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Why do bad guys seem to do so well in gunfights?

In my first article for PoliceOne, I touched on a number of things relating to my belief that we need to shift our focus in law enforcement firearms training from the traditional bullseye/combat/practical shooting drills to actual applications of fighting techniques once mechanical and basic marksmanship skills have been developed. I had originally planned to move immediately into a series of articles examining techniques we’ve adopted in the past 20 years that were supposed to have replaced outdated and even dangerous ones (but which might be problematic in their own right). A handful of those article are already near completion, but even though they are already almost complete, something in the morning papers recently led me to decide that those items can wait. 

I decided that maybe we should take a look at shooting performance from another perspective: this time from the side of the criminal.

My real job these days (I do consulting) keeps me from jumping into things as fully as I used to, so let me open this discussion by saying the thing to do here is to look (in a very serious, analytical way) at a wide range of civilian-involved shootings across the country. I have not done that and you need to realize that fact going in. For what I am proposing here, while sounding logical, needs to be supported by data and hard facts before it can be embraced seriously and used as a learning tool.

In that first PoliceOne article, I offered up a number of reasons as to why I think police officers, as a group, are shooting more often on the range but are not doing that much better on the street.

After it was published, an old friend, who now lives at the opposite end of the country (that says something for the long arm of PoliceOne), contacted me. In addition to agreeing with me, he also said that he had concerns that when an officer must employ his or her firearm, their “thought process goes to paper work, landing in court, winging the innocent, and not making a mistake, all of which interferes with their focus... whereas the opposition is out to kill without thought.”

I wrote him back and told him that there obviously are issues regarding outside influences affecting one’s “focus.” I told him that at some point, after catching up on my reading and making sure that somebody else hadn’t talked the subject to death, I planned on writing something about this kind of thing and how the bad guys might generally shoot better than the cops as a result.

I told him that I had seen a number of references from certain groups and organizations lately that seem to believe (and state openly) that this is due to the bad guys practicing more these days. Again, I have not researched this myself but I find it hard to believe that even if certain factions of the criminal community (violent criminal community) come from a shooting, hunting or military background, that the bulk of the “successful” offender events I have either witnessed or (these days) read about, are due to the fact that the perpetrators have honed their skills by hours and hours of diligent practice at the range.

Look realistically at the people you (not me these days) are dealing with. An element that runs the gamut from hardened criminals and repeat offenders to frantic spouses, kids not old enough to understand the seriousness of their actions, kids who couldn’t concentrate well enough to get through school, individuals who didn’t plan out their actions but merely reacted to the situation they found themselves in, and others who don’t do drugs for recreation but for a living. Not what I would call long-term planners or people who devote much of their free time developing their gun handling skills.

I am sure that you can find some people who shoot but in the overall scheme of things, I think there are not many and not many who practice in the way(s) that develop proficiency, let alone proficiency under stress. I told my friend that I think these people’s possibly better performance (again, research is needed to see if they are better or if my beliefs are just skewed by reporting focused only on successful engagements) is due to their mindset instead.

I think that most rational people are reluctant to kill someone else. And while obviously the gun makes it easier to do so than say a knife or a ball bat, most responsible people do think (regardless of how fleetingly) of all the consequences of such an action.

I do disagree a bit with my friend’s thinking that it’s all paperwork and lawsuits, for while I’m sure that such thoughts are lurking somewhere in the backs of the minds of some officers, I think it might also be due to some of what S.L.A. Marshall discussed well over 50 years ago and that is (his now somewhat controversial beliefs regarding) civilized man’s reluctance to kill his fellow man. And it might also be due to the focus of my previous article and that’s the lack of practical experience in such matters.

I also think that the “bad guy” — somebody who is generally acting with no sense of responsibility for his or her actions and who is living at the time of such actions only in the moment and not the long term — probably doesn’t care much about consequences and can more freely employ the weapon.

I have thought this for a long time, especially after seeing some of the shots such people made when I was on the job or in reading about rounds being fired accurately under stress by a felon in his attempt to deal with an unexpected situation. Yes, I fully admit that luck has something to do with it at least some of the time, but I don’t think it does so all of the time.

I think that a truly scientific study should be made — it would be way too easy to be selective and refer only to the “successful” engagements we see in the press or those after-the-fact calls that you respond to where there is always a victim. Someone needs to look in detail at person-to-person shootings in general, including those were no one was hit. That study must not skew the results by including random discharges, drivebys fired for effect, or full auto engagements with round totals that will offset any meaningful data.

Until then, we can’t say anything for sure. But until then, I will continue to look at this as just one of the possible reasons why some people who are trained to reach an objective fail to do so under stress, and why these untrained and often unprepared people make good hits. For I believe that among other things, such “hitting” could have been all they were thinking about at the time.

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