If you read a lot of gun forums, or ever speak with anyone who’s anti-gun, sooner or later you’re going to run into the question of “Shouldn’t you just shoot to wound? I mean, I don’t want to kill anybody.” Or, from the anti-gun crowd, whenever a successful defensive gun situation is discussed you may frequently see them question “Why didn’t they just shoot him in the leg or something? Did they HAVE to kill him?”
This usually leads to a discussion on the inadvisability of warning shots, “stopping power”, and, eventually, someone invariably will bring up something on the order of “Dead men can’t testify against you.”
Can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen that (or something like it) posted on a public forum, or said at a gun store or gun show. It’s been repeated so many times that I fear new shooters may be getting indoctrinated with it and may actually think that’s “normal”. And, obviously, the anti-gun side uses statements like that to paint otherwise lawful and rational firearms owners as “bloodthirsty.” So, I’d like to go through all these scenarios and provide some hopefully clarifying commentary so that we can get to the bottom of these various questions.
Firearms Are Instruments Of Deadly Force
Let’s start with the first and most obvious fact that we simply have to address: Firearms are not toys. They are not symbols. They are not warning flags, or status symbols, or penis-measuring devices. They are instruments of deadly force, and they are only to be used when deadly force is necessary. You should only ever pull your firearm out when it is necessary to protect your life, or other innocent life, as your local and state laws and statutes allow. You should never use it for any other purpose (such as waving it out the car window to intimidate another driver; that in and of itself may be a crime known as “brandishing.”) You should never pull your firearm unless you are prepared to use it. A firearm is capable of inflicting deadly force, and it should always be considered in that context.
You Will Not Be Tried In A Court Of “Right” And “Wrong”, You Will Be Tried In A Court Of Law. What Is LEGAL Is What Matters There
Now, before going any further, let me say that I strongly advise you to discuss these issues with your lawyer. Only a lawyer in your state who is versed in your state’s firearms laws can truly, really answer your questions. And if you don’t have a lawyer, and you carry a firearm, you should seriously consider getting one. It doesn’t even need to be a situation where you pay big bucks for a one-on-one meeting; something as simple and comparatively inexpensive as a prepaid legal service like USLawShield would be vastly better than having nothing (and getting all your advice from strangers on a gun forum or a blog like this one.)
If you use a firearm, you can expect to deal with law enforcement officers, and perhaps a Grand Jury, be arrested, and perhaps face a trial. Firearms are serious business, and you need to understand that whatever your fears or motivations were, you will be tried on the LAW, not on your emotions. And your intentions matter very much. So let’s look at some examples:
Why are warning shots a bad idea? Folks who don’t know anything about guns frequently seem to think that hey, you should just fire a warning shot to scare the bad guys away. Even the U.S. Vice President gave that advice! But it is terrible, terrible advice.
Why? First, because of the law of gravity. What goes up, must come down. A firearm is an instrument of deadly force, and if a potentially-lethal bullet is propelled from that firearm, it’s gonna go somewhere. If you shoot up in the air, that bullet is going to come down, somewhere, and if it’s from a rifle or a pistol, that bullet will almost certainly still be potentially lethal when it hits. Of course, if you didn’t fire up in the air, but instead fired horizontally, well, that bullet’s going to hit something — and it could be an innocent person that it hits. And depending on what it hits, it could ricochet, and hit someone who wasn’t anywhere near where you fired at!
Firing a warning shot is an incredibly irresponsible thing to do, and may subject you to all the drawbacks and penalties of having used deadly force, while offering none of the benefits (i.e., the ability to actually stop the attacker). A “warning shot” can be thought of as another name for a “missed shot”.
