Shoot to kill?

Shoot to kill?



While teaching a class of security guards recently a new guard asked the question “Do you always have to shoot to kill?”  The question arose as we were discussing the laws pertaining to the use of deadly physical force (commonly called lethal force).  One thing that is interesting to note is this was for an unarmed security guard class, but State guidelines mandate training in deadly physical force.  That’s because it’s well understood that merely being unarmed does not preclude one from being able to apply deadly force.


The answer to that guards question was of course, “No”.  In fact the goal is never to shoot to kill but only to shoot to stop.  The law understands that the most effective methods of stopping a determined assailant are likely to result in death even when that isn’t the intent.  With that in mind, the justification for using such lethal force is very highly defined and typically only justified when threat of death or serious bodily harm is imminent to you or to a third party.


So if our goal is to shoot to stop the threat, what does that mean?

A “Stop” is achieved when the aggressor is no longer capable or willing to continue to do you harm.  It’s important to note that once the threat no longer exists the justification to continue to use force also no longer exists.  That means once the threat stops, you need to stop shooting.  If you continue to use lethal force against someone who is clearly no longer a threat it is no longer justified.  In fact, you have now become the aggressor and are the one committing a crime, namely manslaughter.


Three types of stops

There are only three ways to stop an attacker, and only two are truly reliable.  These are the psychological stop, CNS, and loss of blood pressure.


Psychological stop


This is actually the most common type of stop but is also the least reliable.  A psychological stop is created when the attacker is no longer willing to continue the attack.  In many cases the mere presence of a gun is enough to cause this type of stop, a shot doesn’t even need to be fired.  These stops represent non-determined attackers however, not the kind we are discussing here.  Determined attackers are those that continue even when the presence of a gun is known or after shots have been fired.

When shots are fired approximately 35% of the time an attacker who is hit in any part of the body will quit whether they were capable to continue their attack or not.  Even bad guys figure out that once you get shot, you should stop doing those things that got you shot in the first place.


CNS or Central Nervous System Stop


A shot to the central nervous system (brain, brain stem, upper spinal cord) is the most reliable and effective type of stop.  A shot placed in the brain stem results in instantaneous incapacitation.  They can’t run, fight, or pull a trigger.  These are also the most difficult shots to pull off.  The target is small and the chance to miss is high.  A miss means that instead of stopping your target they get to continue attacking, possibly with disastrous consequences for you.


Loss of Blood Pressure


This is the common and recommended method to stop an attacker in a self defense situation.  When blood pressure drops low enough the body and brain shut down resulting in unconsciousness and incapacitation.  Given time, a gunshot wound almost anywhere on the body can cause sufficient loss of blood pressure to cause unconsciousness (and eventually death).  However as life and death encounters are usually measured in seconds, we need to create this loss of blood pressure as quickly as possible.

The most reliable way to do this is to place several well placed shots to the center of mass, or torso of the target.  These shots to the upper chest have the chance to impact several large arteries, blood bearing organs, and the heart.  Even with a direct shot to the heart an attacker can have between several seconds and two minutes before they are completely incapable of continuing the fight.  In those seconds an attacker can still pull a trigger, plunge a knife, swing a hammer, or commit other lethal acts. In order to speed the process multiple on target hits must be achieved.


How many shots?


There is no defined number of shots, or hits, that will be effective in all defensive shootings.  As mentioned some attackers may stop after just one hit.  Others have been known to soak up eight, nine, or even more hits and still continue to fight.  Real world shootings show that approximately 80% of attackers are stopped after two to three shots.  While this is good to know it doesn’t mean we should stop shooting after our third shot.  You continue to shoot until the threat has stopped.  That can mean the attacker is on the ground unconscious or dead or it may mean the attacker has stopped in his tracks, dropped any weapons, and is trying to surrender.  When the threat stops, then we stop shooting.  

This reminds us that our drills shouldn’t condition us to just shoot two or three shots and then check our targets.  Be sure to vary your defensive drills to include strings of fire that include five, six, seven, or even more shots.


What about warning shots or shooting to wound?

Both are not only bad ideas, they are actually illegal.

The notion of a ‘warning shot’ is popular in movies but of course movies need to tell a story, not deal with consequences in real life.  Bullets fired don’t disappear, they go somewhere.  Bullets fired in the air fall down again.  Bullets fired against the ground can ricochet.  Bullets can go through the walls and floors of most homes.  Firing a warning shot is dangerous, irresponsible, and illegal.  The shooter is responsible for any death or injury that occurs from that warning shot.  Additionally the presence of a drawn gun itself is a ‘warning’ to any potential attacker.  If they ignore that and still decide to pursue their attack a shot fired that doesn’t hit them is unlikely to be more convincing.

Shooting to wound has additional problems both legally and tactically.  Shooting non-vital areas represents an attempt to cause a psychological stop.  As mentioned before these are the least reliable method because the attacker is still capable of continuing the attack.  Even if they choose to stop at that time, they can resume the attack later when they might feel the situation is more in their favor.

ANY shots fired from a gun at another person can result in death. A shot in the leg can be as lethal as a shot in the chest. From a legal perspective if the threat was not sufficient to justify lethal force then no shots should be fired at all.  Even non fatal gun shot wounds are likely to cause permanent life altering injuries.  Paralysis, limb damage, organ failure, and more are all typical in the aftermath of non-fatal shootings.  If the threat was not sufficient to warrant deadly force, the shooting would not be legally justified.  If the threat was sufficient to warrant deadly force then shooting to wound would be unlikely to cause a “stop” quickly enough to prevent serious injury or death to the defender.

This is not even addressing the difficulty in trying to get shots on such small moving targets as legs, knees, arms, and shoulders.  In life threatening situations we talk about ‘defensive accuracy’, basically being able to hit a roughly 9” circle corresponding to the vital areas in a human torso.  (Imagine a paper plate placed over your chest).  This relatively large, stationary target is hard enough to achieve under range conditions when the shooter is prepared, comfortable, and not under the influence of adrenaline, shock, and fear.  One common adage about defensive shootings is that “you’ll only be half as good as your worst day at the range.”  

Analysis of real world shootings show this to be true.  Hit rates by cops against criminals are often less than 50%.  In the famous shooting of Amadou Diallo four New York City police officers fired a total of 41 shots, only hitting Diallo 19 times.


Shoot to stop, shoot center mass, and shoot until the threat has ended.