Tactical debate: Muzzle up or muzzle depressed?

By Ralph Mroz

A brief video clip that I posted on PoliceOne.com and also on BLUtube advocating the depressed muzzle position when we have our guns drawn but are not in the act of shooting someone drew some heavy negative response. (A related tip on rail-mounted lights, discussing the same root issue, also drew considerable feedback.) Tom Aveni of the Police Policy Studies Council, referring at a professional law enforcement conference to the same issue as “muzzle heaviness,” got the same sort of responses. To be fair, in the video I did not go into the nuances, caveats and detailed arguments I explore in this article. Rather it was a simple reminder to watch our muzzles, and a reminder to practice something I thought we’d all been trained in and understood.

Let me be clear: I am not concerned with hurting anyone’s feelings — I couldn’t care less how a subject feels about having a gun pointed at him, so long as I am justified in so doing. What I am concerned with is that I don’t shoot someone I don’t want to.

I’m also not advocating that we never point guns at people that we do not intend to shoot at that moment. This is a complicated issue, and one that runs into neurological and biological constraints, as discussed below. Let me take it one issue at a time, and then draw them together at the end.

The problem: muzzle discipline is often not practiced
In training, in simulations and in real life, we consistently see muzzles pointed at people (or targets, in training) that we don’t intend to shoot at the moment. Sometimes when we see that on the street, it results in someone we don’t want to shoot or aren’t justified in shooting getting shot or killed.

My focus in the videos mentioned above is muzzling people who don’t present an imminent danger to us as we challenge them, and muzzling areas where innocents are likely to be during building entries, searches, active shooter training and so on. We see this when cops challenge an apparently unarmed suspect and they have their guns pointed right at him. We see this when cops are clearing buildings and in active shooter situations: The muzzle is pointed straight ahead into the areas from which people are running or an innocent person might appear (you never know in a building search if you’ll find a bad guy, a homeless person, a teenager having a lark, or a resident or an employee). And of course, we see this almost as a normal state of affairs during much target-based training and during simulations.

Years ago at the Smith & Wesson Academy, then under the directorship of now-Chief Bert DuVernay, I was taught what I believed everyone was being taught: that unless you are in the act of shooting someone (or a target), your muzzle stays depressed. I’d modify this to say: Unless you are in the act of shooting someone, or you have justification to shoot them, or you literally can’t help yourself because pointing your gun at them is a neurologically hard-wired response. When you are challenging someone or when you are searching and that’s not the case, your gun should generally be pointed just in front of the suspect’s feet (or where a suspect’s feet would be).

This just seems like so much common sense; after all, if you aren’t justified in shooting someone, any gun discharge at that point would be negligent. It’s so easy to get bumped, to lose your balance or to be startled in dynamically evolving, high-stress situations, particularly those involving movement or multiple people (think of a raid) that this muzzle-lowering precaution seemed not just sensible, but like the only responsible and professional thing to do.

Confusing the issues
When this subject of muzzles comes up, there are three issues that immediately get discussed, and they are often incorrectly commingled. In fact they are separate and need to be analyzed separately.

Legal issues: There are certainly times when you can be legally justified in pointing a gun at someone you don’t intend to shoot. But just because you are legally justified doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do, and legal justification shouldn’t be our only hurdle for so doing. On the flip side, Robinson v. Solano County, 278 F.3d 1007 (2002), in the 9th U.S. District Court of Appeals, which determined that pointing a gun at someone can constitute excessive force, is often cited as a reason to not point guns at people we aren’t shooting. This isn’t entirely an accurate interpretation of the case, though, because the facts demonstrate pretty serious misconduct on the part of the offending officer. Plus, this was in the 9th Circuit, an appeals court in which sneezing is pretty much considered excessive force.

Tactical issues: The issue of what’s right from a tactical standpoint is distinct from what’s right from a legal standpoint. The tactical issue centers around the time supposedly lost by having to raise a depressed muzzle if a shot has to be made. Below, we show that this is not as big an issue as many believe.

