Pro-Handgun Experts Prove That Handguns Are a Dangerous Choice for Self-Defense
Chapter Three: Paper Targets Don't Shoot Back and Have No Right to Live
It is difficult to shoot a handgun accurately, even under the most tranquil of circumstances. "The handgun is the most difficult firearm to shoot accurately and rapidly; skill comes only with practice," according to Massad Ayoob.80 But many handgun owners don't practice at all. The result is predictably low marksmanship, according to handgun defense expert Duane Thomas:
The relative few who do practice with their handguns typically shoot at paper targets. Sometimes they practice on targets of human silhouettes, some of which feature scowling faces and threatening postures. Handgun enthusiasts who make a sport of target practice may achieve some skill at punching holes in paper targets.
Paper targets, however, do not act anything like real assailants. They don't lunge out of darkness, arrive in groups, jump around, hide behind cover, or attempt to take the victim's gun away. Most of all, paper targets don't shoot back.m They therefore do not evoke the heart-pounding fright which normal human beings inevitably feel under circumstances that legally justify the use of deadly force in self-defense. (The physiological and psychological effects of mortal fear and their impact on the gunfighter are discussed in detail in the next chapter.) This chapter examines expert views on the differences between punching holes in paper targets and exchanging shots in real gun fights.
Gun industry advertisements make handguns seem like magic amulets that ward off evil forces just by their presence. Buy one of these, they imply without elaboration, and you'll be able to protect yourself. Massad Ayoob describes the mentality of some handgun owners who buy into this myth as follows:
The experts are well aware that there is no such "aura," and that real life is much different than the fantasies of gun-industry marketing and most handgun owners.
No Quick Surrenders. Fictional drama has convinced some gun owners that they will probably never have to shoot anyone because the bad guy will surrender. Noting that the average American "has never witnessed—probably never even read a complete, official report of—a real, armed confrontation," Ayoob contrasts the typical television scenario that dangerously influences a gun owner's plan with the inconveniences of real life:
Small, Deadly Business. Homeowners are not alone in the widespread delusion that having a handgun around makes them safer. Many proprietors of small retail establishments have also armed themselves with handguns. Ayoob notes that many retailers who have done so "are dangerously unfamiliar with firearms," adding:
Such "vague" thinking often leads to predictably tragic results. Using a handgun safely and effectively involves much more than just taking it out of the box and waving it around. The following story related by handgun defense expert Bill Clede makes this point precisely:
Daniel Bennet survived. But Austrian handgun maker Glock doesn't feature his story in its advertising—not even as a cautionary footnote, even though the NRA's official magazine warns: "In a personal-protection situation, one can't be sure of having a firm, two-handed shooting-range grip, so a pistol's functioning from a weak grip is an important point."86
It is impossible to say how many other would-be defenders like Bennett have died or been injured because they simply didn't know how to operate their handguns.o But it is distressingly easy to find other examples of handgun "self-defense" gone awry in small business settings.
In New Jersey, for example, a record-store owner unintentionally shot his business partner to death with a Glock .40 S&W pistol during a "training" exercise the two men were reportedly staging, simulating a robbery in order to "prepare themselves to fend off a real holdup."p The two had never been robbed but had recently bought the two guns they were using during the simulation.87 In Tampa, a store clerk shot himself in the leg when he apparently knocked the store gun off the counter and it discharged upon hitting the floor.88 In Philadelphia, a store owner killed an eight-year-old boy when he fired at an armed robber, missed, and hit the boy instead.89 A jeweler in Franklin Township, New Jersey, unintentionally shot and killed his wife when he fired at a robber who had knocked her to the floor.90
The Trouble with Pistols. Unfamiliarity is especially problematic for the novice owner of the semiautomatic pistol. A revolver is a simple mechanism that almost anyone can figure out intuitively how to work and generally does not contain a safety. But some pistols require a preliminary movement—such as moving a safety lever or racking the slide back to cock the hammer—before they can be fired.q
This is not merely a theoretical problem. Ayoob cites several instances in which he says law-enforcement officers survived after resisting suspects took away their pistols because the suspects could not figure out how to prepare the pistols for firing. He also describes a Florida police department's experiment measuring how long it took lay employees to figure out how to fire a revolver and a pistol respectively at a paper target "officer." Said Ayoob, "On the average, the testers were able to pick up the revolver and ‘kill the officer' in 1.2 seconds. Their average time with the safety-locked automatic was approximately 17 seconds."91 The additional 15.8 seconds spent fumbling with the gun would be more than enough in the typical gunfight to get the owner killed or seriously injured.
