Thursday, September 11, 2014

A Warning Shot - Is It A Waste Of A Bullet?

I fired a warning shot once in my life. It had, luckily for me, the desired effect. A guy who was in my face and threatening to kill me, and his gang of about 20-25 accomplices whom he was urging to kill me and who were starting to come through a hole in the international boundary fence, took off running for their lives back into Mexico when I fired it. That was back in the early 80's when I was a young and fairly inexperienced border patrol agent. That they would have tried to kill me there was no doubt in my mind because about 5-6 of them had been fighting with me only moments before to take a prisoner away from me. They tried to pull me into Mexico along with the prisoner. They got him but not me as I fought like a Tasmanian Tiger on steroids. They, or at least one of them, also tried to get my revolver and I would bet not to go target shooting. I managed to retain it, to get in a few good whacks and to free myself from underneath the lot of them. As I was calling for help and heded back to my vehicle, the ringleader came back into the U.S. and confronted me saying he was going to kill me and urging his compadres to do likewise. He also said I could do nothing to stop him. I knew enough not to get caught up in tunnel vision and scanned quickly. That allowed me to see a group of his amigos coming through holes in the fence and others climbing over it, about 20-25 guys in all. As he literally puffed up his chest and advanced on me, I drew and fired my Colt Border Patrol. It was the first time I ever drew a handgun in self defense.

I was pretty inexperienced at the time. Sure, I had gone through the academy and done well there. I did pretty good in firearms training considering I literally could not hit the paper of the target with all six shots from 15 yards at first. I am pretty sure I even won a marksmanship award by that point. The thing was though, no one had ever prepared me for something like this - a confrontation with an unarmed individual or mob. The only thing about this situation that I had been trained for was that warning shots were forbidden by the Border Patrol's firearms policy. As my amigo pounded his chest and came at me, I drew, took good aim, and fired. He was mere feet away. The bullet, or the force of it through the air, actually parted his hair - I swear on anything on which one can swear - I saw it. When I took aim, I wasn't aiming at him but at the side of a building in Mexico. It was as I recall, a school and this was happening at night with no one in the school. Anyway, I aimed at a solid concrete wall of the structure. My shot would have gone further over his head had he stayed put but he advanced as I was about to shoot and I just held steady and squeezed one off. I wanted to be able to put the next one into his chest if need be so my warning shot was aimed to be just above his head. As I said, he and the others fled into Mexico.

That night, I went home, some aches and pains from the beating I had taken from them when they tried to pull me into Mexico. The ones pulling me were accompanied by others who were punching and kicking me, plus I had had a pretty good fight with he guy I had taken prisoner. All I cold think of was what trouble I was in for having fired a warning shot (and my supervisor made sure to keep reminding me of it before I went home for the night). The next day, when I awoke, I had a lot of aches and pains and some small bruises. My chest was killing me. Then, I coughed. I figure that a good two to four ounces of clotted blood came up with that cough. I was off to the hospital for an X-ray. The docs told me I had a fractured sternum and bruised lungs (I don't recall the medical term for bruised lungs so that will have to do). They said they could do nothing and it would heal over time. That same day, I also got some good news. The Chief patrol Agent for our sector had given the local news paper a scheduled interview and as an opportunist included a blurb about me in it. He said, in essence, that just the night before one of his agents had to fire a fully justified warning shot to save his own life from a gang of Mexican desperados. Fully justified! Yes, that was good news.

The thing about that shot having been fully justified has haunted me ever since. Sure, I broke the rules but as the CPA had said, I did so to save my life and thus in his eyes justified that action. I tend to agree but that is not what bothers me. The thing that bothers me still is that, shortly after the incident, I realized I had fired a shot, that had it not had its intended effect of scaring off my adversary, would have amounted to a wasted bullet. At best, I had a 50/50 chance that it was going to have the desired outcome or that I would have been down one shot in the cylinder had I needed to stop my attackers. From that time forward, I pretty much realized, that unless under exceptional circumstances, a warning shot was indeed a wasted bullet even if it might have had the desired effect. Did you see how I said that. I did not say 'even if it had the desired effect' because there is no way of knowing beforehand that it would. As I said, at best, it is a 50/50 proposition that a warning shot will stop an aggressor.

