Warning shots have long been prohibited by most American police departments. Massad Ayoob spells out 10 good reasons why.
The “Warning Shots Are a Good Idea” Myth
You know a myth is widespread when it emanates from the White House. In 2013 while campaigning for a ban on so-called “assault rifles,” Vice-President Joseph Biden told the public he had advised his wife that if there was a home invasion, she was to take a double barrel shotgun and fire both barrels upwards. One can only imagine how the Secret Service Vice-Presidential detail felt when they heard that. I can tell you that across the nation lawyers, cops, and gun-wise people rolled their eyes and shook their heads.
Here are 10 reasons why firing a warning shot is not a good idea.
1. What goes up, must come down. The stereotyped warning shot is fired skyward. Shooting live ammunition into the sky is a practice normally associated with Third World countries where respect for human life is not as great as in the United States. There are many cases on record where such bullets “fell from the sky” and killed innocent people. In one New England case, a man carelessly fired a warning shot upward in the state’s largest city; the bullet struck and killed an innocent bystander who was on the upper porch of a tenement building.
2. To fire the warning shot safely, the shooter would have to aim it into something that could safely absorb the projectile. This would force the shooter to take his eyes off of the potentially dangerous criminal opponent he was trying to intimidate – always a poor idea tactically.
3. What appears to be a safe place to plant the warning bullet, may not be. I know a police officer who, trying to break up a riot, fired a warning shot from his 12 gauge shotgun downward from the upper floor walkway of a hotel into what appeared in the dark to be a soft patch of earth. It was, instead, darkened pavement. Double-ought buckshot pellets caromed off the hard surface, one striking a young woman in the eye.
5. Warning shots can lead to misunderstandings with deadly unintended consequences. Years ago in the Great Lakes area, two police officers were searching opposite ends of a commercial greenhouse where a burglar alarm had just gone off. One confronted the burglar, who ran. The officer raised his arm skyward for the traditional silver screen warning shot. As is often the case, the blast just made the suspect run faster. On the other end of the building, the brother officer heard the shot and shouted to his partner, asking if he was all right. But the powerful handgun had gone off so close to the first officer’s unprotected ear that his ears were ringing, and he didn’t hear the shout. The second officer then saw the suspect running. Concluding that the man must have killed the partner who didn’t answer, that second officer shot and killed a man who was guilty only of burglary and running from the police.4. Suppose the person who caused you to fire the warning shot runs around a corner. Another gunshot rings out; someone else has shot the man, in a moment when deadly force was not warranted. The bullet goes through and through, fatally, and is not recovered. The man who wrongfully shot him claims that he fired the warning shot, and it was your bullet that caused the wrongful death. It’s your word against his…unless you can say, “Officer, you’ll find the bullet from MY gun in the friendly oak tree right over there.” But it would have been better in these circumstances if you had not fired at all.
6. A single gunshot sounds to earwitnesses (and, depending on the circumstances, even eyewitnesses) as if you tried to kill a man you were only trying to warn. Did you yell the standard movie line, “Stop or I’ll shoot”? It could sound to an earwitness as if you threatened to kill a man for not obeying you, and then tried to do exactly that. Don’t make threats you don’t have a right to carry out, and as will be noted elsewhere in this book, the confluence of circumstances that warrants the shooting of a fleeing felon is extremely rare. (Remember that there are usually more earwitnesses than eyewitnesses; sound generally travels farther than line of sight, especially in the dark. Remember the infamous case of Kitty Genovese, who was murdered as 38 New York witnesses supposedly watched and did nothing. A study of the incident shows that only two of those witnesses actually saw the knife go into her body. However, more than 38 apparently heard her scream, “He stabbed me!”)
7. Even if there are no witnesses and the man claims you shot at him and missed, evidence will show that you did fire your gun. If he claims you attempted to murder him, it’s his word against yours.
8. Murphy’s law is immutable: if your weapon is going to jam, expect it to jam on the warning shot, and leave you helpless when the opponent comes up on you with his gun.
9. The firing of a gun even in the “general direction” of another person is an act of deadly force. If deadly force was warranted, well, “warning shot, hell!” You would have shot directly at him. The warning shot can tell judge and jury that the very fact that you didn’t aim the shot at him is a tacit admission that even by your own lights, you knew deadly force was not justified at the time you fired the shot.
10. If the man turns on you in the next moment and you do have to shoot him or die, you’ve wasted precious ammunition. With the still-popular five-shot revolver, you’ve just thrown away 20% of your potentially life-saving firepower. In one case in the Philippines, a man went berserk in a crowded open-air market and began stabbing and slashing people with a knife in each hand. In a nearby home, an off-duty Filipino police officer heard the screams, grabbed his six-shot service revolver (with no spare ammunition), and ran to the scene. When he confronted the madman, the latter turned on him. The officer fired three warning shots into the air, sending half of all he had to protect himself and the public into the stratosphere. He turned and ran, trying to shoot over his shoulder, and missed with his last three shots. He tripped and fell, and the pursuing knife-wielder literally ripped him apart. Responding officers shot and killed the madman, but their off-duty brother was already dead by then.