The "appalling ineptitude" in marksmanship that gun expert Thomas described above is more than an unfortunate handicap for handgun owners. It is a direct threat to innocent bystanders in every shooting. Ayoob notes that "it is reasonable to assume that there will be bystanders present" when a defense handgun must be used in public:
Semiautomatic Pistols Increase the Danger. Bad marksmanship is an especially serious threat with high-capacity semiautomatic pistols. "Not only do shooters armed with 9mms fire more rounds than those folks armed with other weapons, they also fire more misses," according to expert Duane Thomas. This, he says, "is extremely bad, as every miss is a wild shot that potentially endangers the lives of innocent bystanders."93
Another expert agrees that high-capacity pistols are a special problem because users of such handguns use "‘spray and pray' tactics in real-world shootings. Without a doubt, ‘spray and pray' is happening in police-involved shootings....it can be said with certainty that high magazine capacity can cause as many problems as solutions."94 Jim Williamson, roving editor of Gun Week, adds, "The average cop now shoots more, but hits less. Marksmanship has lost out to volume of fire, too often."95 (There is no reason whatever to believe that civilian handgun owners are more disciplined in shooting their semiautomatic pistols than are police, and much reason to believe that they are less disciplined.)
Innocents Lost. Innocent bystanders are a serious concern at all times, even putting aside wild shots from poor marksmen and spray-and-pray shooters with semiautomatic pistols. A well-trained and highly disciplined police officer should automatically scan for bystanders, as Jim Cirillo describes:
Unfortunately, the real world is often not so cautious. Even trained police officers unintentionally shoot innocent bystanders. For example, in New York City a police officer who shot at a man with a knife missed and hit a bystander on a bicycle.97 In the same city, 21 innocent bystanders were hit by police bullets fired during 1995 and 1996.98 In North Carolina, a police officer unintentionally shot an 11-year-old boy in the leg while shooting at a pack of wild dogs. The boy was half a mile away at a water fountain near a baseball field.99 In similar incidents in Seattle,100 Oakland,101 and Ft. Lauderdale,102 police officers shooting at threatening dogs unintentionally shot fellow officers. In a separate Seattle incident, police bullets fired in a rush-hour shootout with suspected bank robbers struck an occupied car but did not hit any of the passengers.103 In California, a bank employee was unintentionally shot by a police officer searching for holdup men.104
If police make such mistakes, what can be reasonably expected of the poorly trained civilian—or the civilian with no training, such as Daniel Bennet, the pizzeria owner from Arizona cited earlier. Contrasting the reactions of sworn police officers and civilians in moments of extreme excitement, Ayoob asserts, "Civilians, who generally don't carry guns eight hours a day or receive several hours of justifiable force instruction, tend to be awfully bloodthirsty."105
Putting aside blood lust, does the civilian in a moment of extreme fear even see the innocent bystander in the background, much less have the skill to avoid shooting him? Bill Clede observes:
In addition, as Chris Bird observes, those in danger may be blocks away from the action:
It is certainly "something to think about" for the unfortunate bystander who is hit by a "stray" shot—especially if the shooter's life was not actually in danger.
