Unintended Consequences – 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: 

Most cops and civilian gun carriers are lousy handgun shots. The level of ineptitude of many people who carry guns on a daily basis is nothing short of appalling.81

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. 

Handguns are Not Magic Amulets

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: 

“OK, I’ve got the gun, now I’m safe, but, God, I’ll never have to shoot anybody.” You know, “I’ll just have it to be safe,” right, like somehow the gun will project an aura that will save me.82

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: 

On TV, the one who has the drop on his opponent yells “Hold it right there,” and the gunman freezes, then slowly opens his hand to let his weapon fall. But in real life, the criminal does not freeze at the unexpected challenge…. 

If you analyze a number of official police reports of confrontations with armed criminals, you will reach the inescapable conclusion that sudden and violent resistance is, statistically, a much more likely response than surrender.83

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: 

The average manager or storeowner who keeps one or more guns on the premises has probably acquired them with a vague view toward “self-defense” and “security.”84

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: 

In Tucson, Arizona, in 1992 Daniel Bennett was working in his pizzeria when two armed men entered and shot him in the chest. He drew his newly acquired Glock and returned fire, but the gun failed to function after the first round, and the attackers fired five more shots into him. Bennett sued the gun manufacturer…. 

At the trial, it was revealed that Bennett had bought the gun and a box of ammo, had learned to load the magazine, had put it into the pistol, and had chambered a round. And that was it. He did have the presence of mind to draw his gun in self-defense, but he had never learned to shoot it! Apparently, he “limp-wristed” the self-loading pistol so that it failed to chamber the second cartridge.n Gun writer Jeff Smith calls this “the classic freshman flunk.”85

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. 

Innocent Bystanders

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: 

Your competency with the weapon you carry must be such that you will not fire an accidental or panicky shot into a group of bystanders…. 

What frightens me most about civilians with guns is that so many of them are incredibly rotten pistol shots…. 

There are too many people carrying guns they don’t know how to shoot straight, guns they haven’t fired in ten years.92

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: 

During one of my stakeout confrontations….When I came out of our position to confront the robbers, a group of hotel guests appeared directly behind the gunmen. I did not dare fire with innocents in the background.96

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: 

If you are using a pistol for self-defense, you’ve already identified your target—but what’s behind that target? What if a lunatic is shooting at you while standing in front of a crowded playground? Can you risk killing someone’s child?106

In addition, as Chris Bird observes, those in danger may be blocks away from the action: 

Imagine being attacked by a mugger in front of the polished granite wall of a bank. You fire three shots at your assailant. Two hit but the third strikes the granite wall and ricochets, striking a woman standing half a block away at a bus stop. Now, you almost certainly face a civil suit. If your life was in danger, your decision to shoot was right. It’s better to be alive and facing a civil suit than dead and facing the undertaker. But it is something to think about.107

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. 

To Kill or Not to Kill?

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: 

Another approach that may help you to pull the trigger on another human being is to dehumanize him. Think of your assailant as a target, rather than a person possibly with a wife, a mother, children. When we go to war with another nation, we try to dehumanize our enemy. We talked of “Gooks” and “Japs” in an attempt to make killing them easier. It may help you to pull the trigger if you look on your attackers as “trash” or “peckerwoods” or “scumbags.”113

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: 

ANYONE who really feels this way should abandon any thoughts of keeping guns. A criminal can tell when a person isn’t going to shoot, the way a dog can smell fear. And to pull a gun you don’t intend to use is to flaunt a power you do not really command: you are inviting the opponent to take it away from you, and antagonizing him to use it against you.114

Ignorance of the Law of Self-Defense and Lethal Force

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: 

There is a remarkable degree of confusion among the general public as to just when lethal force is warranted. Other important concepts of degree of force in defense situations not only aren’t fully understood, but are often completely unknown to some who legally go armed.115

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: 

If verbal force is not effective, the citizen is not likely to know or be able to use impact weapons or take-down techniques. Having no other options, out comes the handgun and we arrive at deadly force. The obvious problem is that the civilian permit holder is missing the whole middle of the force continuum. He will basically jump from harsh language to gunfire in one quick step.116

