From Force Science Institute

For decades, warning shots have been strongly discouraged if not outright prohibited in the training and policies of American law enforcement agencies.

But now 11 prestigious professional policing organizations, including the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the Fraternal Order of Police, and the National Tactical Officers Association have recommended that this once-scorned use of force be permitted under certain circumstances.

That U-turn is reflected in the “National Consensus Policy on Use of Force” issued earlier this year, which, according to its creators, represents “the best thinking” some of “the most significant law enforcement leadership and labor organizations in the United States.” You can read this “model document” in full by: clicking here.

In a section devoted to deadly force, the Consensus acknowledges that warning shots are “inherently dangerous.” But the guidelines suggest that they be permitted when:

1. the use of deadly force is justified;

2. the warning shot will not pose a substantial risk of injury or death to the officer or others; and

3. the officer reasonably believes that the warning shot will reduce the possibility that deadly force will have to be used.

In a recent radio interview, the IACP’s deputy executive director, Terrence Cunningham, said “a lot of discussion” preceded this recommendation and that the intent is to give officers more leeway when faced with a threat. He referenced “this new environment in use of force where everybody is trying to learn how to better de-escalate.”

And he asked, “Why not give officers more tools? I think it’s the right thing to do.”

Some trainers, however, have expressed concern that adopting this policy will create a public expectation that warning shots should be fired before every use of force—or that this will open the door to officially urging officers to shoot to wound as the next logical step.

What do you think? Is a warning shot ever a good idea?

84 Responses to CapArms Question of the Day: Is a Warning Shot Ever a Good Idea?

  1. This will definitely be a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t ” situation for either officers or armed citizens. In other words a Bad Idea from the “Good Idea Fairies “.

  2. As a scientist, I do not believe my opinion matters much until the data is in. If a study were to show that more lives were saved with warning shots than without, and it had the proper controls, then of course I would be in favour. I hope they start keeping good records, I would be interested to find out. Unless those stats are already out there then I would appreciate it if someone e can point me to them.

    • Here’s the science:

      They admit that a warning shot is justified if: “1. The use of deadly force is justified.”

      So what they are saying is that in order to save paperwork, mandatory psych evals, desk time for the officer while the deadly force encounter is reviewed, potential civil suits against the department, bad press coverage, accusations of racism/profiling, it might be better to try to scare the sumbitch than to shoot him.

      This is an official CYA for the departments and officers, nothing more. IMO, if you were not willing to accept the ramifications of shooting a Bad Guy to death if the need arose you really chose the wrong profession and shouldn’t be on the street in a professional capacity wearing a firearm.

      If deadly force is justified in the situation it is criminal misconduct not to use deadly force to control/end the situation. At that point you owe the Bad Guy NO QUARTER.

  3. Yes, it’s always a good idea to give two warning shots to the chest before a third to the head.

    • I came here to say the exact same thing. The presence of a gun with my finger on the trigger is warning enough.

    • I used to work with a sheriff’s deputy of, shall we say, generous build.
      He would say his favorite warning to a fleeing perp was “stop or I’ll shoot cause I shure ain’t chasin’ yer a–!”

  4. Does the warning shot become an additional tool for escaping responsibility for negligent discharges or bad shoots?

    • Most NDs occur during administrative handling of the gun, generally not gonna find the perp in the cop shop locker room.

      • Nobody in LE has to worry about prosecution for NDs in the locker room, or for coming down with a bad case of Glock Leg in the parking lot while playing with guns with his friends at the beginning of the shift. I’m talking about the ones that happen out and about while on duty.

  5. 1. the use of deadly force is justified;

    …And right there is why my answer is no, at least for me. My job does not include convincing someone who has means, opportunity and indicated intent to grievously harm me, to back down for their own good.

    I’m all for de-escalation, but if I can’t do it without a warning shot I’m not about to assume that warning shot will be the magic bullet, so to speak.

    And, as I’m responsible for every bullet that leaves my gun, unless my first round is a blank that’s only another potential liability on my plate.

