Tucson CitizenTucson Citizen

Gun rights debate: It’s hard to kill a bad guy. Just ask a cop

Every time some psycho goes on a shooting rampage Second Amendment proponents go on the offensive to defend their gun rights against the inevitable public backlash.

Reasonable gun rights advocates are sensitive to the situation and genuinely empathize or sympathize with the victims of the shooting, which as we’ve seen all too often in Tucson includes more people than just those hit with a bullet.

They offer reasoned arguments for why gun ownership should be protected and avoid arguments of absolutism – that all people should be able to own and carry all guns anywhere.

The Second Amendment absolutists are better described as unreasonable gun rights zealots who can’t seem to help bloviating about guns no matter the circumstances.

Gun ownership is a right. There’s no point in arguing that it isn’t. The Supreme Court says so and that’s that. But that doesn’t mean there can’t be reasonable limits on gun ownership.

Free speech and religion are rights, too, but you can’t drive through a subdivision at 3 in the morning preaching the gospel through a bullhorn. The government rightly puts so-called time, place and manner restrictions on free speech and religion.

There are some restrictions on gun ownership, depending on the state, but in the aftermath of a mass killing it’s reasonable to debate whether they are adequate.

But not for the zealots. Theirs is a world of evildoers and slippery slopes. Any curb on gun ownership is a step down the slippery slope to total gun bans (which presumes a repeal of the second amendment). For them, that’s a descent into criminal chaos in which armed bands of thugs will take over the country, invading homes, robbing people on the street, wanton killings, general mayhem.

The way to prevent that, goes the argument, is not be a nation of laws enforced by well-trained, well-staffed police forces, but by having a completely armed citizenry.

If everyone were armed, everyone would behave, so the fallacy goes.

In the past week, more than one knucklehead has opined in blogs, newspaper comment sections, cable news and elsewhere that if more people had been armed Jan. 8 outside the Safeway, Jared Loughner might have been stopped before he got off the first shot, or at least after he shot Giffords.


A gun battle between untrained gun toters would have exponentialized the carnage, not limited it.

Quotes from blowhards about how if they had been there they would have shot Loughner dead is just a bunch of tough talk from people who don’t know what they’re talking about.

It’s hard to shoot a bad guy who is shooting other people. Don’t think so? Just ask a cop.

Police officers go through many hours of weapons training that teach them to not only shoot accurately but also when not to shoot.

Let’s rewind the clock a little bit.

Sometime around 2000 I was reporting two stories that led to me receiving a brief bit of police weapons training that was an eye opener about why cops mostly miss when they shoot at bad guys.

One of the stories had to do with an Oro Valley police rookie who chased a bad guy whose attempted drug rip off with three accomplices had gone bad. The rookie was in a foot chase with the driver of a vehicle he pulled over and the driver ran into a neighborhood and disappeared around the corner of a house.

The rookie, who had only been on patrol by himself about a month, ran around the house and found himself facing the bad guy pointing a gun at him. The rookie pulled his weapon and fired.

He got lucky. The bad guy’s cheap .25 auto jammed before he could get a round off, even though he had the drop on the cop. The rookie fired about seven or eight times. About six or seven rounds went flying off into the desert behind the house. One hit the suspect in the neck. The suspect lived.

That’s some bad shooting, you might think.

Not really. That’s just a little worse than normal for an officer-involved shooting.

Forget most everything you see on TV or the movies about police shootings. Real shootings are stressful, terrifying encounters. Adrenaline is the enemy of police training.

According to research by the Police Policies Studies Council, most of the rounds shot by cops in the line-of-duty miss. The research showed only a 15-25 percent accuracy rate overall. More importantly, the research showed that a cop by himself had about a 50 percent accuracy rate but when you add more cops doing the shooting, the accuracy falls off a cliff. So much so that if more than two cops are shooting at the same suspect, the accuracy rate is only about 9 percent (distance from the suspect played a role in that).

And this is with highly trained police officers. Using the 50 percent accuracy number, imagine if three or four armed citizens at a shooting scene decided to draw their weapons and shoot back, firing half of the clip in a typical 9 mm semiautomatic, about 7 rounds each? That’s roughly 14 missed shots. Take into consideration that those citizen shooters would likely have less weapons training than a police officer and it’s likely the miss rate would be far greater than 50 percent. It would be a blood bath.

The other story I worked on at the same time was a feature piece on the new Citizen’s Police Academy Oro Valley had instituted and what the department was trying to get out of teaching Joe Citizen what it means to be a cop.

Part of the academy included firearms training familiarization, which included a stint in the Firearms Training Simulator. The FATS is essentially a video game that teaches officers so-called shoot/don’t shoot scenarios, among other things.

In the FATS, a police officer uses a real 9 mm with a special laser on it. Displayed on a screen are life-size videos of different scenarios an officer might face in the field. A training officer can instantly change what’s happening in the video depending on mistakes trainees might be making in their tactics during the course of the scenarios.

I tried out three scenarios. My understanding of what officers go through in the field and how hard it is to actually shoot someone was vastly improved.

The first scenario was a scene in a department store. I was faced with a suspect who appeared to be about 25-30 feet from me who was armed with a knife. He was yelling gibberish and making threats.

Remembering training from when I was in an MP company (though not an MP, see note below) I ordered the suspect to drop the knife and step back and get down on his knees and place his hands behind his head. I was trying to do what an MP training officer had told me, to use my voice and commanding presence to control a situation, not my sidearm.

I had my hand on my weapon, but had not drawn it (the training officer’s voice was in my head telling me that drawing a weapon at the wrong time can make matters escalate unnecessarily). While I was yelling at the suspect, I realized I couldn’t hear what he was saying. He started to bend over and appeared to be putting the knife down. I took my hand off my weapon. That was a mistake.