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: 

All fifty states and many branches of the federal government have their own laws and interpretations on the use of force….when you decide to carry a gun, you become responsible for familiarizing yourself with the laws of your state.117

In their writings Ayoob and Clede repeatedly state how narrow the right to kill in self-defense is in all states: 


  • Whether you’re at home or on the street, you shoot to stop a felonious assault only if the attacker may cause death or grievous bodily injury to you or a family member. Your actions will be judged later by police and possibly in a courtroom. You must be able to explain your behavior. The fact that you were frightened does not mean that you were actually threatened and does not legally justify shooting.119

  • All courts will hold, by statute or by logic, that “bare fear” does not warrant deadly force. While the attacker need not actually be about to kill or maim you, or another party you are justified to protect, you must have sound reason to believe he is before you pull the trigger.120

  • For instance, an individual walks past a group of tough-looking persons on a street corner. One of them, perhaps, makes a snotty remark. “Oh, my God, they’re going to get me,” panics the individual, going for his gun. He is at this moment in the grip of bare fear—a morbid fantasy without basis in fact, on the grounds of which he is about to wrongly employ lethal force.121

  • A cornerstone of a legitimate claim of self-defense is the innocence of the claimant. He must be entirely without fault. If he has begun the conflict or quarrel, or if he has kept it going or escalated it when it lay in his power to abort it before it became a killing situation, he shares a degree of culpability. The self-defense plea, in this case, will not be allowed.122

  • Nor is the armed citizen altogether free to intervene with deadly force in an assault involving others. For instance, he cannot always tell who is the guilty party, and who is the victim: what if the latter has managed to overpower his assailant at the moment the potential rescuer comes on the scene?123

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: 

Then there is that pesky liability problem of the police teaching people when and how to shoot, and then being held responsible for errors of omission and commission…. 

Due no doubt to the aforementioned liability considerations, the NRA does not allow their instructors to teach the “when to shoot” portion of this class. Instead, they require that a guest lecturer, who must be an attorney or law enforcement officer, handle this area.125

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): 

As many a policeman has found out, there are a lot of thugs running around who are all too comfortable with approaching while a weapon is pointed at them saying, “Go ahead, shoot. You know you can’t.” And they’re right…. 

I am always surprised at the lack of understanding of violent confrontations displayed by so many “experts” who offer advice. Brandishing a firearm, for example, is a crime in most states. True enough, it can bring a violent encounter to an end. Or it can escalate it to a deadly force situation….And if it was reasonable to brandish a firearm, wouldn’t it have been reasonable to use a less lethal weapon if one was at hand, such as an aerosol irritant?128

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

Firing Ranges are Not Real Gunfights

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: 

At this very moment in the United States, there are probably thousands of police officers on duty who hold their department’s rating of expert in firearms. These same police officers are riding or foot patrolling their areas with total confidence that they will be able to handle any threat that comes their way….Civilians who have carry permits and attend approved handgun firearms courses may also feel that they can handle any armed threat that may arise. Their confidence comes from the instructor’s certificate of qualification. 

If the above training is all the police officer or the pistol licensee is relying on to protect him, then God forbid that he should ever get into a gunfight. If he does get in one and luckily survives, the difference between what he learned in formal firearms training and what he experienced during the real thing will be a revelation to him.131

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: 

  • The Physical Environment. One obvious difference is that shooting ranges optimize lighting and view. The handgun owner, however, has no control over the environmental conditions under which he may perceive the need to use his gun. The experience of police officers in real shootouts shows that “light conditions are often too poor to allow using the sights. Officers normally practice and qualify on well-lit ranges that allow full use of sights. Conditions on the street are rarely as favorable as range conditions.”134 Poor lighting and confusing situations in real life increase the risk that the gun owner will make an error in judgment and harm an innocent person, or be harmed himself because he cannot use his handgun effectively. The range of potential environmental differences from a shooting range is enormous, from a dark bedroom to a rainy street corner or a bitter cold evening when the gun owner is wearing bulky gloves.