    So, sorry, no; for the private non-LEO I still think warning shots are a bad idea. Even for LEOs, I have to wonder if this isn’t a remnant from Shotgun Joe’s words of … wisdom … during the last administration.

    • Since deadly force is always the absolute last resort in a rapidly declining situation by the time this level of force is deemed necessary it’s really too late to turn back

      Also this bad idea for LEO, how many criminals and thugs do you think will flee out of instinct for self preservation after a warning shot? I’m betting many of them, now the officer has to pursue them because they are clearly to dangerous to be left on the street and thus putting the officer out of position and making the situation more dangerous for them.

      If the guy points a gun backwards at the cop and the cop shoots him in the back how is that going to look to the already huge population of cop haters?

  6. I was taught that 1) a shot fired into the air, which is what I think of when I hear “warning shot” is dangerous because that shot will come down and no one can control what it will hit when it comes down, and 2) Gravity can make it come down with more deadly force than when it left the gun.

    So, nope, ain’t a good idea.

    • “2) Gravity can make it come down with more deadly force than when it left the gun.”

      I’m not so sure on that.

      Drag will slow the ‘spin’ of the projectile, and most likely it will be tumbling before it hits the ground.

      Once it starts to tumble, drag goes *way* up, slowing it even further.

      (Note – I’m not interested in being the test subject for that hypothesis…)

      • Depends entirely on the angle, if shot vertical it will tumble coming down.

        If shot at a low angle just above the tree lines or buildings it could maintain its spin and directional stability. If someone has enough adrenaline they might actually shoot a low warning shot on accident

    • “Gravity can make it come down with more deadly force than when it left the gun.”
      No, this is not the case.

    • The issue with a vertical vs a non-vertical shot is this:

      With perfectly vertical shot the bullet will travel upwards until it runs out of vertical momentum. When that happens it will reach the top of it’s flight path, be unable to overcome gravity and will being to fall, likely tumbling as if it were dropped from a hot air balloon. It will return to the surface of Earth at terminal velocity less air resistance and the air resistance will likely be high because the bullet isn’t falling nose-down but rather tumbling.

      If the bullet is not fired perfectly vertically it’s path will be an arc. At the top of the arc the bullet will have run out of vertical momentum and, unable to continue to overcome gravity, will start to come back down. However, it will retain some of it’s horizontal momentum, and will continue to be stabilized by the fact that it continues to spin. The result is that it will return to the surface of the Earth at terminal velocity plus whatever remaining horizontal momentum it has and it will be far less affected by air resistance because it’s still spinning. Research compiled on Forensic Outreach indicates that, depending on caliber and angle fired, the velocity of a returning bullet that was fired on a non-vertical path is 300-700 feet per second. That’s 204.5-477.3 mph.

      • I have couple of guestions for science buffs.
        Why do you guys think the bullet on perfectly vertical trajectory must run out of stabilizing spin as it runs out of velocity (while bullet on very sharp ballistic curve will keep spinning)? After leaving barrel bullet’s forward speed has no relation to its gyroscopically stabilizing spin. Except that destabilized bullet has bigger drag and decelerates rapidly of course. But not the other way around – bullet stopped for a moment at the top of perfectly vertical trajectory before start of its plunge back to Earth may still spin like crazy, right?
        Or does air drag bleed rotation faster than velocity?
        Can’t bullet retain enough of rotational energy to descent stable like a spinning top?
        Is it then possible for bullet shot just a little off of vertical to stay stabilized at the original angle during its whole flight, and fall down still stable, bottom first, only bit crooked?
        Inquiring mind…

    • it will NOT come down with more force than it went up. to do so would be creating energy that did not exist when it was fired.

  7. Absolutely not. Not ever.

    Good Samaritan was in town and saw an individual steal a purse off a woman’s arm and hope in a vehicle to get away. Good Samaritan, armed with a CCW permit and his 9mm, hopped in his truck to follow the purse snatcher. While on the phone with 9-1-1, the bad guy pulled into a parking lot and got out of his vehicle. Good Samaritan fired a warning shot into the ground a few feet away.