Liability issues: Liability in these situations centers around shooting someone who shouldn’t have been shot at that moment, which is a legitimate concern. As a mater of mission and policy, police officers routinely balance liability concerns with safety concerns. This balancing act is part and parcel of the job.

As an attorney and police chief, Ken Wallentine points out: “[that] liability is derived from killing or injuring someone who ought not to be killed or injured. It isn't just a question of writing a check to the survivor.” The chief goes on to say: “The majority of law enforcement firearms instructors agree that there is no critical time lost in searching with a depressed muzzle, and [they] agree that the slight intimidation factor isn’t worth the trade-off of an unsafe tactic. Their views are supported by use-of-force rules applied by courts across the nation.1" My words now — and this is a critical point: We are in the risk-management business, not the risk-elimination business. Nothing is risk-free, and risk to us comes from many sources: physical injury, financial injury, potential criminal convictions and associated jail time, and so on. It is our job to balance these risks appropriately, and they can never be eliminated.

Nonetheless, I hope to show below that no such trade-off is usually required when we address the issue of muzzles pointed at people.

Rule No. 2
Every police officer knows (or should know) the four rules of firearms safety by heart. My versions of them have been:

1. Treat all guns as if they were loaded until redundantly proven otherwise.

2. Never let the muzzle cover anything you are not justified in shooting at that moment (I now think this rule needs to be modified, as I explain below).

3. Keep your finger off the trigger until the moment you want the gun to discharge.

4. Be sure of where your bullet is likely to end up.

Being law enforcement officers doesn’t give us license to flout these rules. If we could, they wouldn’t be so heavily stressed at the academy and make so much objective sense.

I know of no firearms instructor or gun-competent person anywhere who does not preach these four rules strongly and repeatedly. If Rule No. 2 means what it says, and we allow our officers to point guns at people they aren’t justified in shooting at that moment, then we are contradicting ourselves. So either we stop preaching Rule No. 2 or we adhere to it in practice. Pick one. You can’t have it both ways.

This is a serious concern. If we train our officers to cover with the muzzle those people we aren’t shooting in simulations or targets on the range, or tacitly allow them to do so in practice, and one of them has an unintentional discharge and wrongly shoots someone who he or she was covering with the muzzle, then all a prosecuting attorney has to do is get a photograph of the safety rules posted at our range or a copy of a department manual that contains them, and we have a serious problem. We can’t say something to officers and then say it’s OK for them to ignore it.

In fact, I believe that Rule No. 2 can’t be applied 100 percent of the time, as I explain below, so we probably do in fact need to modify it, for liability reasons if nothing else. However, I see it disregarded in too many circumstances in which it should apply, and thus the reason for my original video post.

There is a too-clever-by-a-half argument that proposes that by keeping our muzzles up and therefore muzzling everyone we come upon during a search or challenge we are actually not violating Rule No. 2. It goes like this: “I'm not violatuing Rule No. 2. If I find someone during a search then I do intend to shoot them until I have detremined they are not a threat.” Obviously this is a semantic twisting of Rule No. 2, and in any case it ignores the risk-management part of our jobs.

You might give up a tiny bit of “intimidation” with the muzzle slightly depressed as you challenge a suspect, but any cop who can’t compensate for that with intimidation from his or her presence and verbal commands probably lacks a vital skill necessary for the profession. Also, consider that Col. Jeff Cooper said 2 covering a man with muzzle depressed (actually, not just slightly lowered, but at a 45-degree downward angle) might be more intimidating and deterring than covering him with the muzzle “on target,” as it communicates a trained professional, confident that he is in charge of the situation. I’m not sure I agree, but the colonel’s opinion is always worth considering.