  • Physiological Stress. Mortal fear does not accompany shooting at paper targets. But in a life or death situation “your heart thuds in your chest and your breathing accelerates and you have to react rapidly.”135 This fear seriously affects one’s shooting ability. “The real world of combat means a highly stressful event in which a very small percentage of bullets fired even strike the target.”136 Even well-trained police officers who are taught to expect such stress reactions miss their targets many more times than they hit them.

  • Assailant Movements. A handgun owner may be quite proud of the hits he has scored in the “kill zone” on stationary paper targets. But, as many police officers have learned, assailants don’t stand still waiting to be shot. “What a revelation. I was never so terrified in my whole life. They never told me in the academy that the targets were going to jump and move all over the place. There wasn’t one 3′ by 2′ target to shoot at like on the police range.”137

  • Unexpected Assailant Reaction. More often than not, in the movies and on television, people who are “shot” simply fall down and stay down. End of fight. In real life, the opposite is often true, especially if the assailant is on alcohol or drugs. They either don’t fall down, or they get back up and keep coming. “We can presume that in half of the police-involved shootings, the felon will not lay down and be cooperative instantly. In fact, many shooting reports included information to suggest that the felon showed no indication that he had been hit….Hitting such a moving target with a handgun, under extreme stress, is not easy.”138

  • Ambiguous Situations. There is no doubt about whether to shoot the targets at a shooting range—they are there as surrogate bad guys. But many real-life situations are ambiguous: is the “assailant” really a threat? Is the threat deadly enough to justify the use of lethal force? From his own experience, seasoned New York City police officer and author Jim Cirillo notes: “Many times, situations looked like armed robberies but turned out to be innocent. At such times, a man with no compassion might shoot when he shouldn’t, or he might not consider bystanders during his moment of danger.”139

  • Disarmament Moves. Is the civilian gun owner prepared when the assailant attempts to disarm him, or simply shoots anyway? Is he aware that some criminals learn specific procedures to do just that? Probably not. But being suddenly disarmed or outgunned is a threat in the real world. “There are many instances where the suspect has drawn a weapon and killed an officer after the officer pointed his weapon and issued the proper challenge. The suspect just plain beat the officer….The Aryan Brotherhood prison gang, along with the Hell’s Angels outlaw motorcycle gang, have developed a technique to disarm an officer from a distance of 21 feet. It works in conjunction with an officer’s natural lag time.”140

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— 

Most police officers are bright, highly motivated individuals with good athletic ability who can easily acquire knowledge and motor skills for firearms and defensive tactics training. But this is not enough. They must be able to automatically choose the right combination of skills under extreme stress and a high arousal state…. 

[Y]ou want to practice deadly force training that instills fear and forces you to make fast choices in response to a rapidly changing situation.142

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 toinnocent 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

Where to Learn?

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: 

…virtually everything about even so-called “practical” (really a synonym for “combat”) competition reflects a lack of knowledge of what the combat handgun is about and the nature of the environment in which its [sic] used…. 

Many observers of “practical” competition comment that there is little about it that is truly practical. In fact, the more astute among them go so far as to make the observation that what they see in such events is suicidal if attempted in an actual gunfight.146

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: 

Before you can fire your new handgun reactively, you must learn to shoot it on purpose. Note I did not say instinctively. You may have a natural talent for shooting, but the psychomotor skill of shooting (and hitting the target) is not instinctive. The muscular movement and the eye-hand coordination require practice. Even more practice is necessary to make this skill reactive—something you can do virtually without thinking about it. Instructors’ estimates vary, but they generally concur that this takes between two thousand and four thousand repetitions.149

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: 

In order to make a “head shot” work, you’d have to slip a bullet through the eye sockets or the nasal septum. On a full-grown man, this is a target area approximately two inches high by four inches wide. In the real world, under stress, in bad lighting, with both you and your opponent moving (all of which are possible, if not probable), making that sort of shot is going to be very difficult. It will require a higher degree of shooting skill than most people possess. It’s not that shots like this can’t be made, it’s just that most people can’t shoot well enough under stress to count on the head shot as a reliable stopper.155

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.

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