    Cops came, arrested the bad guy, and charged the good guy with a felony weapons charge, as well as a misdemeanor discharging a firearm inside city limits. CCW permit revoked. 2 years of court appearances, and several tens of thousands of dollars later, and the charges were dropped.

    When re-applying for a CCW permit, he was denied twice by the Sheriff and ultimately had to take the issue to a court where his permit was re-instated.

    So no, “warning shots” are never advisable or appropriate.

  8. Hard to say. I lived/hunted in Germany and by law the cops fire a warning shot and a wounding shot. Of course they (Police) shoot WAY less people in Germany than in America. The gun really is the last resort.

    By law if a citizen uses a firearm for self defense you must fire a warning shot. Then plan on being arrested/convicted cause they don’t really belief in self defense.

    To me a warning shot (from a private citizen) says you have lost your nerve and bad guys will pick up on that before the 2nd shot comes around. Plus, you never know where that warning shot is gonna land….

  9. From a physiological point-of-view, probably not.

    If an LE uses a warning shot, all he or she will *hear* immediately afterward is a muffled ‘mush’ of noise.

    Now he can’t hear what the one being warned (or anyone else) is saying.

    An LE or citizen needs *all* their senses functional as much as possible in a potential gun use…

    • Agree. In my township of 27,000 souls just west of Philadelphia we approximately never have shootings, though gun ownership is widespread. Twice in the last three years we’ve had suburban homeowners fire a “missed” shot at would-be burglars who entered what they though was an unoccupied dwelling.

      Our police are skilled at working with the Philadelphia PD to catch up with the miscreants through detective work.

      Lives are saved, yet the perps are motivated to absquatulate immediately. Who loses? No one. The rule here, then, is “it isn’t so bad to miss if it is clear the castle doctrine applies, so that a hit would be lawful.” I find the three rules fine. I do not find it acceptable to propose them only for LEOs.

    • Why not?
      1. It effectively reduces your ammo capacity by one. If the gun you’re starting with is a 5-shot revolver or a double barrel shotgun, that’s significant.

      2. The bullet is going to stop somewhere. If you’re outdoors and you can waste one into the ground, that’s one thing. In a crowded building there aren’t many safe options.

      Just pointing out the counter-arguments here. I can’t think of a situation where I would waste a round to just make noise, but I’m also not saying there isn’t some possible scenario where it might be employed.

      • I know live targets down range being pushed and shots being fired by your head… Delta/ Seals/Rangers are about the only ones I see doing that in the US, but even that is a long shot in me believing they actually do drills like this.

  10. Im thinking in a high stress situation if a shot is heard everybody in that group is going to start pulling a trigger. Bad idea, but then I also think that non- lethals are a bad idea too

    • Good point.
      Contagious Fire is a very real risk among LE.
      It’s uncommon for one of a group of cops to let one fly, even an ND, without his coworkers throwing in their own 9mms worth.

  11. Idiots. This will put cops that don’t use a warning shot first on the defensive even more than they already are. If you can use a warning shot use a taser.

  12. I would remind folks here that what might be recommended for cops isn’t necessarily a good idea for the rest of us. One other thing of note, the International Association of Chiefs of Police is an extremely anti-gun group, so anything they say should cause you to ask, yeah, but who else says so?

  13. Warning: if you actively threaten myself or anyone I care about with lethal intent and means, you can expect to receive bullets aimed at your center mass.

    Good enough?

  14. More Hollywood-inspired BS. They caused all this in the first place. All the TV shows portrayed the police as firing warning shots, shooting people in the arms/legs, or even shooting the gun/knife out of the bad guy’s hands. Then, when the mass media propaganda machine started hyping LEO defensive firearms uses, the ignorant out in TV land wanted to know why the cops in real life didn’t act like the ones on TV. This smacks of trying to make reality bend to the fantasy of television, which it never can, of course.

  15. If your life is in such danger that you are justified in firing a warning shot, then don’t fool around. Fire a shot to stop the threat directly. Otherwise you’re wasting precious instants and you’re apt to get killed.

    Moreover, getting shot at is a Rubicon. A suspect may not know that the round whizzing overhead is a warning shot. He may conclude that its on and start returning fire or executing hostages. The warning shot then only escalated the situation.