On the other hand, a well placed shot into an assailant, whom you are legally justified to shoot, is much more likely to have the desired effect(s). First off, it may stop the threat to your life or limb outright. The threat to your life may end with one shot (or more) into your assailant. Secondly, even if it does not stop the threat, if you hit your target, it is likely to produce an injury that will at least somewhat incapacitate your foe and give you the advantage allowing you to stop the threat or to avoid it without injury to yourself. If there are multiple threats, them seeing the first at whom you fired upon go down can be all the warning they need and they may flee. If not, then you still have ammo left to fire at them and have not wasted any of it by firing into the air or the ground or whatever with a warning shot. In my case, had I shot the ringleader at almost point blank range, I figure he would have been out of the fight and I could have used my remaining five shots (the Colt Border Patrol was a six shot revolver) on the remaining 20-25 of his accomplices. Having the potential to put a single round into five more of my attackers instead of just four of them would have been all the better in such a situation had they kept coming if I had put down their leader. The same goes for their leader too - so make it me being able potentially to hit six of them. I like the remaining odds better than me maybe hitting only five because I had wasted a shot by firing it anywhere but into one of my opponents in what was a real life or death struggle. That one more shot into one more guy and his going down may get the rest of them to stop, or maybe it would be four shots into one other guy and the last shot into a third thug but those shots might well act not only as man-stoppers but also as a warning to the rest of them. That one extra shot could save my life. It could save yours too. Sure, you might get killed anyway with odds like what I faced but chances are, once the bad guys start going down, the others will flee. If they don't take off at the sound of shots fired and them seeing their criminal associates fall, then at least you have reduced the odds a bit of them getting you and have tilted them a bit more in favor of you surviving. One bullet can make a big difference in such a situation, so why waste it on a warning shot?

That said, there are times when you may need or want to take a warning shot. Most of the times you want to take one are probably going to be because you have never shot someone before and have that momentary doubt of whether or not a shot into your assailant is justified at the moment. There is always also that reluctance to seriously harm or kill another human being (at least among certain cultures) no matter how much of a heinous dirt-bag he or she is being. Then there are the times that you may actually need to take a warning shot - not so much to warn of the dirt-bag but to warn off innocent bystanders who may be in the line of fire. Firing a shot into the air, or the ground, or into something from which the shot is not likely to travel, might be the only feasible way to get others out of he way or the only practical way to stop the bad guy in his or her tracks without taking an overly high risk of wounding a bystander. Of course, you have to weight that risk, of you possibly injuring a bystander, against the risk of further injury or death that may be caused by the assailant. If the bad guy ios mowing down people with an automatic rifle, and you have a chance to shoot him, but there are say 10 kids right behind him (in your line of fire should you miss or if your bullet hits and travels through him) - would you take the shot to stop that threat. I, in all likelihood would shoot. Why - because the risk would be greater that the bad guy would keep harming or killing people if I did not.

There is a chance though, that in some similar circumstance, I might fire a warning shot. Say for instance that someone is threatening others with a gun on a crowded subway car and if I fire there is a distinct and good chance that if I miss my target, I will hit a bystander. I might fire a warning shot. Then again, I might just use verbal commands instead of wasting a bullet. if verbal commands fail, and if it seems as it might go either way, I may try a warning shot into the ceiling of the car again calculating the risk factors to innocents. Granted, there may not always be the luxury of enough time to try and figure out those risk factors but if there is, then do your figuring quickly - like in an instant. You have to consider one other thing about a warning shot (or even a verbal warning) - it may act not as a deterrent but as a trigger for violence or continued violence at an increased rate on the part of the armed offender or of his accomplices. Remember that most bad guys are not lone wolves. This is a lesson that should have been learned by us after the armed bystander stepped in trying to stop the armed assailant in a Las Vegas Walmart. He approached the bad guy, apparently with his own legal gun drawn, and was shot and killed by the bad guy's girlfriend/accomplice who just a moment before had been pushing a shopping cart as if she was a shopper and not a coldblooded or psychotic killer. Of course, that is another topic altogether - to get involved or not and if you do get involved then how to approach it - and being aware of your surroundings - but also I have to wonder did he give some type of warning that alerted the woman to him and gave her the chance to shoot him in cold blood. Warning shots, verbal warnings and other giveaways as to your intent and location can benefit the bad guy and that is something you need consider before giving your opponent the edge.

In any such a situation, the decision to fire a warning shot or not (or to give a verbal warning or verbal commands) is up to you and you alone. If you do decide to fire a warning shot, be ready to fire the next shot(s) directly into your assailant(s) if needed, and always try to be aware of your situation including other potential threats and try to be behind good cover before doing any of it. As for me, when it comes to warning shots, I'd rather not waste the bullet.

All the best,
Glenn B