Do you give up time?
How much time do you give up by depressing the muzzle to the suspect’s feet? That is really at the heart of any objection to the muzzle-depression suggestion. A drill to measure this was done with hundreds (if not thousands) of law enforcement officers at the Smith & Wesson Academy during the 1990s. It was run at five to seven yards, with the arms straight and the muzzle depressed to something like a traditional low ready. The average time difference to get the first shot off on a Smith & Wesson Bobber target compared with starting with the muzzle on the target (fingers off the trigger in both cases) was usually 0.14 seconds3. When I tried the same experiment on the range4, I got times of 0.33 to 0.35 seconds both ways at five yards — that is, there was no difference in time. Running the same experiment at 12 yards, I found a difference of between 0.05 to 0.15 seconds (and a better shooter would be faster)5. I’ll use my results here because they are from an experiment designed expressly to measure the time difference between the specific postures I’m talking about in this article.

Of course these time penalties are being calculated from experimental measurements in a very simplistic setting: responding to a buzzer and firing as fast as possible onto a target. That doesn’t begin to reflect real life, in which you are making shoot/no-shoot decisions by trying to take into account many stimuli and suspect cues. The Force Science Research Center has found that adding just a little complexity to a shooting decision — again, in a simplistic laboratory setting — doubled the reaction time to making a shot6. That is, making even simple observations and decisions greatly affects your “lag time” to making a shoot/no-shoot decision.

Obviously this time increase is consumed with decision-making, and not muzzle movement or trigger pull. When you consider the entire context in which shots are made in real law enforcement situations, the zero to one-tenth of a second lag time induced by the lowered muzzle is usually less than the decision-making time required to make the shooting decision. Thus, if the muzzle is depressed to begin with, it will usually have ample time to come onto the suspect before the final decision to shoot will be made.

Does this mean that we might sometimes muzzle people about whom we have not yet made a final decision to shoot, but whom we think may pose an imminent or immediate threat? Yes, but that is probably not something we can stop ourselves from doing, and it’s perfectly reasonable. More on this point below.

Remember, in the real world you are reacting to cues that the suspect gives you, and you have to identify those cues as posing imminent danger before shooting. Is he drawing a gun or a cell phone? Is that student running around the corner actually the shooter or an innocent civilian? To do this, you usually have to see the suspect’s hands and identify what’s in them, which takes time.

Seeing the hands
I expected comments on my original video post saying that I’d forgot to mention that a good reason to keep the muzzle slightly depressed during a search or challenge was so we could see the suspect’s hands. Many if not most instructors teach this, and many tactical shooters believe it. If this is a good reason to depress our muzzles, and one that’s practiced, I have a hard time understanding the negative responses I received to the suggestion that we should keep our muzles lowered unless shooting (or, as I didn’t say in the video, if we perceive an imminent threat, as I explain below).

The irony here is that I don’t really subscribe to this theory. When I hold a gun on someone at chest height, I can almost always see their hands pretty well. I believe this is a natural consequence of the fact that both eyes are open.

Just keep your finger off the trigger and there’s no problem
It seems like plain common sense that getting bumped, startled or losing your balance can cause an involuntary convulsion of the gun hand, sometimes involving the trigger finger coming off the frame and convulsing the trigger. This results in a true accidental discharge, not a negligent discharge. That anyone can doubt this just amazes me, but apparently many do. However, now we have scientific proof.

A recent study7 published in the journal of the International Association of Law Enforcement Firearms Instructors proves that officers’ involuntary muscle contractions can in fact accidentally discharge a gun. I won’t grind through the study details here — you can easily read the article yourself — but the bottom line is that police officers can indeed unintentionally discharge a gun when startled, jostled, or when they lose their balance, despite their training to keep their finger off the trigger and despite their trigger really being off the trigger. A earlier paper by Dr. Roger Enoka8 explains the biological, neurological and physiological reasons for the results of the German study.