In addition to deficiencies in practical skill, many handgun owners have not thought through the moral decision involved in shooting another human being. "To win a gunfight," advises expert Bird, "you need to be more than able to shoot your attacker: you must be willing. If you do not believe you can kill another human being, you have no business carrying a gun."108
Fatal Procrastination. Failure to come to terms in advance with this threshold question is likely to be a fatal procrastination. According to Ayoob, "the thing that kills innocent people in gunfights is their own morally-inbred hesitation to kill fellow beings."109
Surprise—the essence of the deadly encounter—is an important factor in this issue. It is too late to make up one's mind about this profound moral issue once the encounter commences. "Police officers go into situations sensible citizens avoid, and the officers are trained to be prepared. Nevertheless, in 30 percent of some six thousand shooting incidents investigated by the New York City police, the need to shoot came as a surprise to the officers."110
Unlike police officers, civilians are not required to pursue danger. Therefore, a higher percentage of incidents in which the use of lethal force is justified by civilians must by definition be cases of surprise. The police officer who learns of potential danger cannot just walk away from it, but the civilian who has advance notice of danger and time, space, or both in which to find safety, can and must—with a few narrow exceptions—avert the possibility of a deadly encounter.
Suppose the handgun owner honestly believes escape is impossible and he has no alternative? Then he is faced with the moral decision whether or not to kill. "Simply stated, you must be willing to kill any man who would harm you or your family," writes handgun defense expert Gabriel Suarez. "You must be willing to offer greater violence for violence offered."111
The fact is, however, that most people today "are extremely reluctant to harm another person, even when that person has taken clearly overt hostile actions toward them....Such a mind-set must be overcome if we want to live to tell about it when we have to shoot for our lives."112 Author Bird offers this advice as an aid to achieving the correct mind-set, incidentally illustrating the moral character of the heavily armed society:
Some people who shrink from killing another human being believe they can escape the dilemma by simply brandishing a firearm to deter a criminal attack. Expert Ayoob dismisses this thought as inviting a fatal result for the defender:
The risk to innocent life is further compounded by the palpable ignorance of most handgun owners about the law of lethal force. This prompts them to display or use handguns in inappropriate and often criminal ways. According to expert Ayoob:
Degree of Force. Well-trained police officers use a spectrum of force available for potential use in any encounter. This ranges from the simple authority of the officer's physical presence in uniform, through verbal commands, martial skills, various non-lethal weapons, such as batons and disabling sprays, to the use of the firearm. The firearm, lethal force, is the last resort.
Part of the risk of civilians armed with handguns is that much of this spectrum (such as the civic authority invested in the officer) is not available to civilians at all. Also, many civilians are not trained, or inclined, to employ any degree of force other than the lethal degree of their handgun:
But making that jump can land the handgun owner in criminal court unless he is on solid ground under the law of self-defense.
The Ideal World of the Law. Most self-defense experts agree that the armed citizen has a duty to know the law:
In their writings Ayoob and Clede repeatedly state how narrow the right to kill in self-defense is in all states:
These rules define an extraordinary set of circumstances—essentially reasonably induced mortal fear—under which resort to the handgun will be justified. But how widely understood and applied are these rules in real life?
The Real World of Handgun Ownership. According to the experts, most handgun owners think more in terms of "B" grade Western movies than the law as it is. For example, Ayoob writes, "It is a widespread and dangerous misconception that all criminals are fair game for the bullets of good guys."124
In addition to wilful indifference, another reason for the general ignorance of handgun owners may be the reluctance of many police agencies, and even the National Rifle Association, to take the responsibility of teaching civilians when it is okay to kill other civilians. A Nevada trainer certified by the NRA described the problem in The Police Marksman magazine:
The Problem of "Brandishing." Pro-gun advocate John Lott often promotes the idea that merely "brandishing" a handgun is an effective form of self-defense that averts the possibility of any harm. He claims to have found that "98 percent of the time that people use guns defensively, they merely have to brandish a weapon to break off an attack."126 Putting aside the fact that an independent analysis of Lott's claim—published in the official newsletter of the American Society of Criminology—has found the source for this claim to be mysteriously non-existent,127 gun experts dismiss the idea of brandishing as a dangerously bad idea.
