It is painfully apparent that what most people think about armed or unarmed self-defense is based on fantasy. This disconnect is most evident whenever the media and public nincompoops give their “professional” opinion on any given officer-involved shooting (OIS).
Without fail, someone races to show the world that they don't understand violent encounters and says something ignorant like, “why didn't he just shoot the gun out of the bad guy's hand” or “the cop could have just shot him in the leg instead of trying to kill the bad guy.”
Shoot 'em in the leg:
Let's time travel back to June 2, 2020. Democratic nominee for President Joe Biden spent time in a DC church, speaking with a black audience about George Floyd, institutionalized racism, and officers' use of firearms. In the video, the current President makes the following ignorant statement:
Instead of standing there and teaching a cop when there's an unarmed person coming at them with a knife or something, shoot them in the leg instead of in the heart. There's a lot of different things that can change in police training.
I won't spend any more time commenting on how idiotic and contradiction-filled his statement is. But I use it as a noteworthy example of how misunderstood this topic of using deadly force, defensively, really is.
And it isn't just gun-grabbing, senile, authoritarian, puppet, Presidents who have this warped view.
The sheriff told me – shoot to kill:
Quite often, in classes, I will hear someone say, almost verbatim every time, “my local sheriff said they shoot to kill, and if I have to use my handgun in self-defense, I should shoot to kill.” Speaking to other instructors and reading comments on social media, it seems this rogue sheriff is making his rounds across the country proselytizing people in the way of fuddery. Likely the same guy who is telling folks to drag bodies back into the house- please don't.
So the misunderstanding comes from within gun owner circles, as well as outside.
Stop the threat:
We have spent a lot of effort writing posts and on our various podcasts to explain the difference between “shooting to kill” and “shooting to stop the threat.” It isn't just semantics, folks. So here are a few references. Moral Component of Deadly Force, Shooting Arms and Legs is Bad, Why we use Deadly Force.
So okay, why cover the same topic again?
PBS post on shooting to incapacitate:
Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) posted a recent story of two officer-involved shootings (OIS) in Enoch, Utah. The same officer involved in both shootings -2012 and 2018- intentionally shot the suspect in the knee.
In 2012, the officer arrived at a disturbance where a man was fighting with his mother. Police found him armed with two knives. According to reports, officers tried less-lethal methods of stopping the suspect and were unsuccessful. Nevertheless, the man continued to advance toward officers. The officer shot the suspect in the knee. Police took the man into custody, and he survived his injury.
The officer said he intentionally shot the suspect in the knee because he didn't want to kill him -more on this later.
The officer's actions were determined to be lawful and keeping with policy.
I'll pause to note that the officer in both incidents is a competitive shooter and trains at a much higher level of firearm proficiency than your average officer or concealed carrier.
In the recent 2018 incident, the same officer shot a lady suspected of stealing a car and when confronted threatened officers with a screwdriver. The officer shot her in the leg. They took her into custody, and she survived her injury.
The officer made the following statements that show the danger in this “shoot to wound” or “shoot to incapacitate” mindset.
He told investigators: that he mentally purchased the idea that she’s probably going to make me kill her. I didn’t want to make the decision as a screwdriver’s coming to my face…then I don’t have the time to aim and make a precise shot that’s not going to kill her. I’m going to hit her center-mass, and it’s going to be a lot of rounds and I’m not going to be able to save her. She’s going to die. My last chance to save her life was to take the shot that I took.
The problem is not with the officer's sincere desire not to have to kill someone. I was an officer working patrol in a Souther California city once upon a time. I get exactly what the officer feels. He made decisions under the most difficult of circumstances.
I am not here to disparage him whatsoever. In both situations, the suspect survived, and the bad guy/gal harmed no other people. We can constantly improve things with 2020 hindsight, and I don't doubt he has thought over the situations countless times.
My issue is not with the officer's decisions but more with untrained people, and those with unwise agendas have used these incidents as proof for purposely targeting small areas of the body. And this mentality has an effect on police training and how the general public sees your use of force.
What is deadly force:
Using a firearm is considered force likely to cause death or serious bodily harm, in other words, deadly force. However, being shot with a handgun is not a death sentence.
The relatively low velocity of handgun rounds means around half of the people shot with a handgun will survive. Salt Lake Tribune noted that between 2010 and 2020, Utah police shot 230 people in 226 incidents. They found about 45% of people shot by police survived.
Shooting someone is using deadly force, no matter what part of the human anatomy you target. It is force likely to cause death or serious bodily harm.
Officers and citizen defenders need to understand why they use deadly force and why we target specific areas of the body. Deadly force can always potentially end in death; it can't, by definition, be less lethal.
The purpose of using deadly force is ALWAYS to stop the threat without the intention of purposefully killing the attacker. If the attacker stops, our force stops. If the attacker continues to present a deadly threat, our force continues. In this way, we are always defensive and reactionary, never prejudicial, wanting to kill the attacker.
