Jeff Farrell: Real-life shootings aren't like on TV

Aug. 23, 2014 @ 11:54 AM

How many times have you seen this play out in a movie or on TV: The bad guy goes to fire his weapon, and the hero shoots it out of his or hand. The day is saved, and the villain is wounded but alive to learn a lesson, go to jail or possibly just to plot again.

Or maybe the hero wings the villains, shooting them in the arm or leg but not fatally.

Those onscreen scenarios might not occur as frequently in the age of the antihero. The problem is, they still occur much more often on TV than they do in real life. In real life, people don't aim to wound, much less presume they could use a gun to disarm anyone.

But if you've been looking at the conversations that have been taking place lately after shootings involving police, like the tragedy in Ferguson, Mo., you might not know that.

Reading comments online and listening to people talk about it, you would think that it's a normal expectation for police to shoot to wound.

One woman's post online said the police officer obviously fired the first four shots at Brown to get him to stop charging, before aiming to kill. Keep in mind, she was defending him.

In responses to an online article about another officer-involved shooting in St. Louis — this one involving a man who allegedly brandished a knife — a number of responders questioned why the officers fired so many "shots to disarm."

As a journalist who's covered the cops and crime beat for 20 years, the phrase "shots to disarm" in relation to real shootings sends shivers down my spine.

That's not how the real world works, and it's chilling to think there are so many people who believe it happens.

I've talked to lots of law enforcement officers about this type of thing before. I've had to cover a few officer-involved shootings in my career, too.

If police officers take their guns out of their holsters, though, they are prepared to use them. And they consider any use of a gun as deadly force. The police I've talked to about this type of thing say they're trained to aim for center mass, and when you discharge a bullet into a human body, you'd better be accepting that death is a possible and even a likely outcome.

It's not that they wouldn't rather wing the target, or shoot the gun out of their hands. It's that handguns aren't as accurate as people seem to imagine. If police are following their training, they're only firing the gun because they believe the threat is so great that lethal force is warranted.

They aren't aiming at center mass because they're eager to take a life. They're doing it because, if they've made the decision to fire, they believe they're in a situation where they need to hit their target.

To my knowledge, most handgun safety permit classes teach the same principle, although of course they don't provide the same instruction that law enforcement officers receive.

The point of all this is, it's a dangerous misconception to think that anyone holding a gun will, or should be expected to, aim to wound — much less to disarm.

It seems absurd to have to point this out, but reading and hearing people talk about shooting to wound makes me think it's necessary to point it out: If you see someone brandishing a gun, whether it's police officer or a regular citizen, don't think they're going to fire to wound. If you see a situation where you agree that the use of a gun was justified, don't argue that the shooter should have tried to go for the leg or the arm.

The argument about shootings should be about whether a gun should have been discharged at all, not where it was aimed.

I don't want to get bogged down into intent. If a person is firing a gun at another human being, they need to be aware that they could take a life. And the person on the other side shouldn't assume there'll be a warning shot, or that a gun will somehow be used in a nonlethal manner.

Thinking otherwise is inviting tragedy.