windage normally associated with artillery. The instructors wouldn’t allow me the time or tools necessary to properly align the sights. Apparently I wasn’t qualified. People unfamiliar with handguns would have had no idea why they couldn’t hit anything.
I didn’t see the gun again until I returned home and did a qualification shoot. There, I had the time and tools to sight in the weapon and managed a 100% score, but both of my experiences with the weapon to that point consisted only of light-loaded .38 special wadcutter ammunition. I noticed that I was one of only perhaps five people in a 100 person agency capable of that kind of shooting. At least 10-15 struggled to make a minimally passing score whenever they qualified. About 50 were average and the rest somewhat better or worse. By the time I drove my first solo shift, I had, merely by luck, qualified three times. Most officers do less.
Thereafter, we qualified twice a year. Once a year we fired the duty ammo we were given, and replaced it with fresh ammunition. When we used duty ammo, a much larger number of officers had trouble qualifying. The 100% shooters didn’t. I later learned they, like me, spent the time and money to regularly practice. One hundred percent shooters are 100% shooters for a reason.
Shotgun qualifications were more or less once a year and consisted of shooting a few skeet, a few rounds of buckshot and a few slugs. Other training occurred infrequently: a bit of low light shooting here, a bit of multiple target shooting there, and very occasionally, a shoot/don’t shoot experience with video and a laser system for recording hits/misses.
We eventually transitioned to Glocks. Officer’s qualification scores increased and fewer had to continually reshoot, but that problem never went away. I suspect that agency was above average in the training and number of qualifications required of officers.
What does this mean for citizens? The less familiar officers are with their handguns and ammunition, the less often they train, the less often they shoot, the more likely they are to be more dangerous to the public than to criminals. Consider these statistics from the NYPD.
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 studies. Statistics from the Metro-Date Police Department from 1988-1994 published in a Police Policy Studies Council report indicate 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.
These figures are the opposite of my personal experience and from a variety of other studies I’ve seen that indicate that revolvers are much harder to shoot accurately under stress, and that officers equipped with semiautomatic handguns tend to substantially increase their hit rates.
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.
Adding low light conditions only lowers hit probability.
Whether one relies on personal experience or various studies, there are a number of clear lessons:
1) Shooting accurately at any distance with a handgun takes regular, correct training and practice.
2) Police training/qualification often does not adequately improve officer’s hit potential.
3) Hit probabilities of most police officers, not just the NYPD with 12- pound triggers, are mediocre at best, even at inside-a-phone-booth ranges.
4) Officers are, generally, much more likely to miss than hit their targets.
5) Anyone near a police officer in a deadly force situation would be wise to seek solid cover rather than try to film the action.
6) The more officers involved in a shooting (“bunch shooting”) the more likely a greater number of rounds will be fired and the higher the probability of misses. The Dorner case, where eight LAPD officers–including a supervisor–unleashed 103 rounds at two innocent women delivering newspapers is a case in point. Fortunately, they only wounded both women, but managed to shoot seven nearby homes and nine parked cars.
7) The greater the distance, the lower the police hit probability. The lower the ambient lighting, the lower the hit probability.
8) Police officers cannot be relied upon to be accurate shots, particularly with handguns.
Ultimately, many citizens are more proficient than police officers. Even if they are not, their shootings tend to take place at very close range, where hit probability is highest, and they tend to have no question about who to shoot and why. Police officers are often forced to rush into ambiguous situations. As with most of life, we can’t rely on the police to protect us. We are, and always have been, on our own. Those that would disarm the law abiding don’t care.
Mike’s Home blog is Stately McDaniel Manor.