    Guns drawn and commands shouted are warning enough already. Comply or die. There are no extra warnings via warning shots.

  16. I’m unsure that firing warning shots will help anything, particularly for cops, in avoiding defensive shootings by cops.

    Adrenaline-fueled tunnel vision cuts both ways, and the object of the officer’s attention may not even notice the loud noise.

    Plus, the officer shouldn’t fire his weapon unless it’s an imminently dangerous situation, and, in such a situation, wasting a shot at a “safe” piece of the landscape wastes time and gets the muzzle off of the resistant target.

    Now, if for whatever reason, a private citizen doesn’t carry with a round chambered, the warning shot may give an opportunity to ensure that his weapon is loaded, off safe, etc, but that’s far from ideal for a number of reasons.

  17. Warning shots only work in the movies, for example, in “The Fate of the Furious”, an obviously unrealistic movie with a very unrealistic warning shot. In the movie, when Vin Diesel fired a warning shot in the direction of his former teammate (Michelle Rodigruez), she reacted (unbelievably) by FREEZING rather than doing what any sane person would do when hearing a gunshot coming towards them, run away or shoot back!

      • There’s a difference. When the US Navy or Coast Guard fires a warning shot, you know that it’s a warning shot, because the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard rarely miss unless they’re doing it on purpose!
        Cops, on the other hand, miss with two three out of three of their bullets (e.g. fire 30 shots, score 10 hits), so the suspect will just think the cop shot at him and missed, so he’d react the same as if the cop had shot at him.
        Unless the cop obviously points his gun in the air to fire a warning shot, but the problem with that is “What goes up must come down,” and that bullet is coming down somewhere, hopefully not on a child’s head. If a cop is a good enough shot to fire a bullet into the ground near the suspect, that might work, but again, the suspect might think the cop missed by accident.

        However, I admit there is one good way cops can do a warning shot — with a shotgun. Make the first shotgun round a beanbag round (less lethal), and it’s a good warning whether it hits or misses, plus if a cop misses with a beanbag round, it’s unlikely to kill an innocent bystander.

        • Also, there are dozens of people on the ship being warning-shot. At least one of them will realize that the shot actually happened, which can’t be relied upon when you’re dealing with one person in an intensely personal confrontation.

      • 1. On the open sea, warning shots land harmlessly in the ocean, harming no one.
        2. Navy ships have sufficient ammo capacity that wasting a single round is insignificant.

      • the navy only fires warning shots when they don’t actually view the ship as being in immediate danger.

        it’s not at all the same situation.

        what the navy does with warning shots is more like if you were to see a couple of thugs on a street corner and as you approach, you fired a shot in the air to get them to scatter.

  18. When you consider the current hit rate of cops I don’t think they any more reason to miss the target more. It is embarrassing enough already.

    • LOL, exactly! See my point above about when a cop fires a warning shot, the suspect will just think the cop missed, because cops usually miss (2 out of 3 shots are misses).
      However, a shotgun firing a beanbag round would make a good warning shot.

  19. I wonder if they are saying this due to politicalization of all the high profile police-involved shootings the last several years? After all of these high profile shootings, how many times have we heard friends and family of the perp crying, “they didn’t have to shoot to kill, they could’ve shot him in the leg, they could have fired a warning shot!”

  20. Was told if I fired a warning shot, then my life wasn’t in imminent danger. That I would demonstrate I wasn’t in fear for my life.

    • My CCW class we were told 2 shots center mass, repeat as necessary until threat stops, stop shooting, no warning shots.

  21. The police leadership that came up with this policy will never have to face the consequences of their decision. The lawsuits will fly off the shelf.
    Just shoot the bad guy and be done with it.

      • The guy they’re looking for is Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

        He did it, I just quoted him about it. He resides at 580 Mt Auburn St, Cambridge, MA 02138. That’s a permanent address, well, at least he’s been listed as residing there since 1882.

