When the Target Can Shoot Back

Not As Simple As It Would Seem

The other day I went with a buddy to a shooting range in northern Virginia to do some target shooting. The range is set up for target, as distinct from the combat ranges, with pop-up targets, sometimes used to train police. The lanes have trolleys that take paper targets to twenty-five, fifty, or seventy-five feet or more.

Later at a local restaurant, my friend asked me asked me about cops, and shooting, and what was the difference between range shooting and police shooting. The following is what I told him. Note that here I’m not talking about high-profile shootings in which cops are charged with unjustified use of firearms. Some of these charges are correct, and some are manufactured by the media. Here I’m talking about the normal, real world situations in which cops have to decide whether to pull the trigger.

The difference between cop shooting and target shooting is basically this: In target shooting, you have a brightly lit, clearly visible, motionless paper target at a range you have selected, that typically doesn’t shoot back or run at you, with all the time in the world to lean slightly forward, take a deep breath and let it out, line up your sight picture, and squeeze very slowly so you don’t know when the round will go off.

A cop shooting, here we will assume by a well-trained, decent cop, goes like this:

He gets a call late at night, robbery at a 7-Eleven. He floors it, lights and siren, sailing around other cars to get there in time. In a way he thinks it’s cool: Something real and interesting. It’s also deadly serious. Robbers do carry guns, they do kill people with them, and they will shoot at a cop. Think about this as if you were doing it. Spooky.

By the time he reaches the scene, his blood pressure is scary and his hands may be trembling. It isn’t cowardice. It’s ingrained male reaction to danger.

He arrives, hops out with gun drawn, and runs into the store. Women are screaming, chaos reigns, and maybe someone has been hurt. The bad guy went thataway, which happens to be into the alley behind the store. The cop, Glock in hand, runs into the alley. Which isn’t lit at lit at all well.

He doesn’t really know the alley. Washington is a fairly large place. The cop doesn’t know that there is no exit, so the bad guy has to come out toward the cop. It is, again, dark. Very dark. The cop is probably scared, and very excited. though he will tell no one this but his buddies on the force, later. “Scared and excited” doesn’t mean slightly nervous, or uncomfortable. Depending on the cop and circumstances, it can mean your pulse is 250 or better, and you breath like a marathon runner at the finish.

You could be dead in twenty seconds. This isn’t hyperbole, macho whatever, or dramatics. It’s fact.

The media typically don’t take this into account when they write about a shooting. Too often, stories make whatever happens seem to be the result of rational consideration, not reflex.

In the murk of the alley, in which you really can’t see squat, something moves on your right. You don’t know what it is. Maybe all you see is that something crosses the light from a distant street lamp. It seems to be coming toward you. How far away? You can’t tell in a dark alley. It could be two feet away with a piece of rebar raised to crush your skull.

What do you do? Wait 1.5 seconds to see whether you have just been killed? Or put five rounds into whatever it is?

You could get hurt, and if you shoot you are likely to be sued. You may end up spending years wondering whether you did the right thing. You may end up shooting someone who had nothing to do with the robbery.

This is what cops face in the real world. Details vary enormously, but, assuming a good cop trying to do his job well, he often, in those very rare situations in which he must shoot or not shoot, must decide very quickly with too little information. And it isn’t something that you can practice. Many cops spend an entire career without firing a round except on a range.

It isn’t a simple situation. It ain’t target shooting.

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