So why does the fascination with warning shots persist? I think it’s because people really, really want a way to discourage someone without having to resort to potentially lethally injuring them. I understand that wish, and I sympathize with it. All I can say is — don’t use a firearm to try to do it. A firearm is for using deadly force. If you want a non-lethal deterrent, then hey — use a non-lethal deterrent! Use pepper spray or mace or some other non-lethal defensive approach, if what you really want is just a way to say “I’m serious, leave me alone.” If it’s legal where you live, you can carry pepper spray or mace in addition to your firearm, and if you decide that the situation warrants a non-lethal warning, you could use it. But don’t go negligently firing deliberate misses, because that bullet is going to be potentially deadly to someone. A “warning shot” is the wrong way to use a firearm.
Secondly, a key concept to understand here is: firearms are to be used to protect your life when you are facing an imminent deadly attack (or you fear that you are in imminent danger of substantial and grievous bodily harm). If you have the time to think about and conduct a warning shot, were you really in imminent danger? Probably not — because if the situation was that imminent, you’d have shot AT the attacker, instead of trying to shoot randomly in the air. Which means, once again, that use of a firearm in that scenario is probably not warranted and may not be legally justified.
There are other ways to discourage an attacker. Just holding your firearm at the low-ready position may frequently be enough to discourage the attacker. In responsible firearms management, there really isn’t a place for a “warning shot”.
Shoot To Wound?
Getting past the ill-conceived notion of a warning shot, let’s move to the next bad idea: shooting to wound.
Why is shooting to wound a bad idea? I mean, we don’t actually want to kill anyone, do we? Can’t we just disable them and then run away?
Again, I understand the desire here. The idea of getting away safely is always the paramount concern. The question is: is shooting to wound a good idea, and is it a proper use of deadly force? And the answer is a resounding no. Because shooting to wound means you’d be deliberately trying to avoid hitting important targets, in order to try to focus on hitting an inordinately small target (like a forearm or a thigh, instead of a big broad chest). Defensive shooters are taught to shoot for the “center of mass” or, more specifically, the upper center of the chest. Among other reasons, it’s the biggest and slowest-moving part of the body, and therefore the easiest to hit. Arms are much smaller, and they move much faster, and are a potentially much more difficult target to hit. Legs, while bigger than arms, are still vastly smaller than the chest and much more subject to quick movement. And, heck, both arms and legs have arteries in them, and shooting someone in the arm or leg could indeed cause them to die if the bullet hits those arteries, so — it’s still deadly force that may still result in the person’s death, even if you only intended to wound.
Remember the central premise here: a firearm is an instrument capable of inflicting deadly force. You should only use it if you absolutely must, to save your own life or the life of an innocent person. You should be very, very, very hesitant to pull that trigger, and you should only pull it if there is no other way. And if that’s the case, and you’re in a situation where the law authorizes the use of deadly force, then you should obviously not be screwing around trying to take low-probability “wounding” shots, you should be following your training and taking deliberate shots that have the highest likelihood of forcing the attacker to stop.
Shoot To Kill?
Which brings us to the central question — should you shoot to kill?
If you follow internet gun forums long enough, or listen to enough guys at the gun store or gun show, sooner or later you’ll run into someone who insists that “dead men tell no tales” and “dead men can’t sue you” and “if you kill him, he can’t testify against you” and other such statements.
Frankly, I find that horrifying. I mean, seriously, think about it — killing people to keep them from testifying against you is something the mob does, not something that law-abiding citizens do!
Look — if you find yourself in a defensive gun use, and you shoot an attacker, and the attacker dies from his injuries, you can expect that you may find yourself on trial. The purpose of the trial, largely, is going to determine the facts of what happened, and to determine your INTENT. What was in your mind when you pulled the trigger? Did you WANT to KILL the person? Or were you solely trying to protect yourself?
In the smallest possible nutshell, that’s really the crux of the matter: the difference between self-defense and murder can largely be attributed to what your intent was. If, by pulling the trigger, your intent was to ensure that the person you shot dies, then that’s murder.
There have been examples of this in the news; the Byron Smith trial is probably the most noteworthy because he actually recorded himself during the shootings and you can clearly hear how he told investigators that he “fired a good clean finishing shot.”
