“Shoot Them in the Leg” – Problematic Use-of-Force Takes and How They Damage Constructive Dialogue
In the aftermath of both police shootings and civilian self-defense shootings there are often people who ask why less-than-lethal force wasn’t used, or why lethal force wasn’t applied in such a way as to incapacitate instead of kill. All too often however there was no other realistic option given the circumstances and the problems presented by simple human factors. Given that I’d like to directly address several bad use-of-force takes, and why we need to move away from this kind of dialogue.
One of the more common tropes in the discourse around these shooting events is the debate around the use of tasers. While tasers can be an effective way to momentarily stop an individual, they also have a failure rate of up to ~40%, which means there is certainly no guarantee of a taser stopping an individual’s current actions. If the choice is between great harm or death coming to an ostensibly innocent person or stopping the attacker, the bottom line is that a firearm is often the more effective option to stop someone – unfortunately, nothing else offers the same guarantee that someone will be stopped that death does.
Additionally, there are often complaints of excessive force due to the number of shots fired when firearms are used. I cannot see how this argument stems from anything more than emotionally driven thinking. There is no universally agreed upon number of shots that can be fired before crossing the line into excessive force, and it’s a moot point either way – lethal force is lethal force. Whether someone was shot once or twice or ten times hardly matters. Once a shot has been fired you’ve crossed the threshold into the use of lethal force, at which point death should not be an unexpected outcome. In the instance of someone who is shot multiple times in rapid succession, they may very well have been fatally wounded with the first shot, making the number of subsequent shots completely irrelevant. On top of all this is the problem of human factors – to expect anyone in a high stress, chaotic situation to carefully count their shots and somehow not cross the arbitrary line into firing “too many times” is absurd.
While on the subject of firearms, let me address the “shoot them in the leg” take and other such demands. As previously noted on the subject of tasers, death is a sure way to stop someone. Shooting a limb with the intent of disabling someone carries with it the same risk of failure that use of a taser does. Violent individuals have not only survived being shot multiple times but have continued to fight after being shot. Indeed, one can lose whole limbs and remain ambulatory and composed enough to continue attacking. Further, there is no guarantee that “shooting to incapacitate” will not result in death, which assumes the “proper” body part of the individual is hit to begin with. There is always the possibility that vital organs or the central nervous system will be struck. If one tried shooting someone’s arms for example, you will always have to contend with the possibility of the bullet passing through and striking the persons head, torso, or legs depending on the angle and the deflection of the bullet after passing through bone and flesh. In specifically addressing the suggestion to shoot someone in the legs, the femoral artery runs the length of the thigh and is a major blood carrying vessel. Depending on the severity of the damage to this artery an individual can bleed out in only a few minutes. Thus shooting someone in the leg, aside from it being an unreasonable demand in most scenarios, is not inherently non-lethal.
This brings me to another issue I feel needs to be discussed as a distinct matter – that lethal force is lethal. Firearms, specifically those used by law enforcement or those designed as defense weapons for civilian owners, are designed as lethal weapons. These weapons and the ammunition they use are not typically designed for any purpose other than to kill. Ergo, demanding that someone use lethal weapons to cease a person’s actions in a non-lethal manner is a complete non-starter. If you want to disable or otherwise stop someone then you use the appropriate tool – most firearms are not such tools. If you want to debate about whether or not lethal force or less-than-lethal force was appropriate that’s fine, but trying to turn deadly force into a non-lethal tool of compliance is not constructive.
Lastly I’d like address the general problem with these takes on the use of lethal vs less-than-lethal force. Many of the proponents of such techniques as shooting to disable, using tasers first no matter what the situation is, and similar sentiments are too often making unreasonable demands of the people involved in these situations. Such persons seem to expect John Wick like performance from the inherently imperfect human beings who find themselves in rapidly evolving, intensely stressful scenarios. Firearms, like anything else, are an imperfect tool. They are not target seeking smart weapons that send projectiles exactly where the user wants them to go – there are manufacturing variances in both the firearm itself and the ammunition it uses, meaning that there are inherent issues with pin-point accuracy regardless of the user’s skill and experience. The same goes for tasers or any other such projectile weapon. When you take into account the compounding issues of an imperfect person using an imperfect tool in a situation where little, if anything, is predictable there will inevitably be outcomes which are not ideal.
I do not espouse the idea that flawed performance is always acceptable, especially when lives are lost, but the hard truth of the matter is that you can only mitigate and control for so many variables at once. Immediately jumping to the conclusion that someone who used lethal force in a chaotic situation is a murderer or egregiously incompetent is irresponsible and does nothing to further positive dialogue around the intersection between use of force, self-defense, and the right to life. Please stop asking people who find themselves in such situations to shoot someone’s leg, magically disarm an attacker, or otherwise perform unrealistic trick shooting and superhuman feats of speed, accuracy, and prediction.