Recall how easy it is to get bumped, or to fall, or to get startled in the real world. Many of the places we raid are full of detritus on the floor. In a dynamic situation it’s easy to have a half-ton of cops behind you moving in a hurry, and people — most of them no threat — appear out of nowhere, surprising the hell out of us, all the time.

A related conclusion of the study confirmed what many stateside trainers — including Dave Spaulding, who published his observations a few years ago9 — have long noticed: that even well-trained officers will unconsciously make sporadic trigger contact with their finger during a high-stress event, and they have no memory of so doing afterward. We call this phenomena trigger affirmation. Trigger affirmation is probably some hard-wired primal response to stress10, and we probably can't train it out of people, given that we see it in so many well-trained people. The good news is that there appear to be very few if any ADs as a result of this alone. (Ironically, if we were to try and mitigate ADs from trigger affirmation alone, then a cocked and locked 1911 would be the safest gun!) Nonetheless, when an officer is trigger affirming, he or she is at great risk of an unintentional discharge if bumped or startled, or if he or she falls.

Rant all you like about “Just keep your finger off the trigger and there’s no problem,” but the science is against you.

Interlimb interaction
If you are OK with pointing guns at suspects that we aren’t shooting, or if we aren’t in one of the other situations described below where muzzling someone may be appropriate, then are you OK with an officer pointing his or her gun at a suspect while doing something else with the off hand, such as grabbing the suspect? I trust that everyone will say “no,” because of the well-known phenomenon of interlimb interaction. (Interlimb interaction, also called “sympathetic squeeze,” is the involuntary contraction of an individual’s hand and finger muscles.) Well, 1) you’ve just admitted that “keeping your finger off the trigger” is not enough to be safe in principle, and 2) because falling or getting bumped will often involve an interlimb interaction as the officer uses his or her off hand to regain balance, you’ve just admitted the possibility of an unintentional discharge in those circumstances.

Further, it certainly seems like a short leap from intuitively understanding interlimb interaction to intuitively understanding involuntary hand convulsion under the effects of being startled, bumped or falling.

Single-action safeties
If all you had to do was keep your finger off the trigger and there would be no problem, then there would be no need for the safeties on single-action guns (such as 1911-pattern pistols and AR-15-type rifles) to remain engaged until we actually wanted the gun to fire. Yet keeping the safety engaged until that moment is exactly what is taught. Even Paul Howe, a man who has seen more action involving military rules of engagement than any law enforcement officer in this country has seen action on the job, recognizes that simply “keeping your finger off the trigger” is insufficient even with the looser military ROE. (See: (http://www.combatshootingandtactics.com/published/The_Weapon_Safety.PDF.)

Is this really a problem?
I refer you to refer to a stud11y of the shooting incidents in FYs 2000-2003 by the DEA, FBI, ATF and USMS. Thirteen percent of the shots fired during enforcement operations (not including training, animal control and so on) were unintentional. That’s an astounding number. Another example: The New York Police Department’s SOP-9 indicates 27, 71, 63, 42, 55, 37, 27 and 24 unintentional discharges for 1994, 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2004 and 2005 respectively12 . You can see the tragic potential if those muzzles were pointed at people who didn’t need to be shot at that instant, particularly if you extrapolate from these agencies’ populations to all United States police officers.

Finally, let me refer you to the tragic SWAT shooting of an unarmed, nonresisting man in Fairfax, Va., because that agency’s SOP was that guns are always pointed at suspects. Just run a Google search “Fairfax SWAT shooting” and you’ll return lots of stories about this poster-boy case for muzzle depression when a threat isn’t imminent. This is a 1,500-officer department, with a well-trained cadre on its team. If it can happen to them, it can happen to you.

There are exceptions
I’m not saying that pointing muzzles at people (or into areas) that you aren’t in the act of shooting is always wrong.

• We are always justified in pointing our guns at people who present an imminent threat, because an imminent threat justifies our shooting them. Further, the impulse to muzzle someone from whom we feel an imminent threat or a high-potential for imminent threat is probably hard-wired. It probably can’t be trained out of us, but we can train to transition to a muzzle depressed position when the immediacy of the threat diminishes.