Suddenly, he started running toward me. I quickly drew my weapon and fired. I managed to get off three rounds before he reached me and killed me with the knife. All three rounds missed high and to the right even though he was getting closer (and bigger, in terms of a silhouette). It was shocking how quickly the suspect crossed the distance. Less than two seconds. My palms were sweaty and my heart was racing even though it was just a video game and I was never in any danger. That’s an intended and common reaction to the simulator, I was told.

The academy training officer running the FATS told me there were a number of ways he could have run the scenario including having the suspect take a quick step toward me, then put the knife down.

The second scenario involved an old man with a shotgun on the porch of a row house with a little garden out front and walls on either side.

He was upset and telling me to leave. I started telling him to put the gun down and step away, and again, because I was speaking loudly, I couldn’t hear what he was saying to me.

I drew my weapon but didn’t point it at him. He was holding the shotgun across his chest with the barrel pointing up.

He yelled something at me then lowered the barrel and seemed to be pointing it at me. I raised my weapon and fired five times. I hit him twice, once in the right arm, once in the neck. A kill shot.

The FATS training officer ran the scenario as it would have played out if I hadn’t shot. The old man wasn’t pointing the shotgun at me, he was moving it to put it down.

I shot too soon. An OVPD cop told me a shooting board would have cleared me, there was no way to know he was putting the gun down, not trying to kill me. Still, I was bothered. I had just been killed a few minutes before and my adrenaline level was running high. I wasn’t thinking clearly and reacted at the slightest movement of the gun rather than remaining calm and making sure I was in danger (a fine line when guns are involved, to be sure). That, too, is an intended effect of the FATS training.

The third scenario involved a traffic stop with two people in the car. I approached the car, hand on my weapon, and asked for the driver’s license and registration (I forgot to ask for the insurance). The FATS operator can usually make the people in the car do whatever the trainee is telling them to do.

The passenger started yelling about being hassled by cops while the driver was telling me he didn’t have his license. I decided to get more control of the situation and get the driver out of the car (I don’t’ know if that was right or not).

As the driver exited, the passenger opened the glove box and started digging around. I told him to stop, he didn’t. Then he got out of the car and continued yelling at me and making threats. He went to the front of the car and started to run around it coming toward me with his right hand behind his back.

I yelled for him to stop to show me his hands, he pulled up a revolver and started shooting. At some point I had drawn my weapon but still don’t remember when (the OVPD cop told me it was when the passenger got out of the car). I fired back. I fired six times, hitting the suspect twice, neither of them kill shots.

I was killed.

The total time from when I asked for the driver’s license to my death was about 30 seconds.

The FATS officer played the alternate scene for that scenario in which the passenger comes around the front of the vehicle but pulls out his wallet, instead. He said almost all trainees shoot at the passenger regardless of what’s in his hands.

In the three scenarios, I had fired 14 times but only scored four hits. What’s more, I wasn’t firing bullets so there was no recoil, which likely would have prevented me from scoring any hits. I was bothered by that because I thought I was a decent shot with a handgun (see note below).

I was also bothered because I couldn’t remember a lot of what happened. What I thought happened and what actually happened when the videos were played back to me were different.

It’s called tunnel vision and it’s caused by stress and adrenaline. I was sighting down the gun barrel or looking at the gun, or the knife. I wasn’t taking in the whole scene. Nor was I hearing what the suspects were saying. I could barely even remember what I had said.

I was never in danger. This was training in a room with a video screen. But it caused stress and a rush of adrenaline that affected my vision, my hearing and my judgment, not to mention my shooting accuracy.

I couldn’t imagine how I would have perceived and handled a real situation that endangered my life.

There are lots things cops are supposed to learn using FATS but foremost among them is that it’s not easy to shoot a bad guy. Training, and lots of it, are the key to improving the odds that an officer will only shoot when he absolutely has to.

And even then, the research shows he’s likely to miss half of his shots.

The argument that having millions of citizens packing heat every day, in schools, at the grocery story, the burger joint, the mall and elsewhere makes us all safer is false.

It’s dangerous.

Reasonable people who have no criminal history and haven’t been ajudicated mentally ill should be able to own a gun in this country. The Second Amendment says so.

But the larger society that is affected by that gun ownership should have a say about when, where and how those weapons are carried and used, a sort-of time, place, manner list of rules and prohibitions similar to the curbs on free speech.

That’s reasonable.

Arguing that society is safer if everyone carries a gun or that those carrying guns will save everyone else with their deadeye, gun-range only shooting skills are not reasonable arguments and have no place in the debate.

[Every time someone writes an article about gun laws that even hints at curbs on gun ownership the gun rights faithful jump into the comments section questioning the writer’s knowledge of guns, knowledge of gun laws, experience using weapons, and other ad hominems. So, for what it’s worth, here are my bona fides. I grew up with long guns, shotguns and rifles, no handguns. We were hunters – birds and deer – and it’s kind of hard to kill either with a handgun. When I was in the Army I was trained on the use of the M1911 .45 caliber semiautomatic and then the M9 9mm semiautomatic. I was on active duty in an MP company but not an MP (though I did go through the same annual training as the MPs in the company), and I was in a CID detachment in the reserves. For about five years, almost all my friends were cops (MPs or civilian). I was OK with a handgun. On a typical police human silhouette target at 25 yards I could put about 10 rounds of a 15-round 9 mm clip in the 9 and 10 rings taking my time, about three minutes a clip. The rest were mostly in the 8 ring with the occasional one in the 7 ring. The faster I tried to shoot, the worse it got, though. I never qualified with the weapon, it was all just fooling around with my cop friends at firing ranges and out in the boonies during hunts.]

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