The facts of the case are well-known, and you can read up on them if you want, but in general Smith may have felt that he was defending his home against intruders, and in fact two intruders did break into his house. But Smith didn’t just shoot at them to drive them away. His intentions were clear; he wanted them to die. And, once the facts were heard by a jury of his peers, Smith was convicted of two counts of first-degree murder and two counts of second-degree murder.
I’ll say it again — just because you have a license to carry a weapon, does not give you a license to kill. The law does not justify or sanction civilians killing people.
So What Should You Do?
If you’re in a situation that is so dire that you need to employ legally-justifiable deadly force, you should shoot until the threat stops. You cannot and should not try to shoot to wound, or fire some vague warning shot, or fire just one bullet and then stop to see if maybe the bad guy will drop, or anything else. Follow your training, put the shots in the center of mass, and shoot until the attacker stops threatening you. And immediately after the attacker stops threatening you, you STOP SHOOTING.
It does not matter how mad or indignant or offended you are, you do not have the legal right to summarily execute someone. And you most definitely do not have the legal right to kill someone just to avoid the inconvenience or expense of a trial — again, that’s mobster activity, not the kind of thing a law-abiding citizen does!
Shooting to stop means placing the bullets where they have the most likelihood of forcing the attacker’s body to immediately discontinue its ability to attack you. That usually means destroying or damaging a vital organ such as the circulatory system or central nervous system, so that the attacker will fall unconscious or be otherwise incapacitated. And, yes, that MAY mean that your attacker may die as a result. That, however, should not be the desired or intended outcome, that would instead be an unfortunate but unavoidable result of a chain of events set in motion by the attacker’s decision to assault you. However, once they stop attacking you (i.e., they drop their gun, they turn to run away, or they fall unconscious) then you must stop shooting. If you continue to shoot them, you then will likely have crossed that line between “lawful self defense” and “unlawful murder.”
A defensive gun engagement can end in several ways — the attacker may break off and flee just at the sight of your gun, or you may fire and miss a vital structure but hit him somewhere else and he decides “ouch, that hurts, I’m not doing this anymore” and he breaks off. Both are effective, non-lethal ways to end a defensive encounter. But if he continues to attack you, you may have to force him to stop in order to save your own life. An effective shot that damages an attacker’s heart or major circulatory system can result in a rapid loss of blood pressure which causes the attacker to fall unconscious, thus rendering them unable to continue attacking you. That would be a nonlethal way that the encounter could end, although the person would need immediate comprehensive medical care to avoid dying from such a wound. The thing is — whether he lives or dies is, at that point, out of your hands and out of the equation. You would have legally and lawfully used deadly force to defend yourself. Your conscience is clear.
I’ve seen some people argue that “shooting to stop” and “shooting to kill” are the same thing. I would contend that there is a significant, substantial, and crucial difference, and that difference is in your intent, and your intent is one of the major things a trial will be attempting to uncover. Someone shooting to kill and someone shooting to stop, may in fact hit the attacker in the same place, and do the same damage. But one of these shooters is preoccupied with the idea of making sure that the attacker dies, whereas the other one is not attempting to make anyone die, they are merely attempting to avoid death themselves. There is a difference, and while it may sound overly dramatic, the law may find that it’s the difference between a finding of “lawful self defense” and one of “murder”.
I hope you and I never find ourselves in a scenario where we would need to employ deadly force. But if you do, remember what the law permits — there are certain scenarios wherein you are permitted to use deadly force to save yourself or other innocent life (or perhaps for other reasons, depending on your local laws). If you are forced to use deadly force, use as much of it as necessary, as quickly as you can, to immediately stop the threat. But don’t go one step further. And consider your intent — if you feel like that you really need to “finish” someone off (to keep them from testifying or suing you or whatever else) — I sincerely doubt that the law will agree with you on that.