Editor's Note: To fully appreciate and understand where author Ralph Mroz is in this series, be sure to have read both of the previous two parts, linked in below for your convenience.
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. 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.
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 article linked in below.)
Is this really a problem?
I refer you to refer to a study 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 respectively. 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, non-resisting 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.