Shoot to Wound? Shoot to Kill? Shoot to Live.

Have you ever heard someone say “I don’t know why the cop had to kill that guy, couldn’t they just have shot the gun out of his hand” or “I don’t think I could kill a person, if I was attacked, I think I would just shoot him in the leg”? 

This article is going to talk about why statements like these keep firearm instructors awake at night.  Lets be clear, its not that the emotions behind such statements are wrong, it’s that the words show a complete misunderstanding of the issues surrounding deadly force.

Not wanting to hurt an innocent person is a key part of our society.  One thing that makes America great is our sense of fair play and justice.  Most of us grew up with our mothers teaching us that hurting people is wrong, and only bad men hurt people.  However, this can cloud the issues dealing with deadly force, and lead the armed citizen into a briar patch of legal, moral, and emotional issues.

To fully begin to explore the concept of the moral and legal use of force we need to break apart the topic into its two main parts:

First, the use of force for self-defense is not about killing, it is about self-defense.  Neither armed citizens, nor law enforcement officers, carry firearms for the purpose of killing other humans.  The purpose of the weapon is to protect the lives of people.  In my case, as an armed citizen, my firearm protects the lives of my family and myself, in the officer’s case his weapon protects all the citizens he is sworn to protect, his fellow officers, and himself.

I grind my teeth every time I hear a student make a statement like “I was always told to shoot to kill”.  Neither I, nor any other instructors I know, teach armed citizens to shoot to kill—we all teach to shoot to live.  The only time a citizen is justified to use a firearm against another person is if that person has the ability to, and is attempting to kill the citizen, at that exact time of the shooting.  You are only allowed to use the force necessary to stop the attack.  You may meet force with equal force, not escalate the use of force and all told, the results of the force you used is not as relevant as the question of is the force you used legally justified.

There is an anecdote of an old cop standing in a courtroom defending himself for his use of deadly force.  The criminal’s attorney asks “Officer, why did you shoot my client 16 times?”  The cop replies “Well, because 15 times wasn’t enough, and 17 times would have been too many…”

Some people laugh at that story, but it clearly illustrates that your force must be in relation to the threat.  If the sight of your firearm causes the attack to stop, you are not justified firing any rounds.  If the first shot wounds the attacker and he quits trying to hurt you, then you must stop shooting. 

However, if you’re ever faced with a situation like one during the 1899 Moro Rebellion in which a highly motivated Moro fighter attacked three decorated U.S. Marines who were forced to empty their .38 revolvers into their machete wielding attacker, and were forced to beat him to death with the butts of their pistols because the rounds were ineffective (and led to the development of .45 ACP), you may have to fire and reload many times.

The next issue is where to aim.  The law enforcement hit ratio in gunfights hovers around 17%.  What that means is that when under the extreme stress of trying not to be killed, trained law enforcement officers fire, on average, 5 shots for every hit on the criminal. 

With practice, almost anyone can make a nice tiny shot group on a well lit, non-moving, large black circle on a clear white background, at a reasonable distance away, if you have a nice comfortable stance, plenty of time, and good quality earmuffs to block the talking and muttering around you.  It’s a lot different when the target is running around yelling and shooting at you.  Add in the stress response, terrain, low light, and innocent bystanders and you see why Hollywood trick shots have no place in real life.

That’s the reason we shoot at the center of exposed mass.  If you are aiming at your attacker’s chest, and you miss by an inch or two, you still will hit the bad guy and may cause him to stop his attack.  If you aim at something small and moving like a leg or a hand, and you miss, then you stand a good chance of hitting something or someone behind him.

Hopefully you can see the difference between these statements:

“Officer, I did not mean to kill him, I was only trying to shoot him in the leg, I did not mean to hit his artery”

“Officer, I did not mean to shoot that poor (insert noun here). I was trying to shoot the gun out of the other guy’s hand”

“Heck yeah I meant to kill him, I wouldn’t have shot him otherwise”

“Officer, he was trying to kill me so I aimed at the center of his exposed body and shot at him with intent to stop his attack”.

While you may think that the difference between shooting to kill and shooting to live is a word game, its not.  What it really consists of is the understanding of the difference between offensive and defensive force and any misunderstanding in this realm may contribute to some of my old friends from corrections providing you room service meals for an extremely long time.

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