Here, for example, is what the "personal security" expert for Guns & Ammo magazine recently wrote about the idea (similar to the advice of expert Ayoob quoted earlier):
In addition, as is so sadly often the case, "merely" brandishing a handgun is likely to lead to tragically unintended consequences. In Huntington Beach, California, for example, a 77-year-old man unintentionally shot and killed his wife when he tried waving his gun from his car at the occupants of another vehicle whom he thought had threatened him.129
Even assuming that the handgun owner is conscientious enough to learn how to load and fire his gun, has visited a shooting range to develop some skill, and knows the basic legal constraints, his handgun is still far from an effective defense. Because, as the experts warn, "shooting on the target range and shooting under duress are not the same. You may be able to hit the target with every shot at practice, but when you're threatened" everything is turned on its head.130 Survival demands much different and well-honed skills:
The "Firing-Range Mind-Set." Expert Chuck Taylor cautions against the "firing-range mind-set—the creation of tactics and techniques that work only under controlled conditions....A handgun fight does not take place under such conditions."132 He warns that this mind-set "can get you killed in a hurry when the bullets fly."133
Real-Life Differences. Experts on the use of handguns for self-defense reel off a number of real-life factors for which range shooting does not prepare the handgun owner:
Training for Real Life. The point is not that it is impossible to train effectively for defensive use of a handgun in real life, but that at a minimum "training to survive a deadly force encounter...takes knowledge, commitment, and lots of practice."141r The better police agencies try to do so—
Only a decidedly tiny minority of people who acquire handguns for self-defense seek out and complete this kind of committed training and continued practice to ensure not only their own safety, but also that they are not a danger to innocent people when they perceive the need to use their gun. "You owe it to yourself, and to the innocent people around you, to be able to deliver your self-defensive gunfire into the vital organs of the criminal who gravely threatens you and nowhere else," says Ayoob. "A man who can't control the deadly force of his gun adds to the general jeopardy."143
A threshold problem for the handgun owner who wants effective training is finding a place to get it. "You'll find many local clubs that teach target shooting, but fewer that teach practical shooting," writes one expert.144 Moreover, warns another, "No formal or informal firearms course I ever attended came close to teaching me how to survive a real gunfight. In fact, some courses teach you to do things that may endanger you."145
The reference to dangerous teaching is to so-called "practical pistol" shooting, which experts like Chuck Taylor and others warn has become a ritualized sport that encourages practices that are actually dangerous in real life:
What to Learn? Assuming that the handgun owner is able to find a course that won't teach him "suicidal" techniques, what should he learn? The experts warn: "Under the high-arousal states dictated by the natural fear response, you will usually give little or no conscious thought to your actions. Your body has been programmed by Mother Nature to go into autopilot mode, and you respond automatically based on all your training and past experiences."147 A person who has neither training nor experience obviously will have no basis on which to react safely and effectively to a life-threatening incident.
