Despite the inadvisability — and frequent illegality of — of warning shots, some gun owners use them to try to warn off a potential attackers. Thanks, Uncle Joe. Sometimes a warning shot will actually work (even it it gets you arrested). But sometimes a warning shot can galvanize an opponent into the very action you’re attempting to deter.

That’s what seems to have happened in two recent situations, one in Indiana and another South Carolina.

From wave3.com in Indiana:

“The victim was able to retrieve a handgun that he owned,” Mull said. “He was able to use that handgun to get Mr. Hickerson (above) out of his residence.”

The situation didn’t end there. The homeowner, who didn’t want to go on camera, told police he fired two warning shots after Hickerson refused to leave. That’s when a struggle started as the suspect tried to grab the gun out of the homeowner’s hands.

Neighbor Libby West described how another neighbor jumped in to help.

“He walked outside because he kind of saw and heard a commotion and he saw a gun waving in the air,” West said. “The two men were fighting over it.”

That neighbor grabbed his gun and ran over to assist his friend. Other neighbors jumped in as well.

Police got to the scene quickly and arrested Hickerson. The homeowner’s keys and cellphone were found in Hickerson’s pocket.

The suspect, Antonio Henderson, later told police that he was under the influence of multiple opiates. Go figure.

Worse, in a South Carolina incident, a woman who fired warning shots was attacked, then shot and killed her assailant.

From foxcarolina.com:

Sheridan told investigators she heard a noise coming from her shed and fired two warning shots before Sanders came out from behind the shed. When he did, Sheridan said she fired a shot in his direction. …

Wagner said Sheridan retrieved her handgun after hearing a loud crash as she opened the door to her home. Sanders was dressed in dark clothing and had his face covered at the time of the incident, Wagner said.

“His behavior would startle anyone in a similar situation, and it is not unreasonable to think that to protect herself after feeling threatened Ms. Sheridan believed she had to fire a shot in the direction of the large male charging at her,” Wagner and Anderson County Sheriff Chad McBride said in a joint statement.

The problems with warning shots are several. The fired round has to go somewhere, and it may not end up where you intend it. People have been killed and wounded by errant warning shots. Not to mention that warning shots use precious ammunition that later may be needed to stop a threat. And, depending on your local DA, you could be prosecuted for brandishing or illegal discharge of a firearm.

In spite of these shortcomings, there is one overwhelming, indisputable advantage of warning shots. You may stop an attack without having to shoot someone. The assumption is that an attacker will be scared off by a warning shot who wouldn’t be deterred by the mere sight of a firearm pointed in their direction.

Florida has modified their law to make the use of warning shots less legally problematic. Prosecutors in some other states have even stated that warning shots show restraint. But trusting your legal fate, gun rights and freedom to the discretion of a prosecutor is a leap of faith you probably won’t want to take.

As in the instances above, criminals may not act rationally. They may respond in ways that a normal, law-abiding person doesn’t expect.

A retired police officer told me to view an attacker as you would a large, dangerous wild animal. Don’t expect to reason with him/her or expect any mercy. Warning shots sometimes work with wild animals. Sometimes, they don’t.

©2017 by Dean Weingarten: Permission to share is granted when this notice and link are included.

Gun Watch

30 Responses to Caution: A Warning Shot May Precipitate the Attack It’s Intended to Prevent

  1. “In spite of these shortcomings, there is one overwhelming, indisputable advantage of warning shots. You may stop an attack without having to shoot someone. The assumption is that an attacker will be scared off by a warning shot who wouldn’t be deterred by the mere sight of a firearm pointed in their direction.”

    If you truly believe this scenario is plausible, and want to have the capability of firing a warning shot, then the thing to do would be to load a blank at the top of the magazine (or left / right of the hammer, depending). And always assuming said blank will cycle your pistol.

    If you need to fire “for real” a second pull will do that … and even blanks, at close range, aren’t completely harmless.

    • That may work with a wheel gun, but a blank will not cycle the action on an automatic. Basically, you’re setting yourself up for a first round malfunction. The same can be said about snake shot loads.

    • When I gave my 642 to my mother for her protection when I was out driving I always loaded the first round with snake shot. The theory, I told her, was that it was mon-lethal and had a very wide dispersal so it was possible she would hit some exposed skin, probably the face, with that tiny shot. Between the load BANG and the feel of some sort of pellet strike any reasonably sane person facing Grandma with a pistol shooting at him was highly likely to beat feet.

      But, I told her, with emphasis, if said bad guy did not immediately head for the hills put all four remaining hollow points center of mass.

  2. how about a “warning shot” of rock salt from a 12ga? always wondered what repercussion that would cause, anyone know?

    • You permanently blind the BG, he sues in civil court, and you’re tied up in legal proceedings for a while. Maybe it happens, maybe it doesn’t, but it’s a royal PITA you don’t want to deal with.

      Save your ammo (live, potent, and in good condition) for the exact moment a BG crossed the legal threshold of employing lethal force, then use as appropriate to remove the threat.

      • I would have to concur. I believe in any legal proceeding it would be quickly shown that if you were (intentionally) using rock salt that you were not legitimately in fear of your life. Case closed, you lose.

        • you were not legitimately in fear of your life. Case closed, you lose.

          I presume that since we’re talking about rock salt in a shotgun, we’re talking about home defense…

          Whether it’s “case closed, you lose” almost certainly depends on jurisdiction. For example, in Colorado, there is no requirement that one be in fear of death (or even great bodily injury, or even minor bodily injury) before the use of physical force – including deadly force – is justified.