This point shouldn't slip by unnoticed, as on it hangs our very justification for self-defense.
Misapplication of deadly force:
One problem that arises when people try to make deadly force “less deadly” is applying deadly force without justification.
This misapplication of force happened in the 2018 incident and ended in the officer being suspended.
The officer made the following statements to the other officer on the scene moments before the shooting,
“I can take her out like last time. Do you want me to take her out like last time?”
The last time, a suspect armed with two knives refused to stop and came toward officers. This time, the suspect made threats and held a screwdriver out toward the officers. Because shooting the suspect in the leg worked last time, why not do it again?
Especially because, like last time, less lethal methods like deploying a Taser were ineffective.
However, unlike last time, the suspect wasn't an imminent threat, and the officers did not have legal justification for using deadly force.
So unequivocally, it's hard to say how much the past incident played into the officer's decision to try the technique again. Still, I think it's reasonable to believe it influenced it to some degree.
Consider the contradiction in this statement:
I used deadly force (shooting a person) with the hope of not killing them.
It requires one to question the necessity of using such a high level of force. After all, if you had only one option, to use deadly force or die, attempting to preserve the attacker's life by shooting them in the knee, so they could potentially continue their deadly assault doesn't seem to make sense.
The dangerous line of thought under stress goes, if you're unsure if you can use deadly force but can't think of other options, you may choose to use “less deadly” deadly force and shoot them in the leg.
Non-deadly, deadly force doesn't exist:
Aiming for extremities is also unpractical and dangerous.
The author describes La Grange, Georgia Police firearm training described as “shoot-to-incapacitate” in the PBS article.”
The training consists of a human silhouette target. The head and chest are colored red, shoulders, hands, groin, knees, and feet are yellow. The stomach, thighs, forearms, and shins of the target are green. A video showing the training shows that officers facing a deadly threat should target a green or yellow area. The instructor gives a whistle meaning the threat didn't stop, and officers are supposed to fire center-mass. Another whistle indicates the threat remains, and officers need to fire at the head.
In the video, Police Chief Wade Carpenter, who leads the Firearm Committee of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, runs through the training. He performs acceptably with all his rounds hitting the intended zones. Then, however, he gives a damning and painfully obvious opinion on the effectiveness of the training. He says:
Unfortunately, a static target, that doesn't give you a realistic replication of how that individual would realistically react to you. On a real call, officers don't know how a person will respond. If you shoot a gun out of someone's hand, they might pick it up and shoot you. They could continue the attack and hurt or kill someone else.
Not only that, but targeting small, fast-moving appendages like legs, feet, arms, or hands is difficult or impossible even for highly trained shooters. Imagine the physiological effects of being attacked and not wanting to die. Add in the concern for making the right split-second choice to draw your firearm and use force—the importance of not missing your target and potentially shooting an innocent person. And then consider that all those factors are changing by the second.
Shoot-to-incapacitate training is impractical and dangerous:
The reality is far different than what these firearms trainers have set up on the range.
Of course, people aren't color-coded in real life. Programming someone to shoot at colors in a sequence looks cool, but it won't make officers or citizen defenders better at deciding when to use force and when not to.
I don't think it is a stretch to say that training like this will lead to far more unintentional injuries and deaths to good guys to potentially save a suspect's life. And obviously, even if the suspect gets shot in the arm or leg, it doesn't mean they will survive.
Does it make sense in reality:
Take, for example, an active school shooter. Let's say an officer can shoot the active killer center mass, which tends to stop attackers sooner.
But, instead of taking that shot, he shoots the bad guy in the leg. The killer's intent to shoot kids is greater than the pain of a superficial gunshot wound to his leg. The officer continues this approach until the suspect finally gives up.
You're the parent of the children shot after the initial confrontation when the officer had the best opportunity to stop the attacker quickly. Still think it's the best policy?
Determining to take a high precision shot is determinant on many factors, some controllable and others situational.
For example, do you have the time, distance, clear backdrop, physical ability, and proficiency to make the shot? And if you are successful, what is the likelihood that the shot to the arm or hand will successfully stop the threat? Conversely, what are the consequences if you miss? Will innocent people be put in harm's way? Do you have enough ammunition to waste on low-probability shots?
Using a handgun to defend yourself is not pretty. If we are protectors of life, none of us should want to end someone's life. However, at the same time, protecting innocent life should always have priority over other factors.
If you've made it this far, excellent. Again, I want to point out that this post is not a critique of the officer's actions. We need to bring the conversation back to explaining to laymen why we use deadly force and why we target specific areas of the body.
Let's hear your opinions!
Do you like this content? Consider subscribing to the Concealed Carry Podcast, where we talk about topics like this twice a week. Our monthly Justified Saves episode is one of my favorites in which we discuss defensive gun uses from across the country.
Also, now is a great time to check out a free 7 day trial of our Guardian Nation subscription service.