The experts generally agree that one must acquire such a level of skill that one's reactions become virtually automatic, even under the extraordinary "high-arousal" physiological challenges alluded to above and described in detail in the next chapter. A reviewer for Gun World states that "the true mission of the handgun...is to provide reactive defense capability against unexpected attack at close quarters."148 Here is one expert's description of the rigor that is required to achieve a level of "reactive" skill that is useful in the unexpected attacks of real life:
The Bottom Line of "Bullet Placement." The necessary skills involved are much more than simply pointing a handgun and pulling the trigger, because real assailants don't stand still and present passive expanses of space like paper targets. This means that, in real-life encounters: "Bullet placement is the key to stopping a felonious assault."150 In order for a handgun to be an effective self-defense weapon, the owner must be able to hit a small, moving target, quite possibly while he is also moving, seeking cover. "Police weapons training should always include movement; learn to shoot while moving. Whenever possible, you should practice with a moving target and a moving shooter."151
The actual experience of seasoned police officers illustrates how extraordinarily difficult this real-life shooting challenge is for the typically untrained or poorly trained civilian handgun owner. Former NYPD officer Jim Cirillo, for example, reports that "in many confrontations, I was only offered head shots—the gunmen who did not give up when challenged generally ducked for cover, leaving only their heads or a portion of their heads for a target."152 The difficulty of hitting such a target is underscored by Ayoob, who writes "the head is a small, bobbing target, difficult to hit even on stationary silhouette targets. Facing a living human being, it becomes close to impossible."153
Several experts discuss problems beyond the fact that the target is small and likely moving that make head shots "totally unpredictable."154 For one thing, it is not unusual for bullets to glance off of the hard human skull. So, as expert Duane Thomas describes, accuracy becomes even more important and even more difficult:
But, even if the assailant does not present such a limited target: "The only part of the body certain to produce an instant stop is the central nervous system," advises another expert. "Hitting such a moving target with a handgun, under extreme stress, is not easy."156
Keeping Up Skill Level. The handgun owner who finds the right place to learn and diligently applies himself must continue to practice because, experts warn, proficiency with firearms is a perishable skill.157 "If you used to ride a bicycle everywhere but you haven't been on one for years, you don't expect to hop on a bike and be as sharp as you were as a kid. The same is true of shooting and of any other motor skill."158
m) Many law enforcement agencies train their officers under circumstances where the bad guys do shoot back. They use, among other things, paint ball guns and simulated ammunition rounds that sting but do not seriously wound, and interactive simulators that present "shoot-don't shoot" situations in which the officer not only has to avoid shooting innocent persons, but avoid getting "shot" himself.
n) Most semiautomatic pistols use recoil energy to drive a slide back against a spring. During its rearward travel, the slide ejects the spent shell casing. When the recoil energy is sufficiently spent, the spring drives the slide forward, and the slide picks up and chambers a new round. "If the shooter fails to take a firm grip on the pistol, the slide may fail to recoil fully, causing failures to eject or feed," ("‘Limp-Wristing' Pistols," American Rifleman, August 1997, 22).
o) Detailed national incident data is routinely collected about deaths and injuries caused by many consumer products, such as motor vehicles, and is widely available for researchers analyzing causes and safety measures. But no comprehensive database exists in relation to gunshot deaths and injuries. This is largely because of the opposition of the National Rifle Association and other members of the gun lobby.
p) In a curiously similar incident, an Ohio police officer shot and seriously wounded a fellow officer while they were "practicing for a role-playing training session." The two, using real but theoretically "unloaded" Glock pistols, overlooked a round in the chamber of one of the guns, (Lisa Perry, "Officer Indicted for Shooting," Dayton Daily News, 27 January 1998, p. 5B).
q) This does not imply that semiautomatic pistols are any safer around children, for example, who discover their hiding place in the home. Unlike a novice and operationally ignorant owner suddenly thrust into a self-defense situation, children have more time to play around with the pistol's mechanism. In addition, a pistol's trigger resistance is lighter than that of a revolver, so it is actually easier for younger children to pull and fire the gun. "Let it be repeated: no gun is childproof. No matter how many levers and buttons it has, the child will eventually figure out the combination." Massad F. Ayoob, In the Gravest Extreme: The Role of the Firearm in Personal Protection (Massad F. and Dorothy A. Ayoob, 1980), 124-125.
r) The fact that even trained law enforcement officers suffer their share of unintentional shootings of both civilians and officers underscores the perilous nature of any armed encounter.
All contents © 2001 Violence Policy Center
The Violence Policy Center is a national non-profit educational foundation that conducts research on violence in America and works to develop violence-reduction policies and proposals. The Center examines the role of firearms in America, conducts research on firearms violence, and explores new ways to decrease firearm-related death and injury.