          C.R.S. 18-1-704.5:

          any occupant of a dwelling is justified in using any degree of physical force, including deadly physical force, against another person when that other person has made an unlawful entry into the dwelling, and when the occupant has a reasonable belief that such other person has committed a crime in the dwelling in addition to the uninvited entry, or is committing or intends to commit a crime against a person or property in addition to the uninvited entry, and when the occupant reasonably believes that such other person might use any physical force, no matter how slight, against any occupant.

          The statute says I can use any degree of physical force, including deadly physical force. That would certainly include rock salt from a 12 gauge.

          The statute expressly refutes the idea that I have to be in “fear for my life”. I have to have a reasonable belief that the intruder might use any physical force – no matter how slight – against any occupant.

  3. I guess if you own one of those 6 shooters that just keep firing(like in the old movies) you could load a blank for the first round, but we are not in the movies, so that would mean you had a 5 shooter(or even a four, if you leave one chamber empty)

  4. “The assumption is that an attacker will be scared off by a warning shot who wouldn’t be deterred by the mere sight of a firearm pointed in their direction.”

    If one is under attack that doesn’t warrant use of a firearm to sufficiently injure the attacker such that the attack ends completely, then one is not under “imminent” threat of death or grievous bodily harm.

    it would seem that people who would rather use a gun to scare-off an attacker, rather than completely incapacitate the attacker, are the same people who just hope the sight of a defensive gun will make the attacker flee….because the person presenting the gun (and firing warning shots) doesn’t really understand the law, the threat, or both. such people should not have a gun available (not because the do not have the RTKBA, but because they are not seriously invested in armed self-defense).

    • While I agree with the general premise that warning shots are not a great idea, I know why people use them. Have you ever been in an actual DGU scenario? I (very nearly) have. A lot of thoughts go through a guys head really fast when you’ve got somebody silhouetted on the business end of your front sight. The highlights are:

      Fuck, am I really going to have to kill this guy?
      How will a prosecuter spin this?
      What’s prison like?

      In my case it was a late night home invasion, wife and two kids still in diapers upstairs. I never in a million years thought I would be rationalizing a situation like that. Luckily my brother who was staying over heard the commotion and blind-side tackled him from the living room and we proceeded to stomp the shit out of him.

      Long story short, dude was drunk. So drunk he thought my house was his house and just came on in. Did I fear for my life and the lives of my family? You better damn-well believe I did but I also feared that my kids were going to grow up with a dad in the state pen for what a jury might find to be an unjustified shooting.

      Fact of the matter is, most people don’t want to kill a person.

  5. Marc MacYoung, in his book, “In The Name of Self-Defense” says that sometimes, to get a possible assailant to leave, he needs assurance that you will let him leave. Of course, as in the first case in Dean’s article, a guy on drugs may believe that warning shots prove you don’t have the guts to shoot him, provoking an attack.

  6. Either you shoot the person who is a threat or don’t shoot at all. If someone isn’t deterred by the sight of a gun barrel pointed at him, he won’t be by a warning shot. Warning shot is like a loud siren screaming ‘I’m shitless scared of you, but won’t shoot you, so come and take this gun away from me and kill me instead’. 😐

    • Nothing wrong with a warning shot. 1 shot to the center man of the target. he’s no been warned to lay down or run away he’ll get another one.

    • It has been commented (not in this string, interestingly enough) that you should never admit to a warning shot, always just say you were nervous and your first shot missed.

      But a miss is a miss. It is highly possible that in firing a warning shot you missed your intent to miss and nailed his cold, black heart. Darn.

      (Please do not infer any racial content to the previous comment.)

  7. Any successful defensive gun use reported in the news seems to be a warning shot (to those who pay attention).

  8. No warning shot but a first shot that missed maybe on purpose, if the threat leaves the area situation over.. If not game over But after the fact the first shot was a kill shot that missed it’s target.

  9. This is kind of an extension of the whole the presence of a firearm can escalate or de-escalate a situation. If you trigger a fight-or-flight response some people will fight . . . Even if they are hopelessly outmatched.

    If a BG is armed, then discharging a firearm can cause a gun fight where one might not have happened. For good and for bad a warning shot does another thing:

    IT GETS ATTENTION in a way that nothing else can.

  10. If a situation is grave enough for me to shoot, it will be center mass. That should be sufficient warning for anyone.

  11. I tend to agree with the majority of commentors here. Except in extremely select and rare circumstances you either shoot at the person with the intention to hit them of you don’t fire.

    Warning shots, again except under very rare circumstances, are an open admission that you don’t have enough read to fear the person to actually shoot them and therefore I find it hard to defend loosing a round at all.

  12. An assailant who isn’t deterred by fact that his/her (let’s all be woke here) victim is armed is not the sort of person to play games with.

    • A few FBI agents learned that lesson the hard way making a felony stop back in 1986. The two BGs were not intimidated even after bullets were making holes in their flesh.

  13. If the attacker represents enough of a threat that you need to discharge your weapon, you should be putting that lead on target, not into the ground/air as a warning.

  14. Someone other than me once stated: The Bad Guy has been already warned by Society that breaking and entering, assault, rape, murder, etc. are against the law and that there are some people with guns out there that may kill them if they continue with their criminal pastimes. The only thing a warning shot accomplishes is to reduce your immediate ammo availability by one.
    Your side-arm isn’t a warning device, it’s a self-defense tool.

  15. Any fool worth shooting is worth shooting repeatedly. Look at any police involved shooting video. They are trained to stop the threat. Bullets are sent downrange until the weapon is empty then pause to reload and if necessary survey the situation. Criminals deserve no quarter since none is given. Be Alert,Be Aware and Keep Your Powder Dry.

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