  22. Sure, shoot one guy in a group of attackers. If the others run off before you can shoot them, consider them warned.

    • That echoes one of my thoughts, that a warning shot is probably only useful if you face multiple bad guys. The trouble with a warning shot then is that you are left with one less bullet to stop them if they charge — so you may as well hit one of them so the bullet isn’t wasted.

  23. Warning shots are valid in situations where the aggressor is not yet in a position to attack. If someone is approaching you with a knife yelling that they are going to kill you and still continue to approach after you draw, a warning shot may be ideal.

    • …the aggressor is not yet in a position to attack.”

      In this situation the “imminent” portion of the equation is missing and firing or even drawing your weapon may be illegal.

      All of this discussion presumes beforehand that you were “justified” in drawing and firing your weapon and are just looking for an excuse not to. Spending too much time considering options AFTER the weapons are out is a good way to get yourself or other innocent people killed.

      The perp poses a credible threat of death or serious bodily injury, he has declared himself in a state of war with you AND society. Wage war.

  24. There should be no law against it, criminally speaking (idiotic to charge someone for firing a safe warning shot to scare off a burglar) but it should not be written into departmental policies. Just going to muddy the waters.

    Where I work the only time a gun may be fired not in defense is:
    1) on the range
    2) to dispatch a wounded animal
    3) to signal for help when it is otherwise impossible

    And I’m thinking #3 came about in the days of call-boxes when cops didn’t carry radios.

    • In Oregon’s Coast Range a trio of shots to signal distress is still useful; canyons where radio doesn’t reach aren’t uncommon at all. Several counties have tall radio masts on the highest peaks or peaks, and still emergency and law enforcement occasionally find themselves without a signal.

  25. Just fire a shot into the ground! (after looking around for signs warning of buried natural gas lines, of course).

    • Or as so many departments seem to do these days, use the family dog as a safe backstop for your warning shot.

  26. Quoted from the policy: “b. Warning shots are inherently dangerous. Therefore, a warning shot must have a defined target…” Blah, blah ,blah. What’s a safe target for a warning shot? Did they never hear of a richochet? I can see it now. “Gee Chief, I didn’t think the shot would ricochet and hit the little old lady who was on her way to church! I’m sorry she bled out while I was chasing the bad guy.” Written by a bunch of politicians masquerading as cops. In the somewhat ancient past, warning shots were permissable. Then they were not. Why not? There must have been a problem with warning shots. Now, that problem will rear it’s head again. Those that will not learn from the past are condemned to repeat it.

    • “What’s a safe target for a warning shot? Did they never hear of a richochet?”

      That’s why God gave us utility poles. 😉

      • Right. Big city cops who can’t hit the actual perp more than 13% of the time during a mag dump are going to be able to put one center mass on a 14″ wide utility pole.

        Not to mention that in more and more cities those dead trees are being replaced with really nice steel poles.

        Next option?

  27. If deadly force is justified and necessary, I question whether a warning shot is a good idea. If deadly force is neither justified or necessary I question whether firing at all is a good idea. HOWEVER, when dealing with potentially life threatening situations, the terms “always” and “never” have very little practcle value.

  28. this is Hollywood again rearing it’s ugly head. The projectile is going to go somewhere, and the officer is always going to be responsible for where that projectile goes. As such, there is zero circumstance, outside of maritime operations where warning fire is going to be a safe option.

  29. Murphy’s Law:

    You “fire” a warning shot and it goes click or does not chamber another round. Yeah, no thank you 🙂

  30. The moment the hammer drops or the striker strikes, you have unleashed deadly force. In uncontrolled circumstances, which are by definition abundant at any unplanned confrontation, and even when you know your target and attempt to hit your target, you cannot be sure of the collateral consequences of an unintentional miss or what the projectile may do after it penetrates the target and possibly keeps going. Those are risks that are entirely justified if circumstances really justify deadly or incapacitating force. If circumstances justify deadly force, or even incapacitating force, use it unflinchingly with brutal focus intended to achieve its full effectiveness at the actual target. Otherwise you have no business sending lead downrange. Nobody that’s proposing to unleash deadly force at anything other than a target that has forced you to use deadly force against it should have any role managing any organization or device capable of deploying deadly force.

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