• During times of no imminent threat that nonetheless warrant an unholstered gun, a muzzle depressed position is usually appropriate.

• In a dynamically evolving situation, flowing from muzzle on a suspect or threat area to the muzzle-depressed position is probably usually the right thing to do in response to our changing threat perception.

• There are times when your decision to shoot is not the result of reacting to a suspect’s movement, such as when entering a high-threat area with a shooter lying in wait for you, that the time difference between muzzle up and muzzle down can make the difference in who gets the first shot off.

1. There is no one in our sight that is an imminent threat to us; therefore we are not justified in shooting, and our muzzles should be depressed. Examples: searching a school hallway for an active shooter with no shooter in sight (we don’t want muzzles pointed at the innocent students), entering on a drug raid with no threat in sight (there are often innocents and children in these places), challenging a suspect who we believe is not armed and we can see his hands, challenging a suspect who isn’t armed and there’s a gun on a table six feet away.

2. There is someone in our sight that is an imminent threat to us; therefore we are justified in shooting, and our muzzles can be on the suspect. We are muzzling them only because we have decided not to shoot them at this instant, even though we are justified in doing so. (There are good reasons for not shooting someone every time we’re justified.) Examples: a person with a gun in his waistband and his hand near it, or someone threatening us with a knife at a short distance. Our reasons not to shoot in these instances are based on the totality of the circumstances, our feelings about the suspect’s intent and a host of other real-world factors. Hopefully our decision not to shoot is also influenced because we are challenging the suspect from behind cover or are otherwise mitigating the risk.

3. The in-between place. What about those times where there is no imminent threat, thus arguing for muzzle depression, but we believe it entirely possible that one could appear in an instant? These are the hard calls, and I believe we have to resort to common sense and the totality of the circumstances in making a decision. For example, raiding the headquarters of your regional MS-13 chapter probably warrants a muzzle forward entry more than serving an arrest warrant on a check kiter. That’s why many of the very high-end teams, such as the FBI’s HRT (last I knew), train in the muzzle-forward approach — the kind of calls they are likely to get may warrant it. On the other hand, one high-profile anti-terrorist national-asset organization that I’m aware of embraces the muzzle-depressed doctrine until you are justified in shooting. These are tough calls, to be sure.

What the military calls “collateral damage” is known in the civilian world as negligence or murder, and there are consequences. There are some times where an innocent life is taken by a law enforcement officer and there is no fault — it’s just a tragic alignment of the stars. But as professionals, we need to do all we can, within the boundaries of prudent and responsible risk management for all parties involved, to avoid an accidental shooting. If our guns are out, I believe that the general rule should be that we keep our muzzles depressed unless:

• There is an imminent threat (we are justified in shooting)

• We are startled or come upon by a potentially deadly threat (we probably can’t help doing this)

• The likelihood of a truly deadly threat instantly appearing at any moment is high and there are no innocents endangered by our muzzles up.

In this article, I have referred to a muzzle depressed position as the “safe” position for an unholstered gun to be in when there is no imminent threat. The high muzzle position (or high ready position) is favored by some very highly experienced people, but for the purposes of this article it is probably not as safe, particularly if the officer falls. The undoubtedly hot debate over which position — depressed or high ready — is tactically better in what circumstances and why, we leave to another day.

About the author

In partnership with PoliceOne.com, POSA is offering free tactical training videos on subjects like tactical shotgun usage, crisis entry, disarming a suspect, and more. Click here to view the videos.

To learn more about POSA, visit www.posai.org

Police Officers Safety Association, Inc.
PO Box 685
Chepachet, RI 02814
Phone: 401.568.9951
Fax: 401.568.9677

David Kenik, Executive Director dkenik@posai.org
Ralph Mroz, Training Director rmroz@posai.org

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