“Warning Shots”, is a technique most often mentioned as part of an escalation of force routine for our troops overseas. More often in reality they are disabling shots to a vehicle suspected of being a suicide bomber. Warning shots are cited in fiction, older films and TV media. Sometimes but not rarely enough we see them mentioned in the local news. Just to be succinct, warning shots are a bad idea 99% of the time and the reason I can’t say 100% is because I can’t imagine every infinite situation that may arise.
What is a “warning shot”? For the sake of this discussion a warning shot is a shot fired to scare, warn or deter an attacked from taking further action. It is fired with the specific intent of not hitting the attacker.
Yo bro, come out with your hands up, and please don’t shoot me.
Warning shots are a bad idea from just about every perspective but one, giving a criminal time to act or motivation to do so. They are a bad practice in the areas of safety, tactics, legality, judicial liability and as I facetiously described, common sense.
One of the basic tenets of gun safety is the shooter is responsible for every shot. Well, warning shots must go somewhere. They don’t disappear into thin air. By definition, a warning shot isn’t directed at the person creating a perceived need for a warning shot. This is a recipe for failure and puts bystanders, innocents and oneself at risk. Poor selection of a makeshift target for the warning shot could cause an injury due to a ricochet and a shot fired into the air comes down, somewhere.
Those that consider employing a warning shot do so to deter the criminal. The unintended consequences though are warning the criminal he’s been discovered, that the victim is armed and where the gun and potential victim are at. Tactically one is giving away surprise, capability and location.
Many that fire a warning shot undoubtedly do so out of a desire to not have to shoot someone. No rational person wants to shoot another but consider this. Except for states like Texas, one can only defend themselves with a gun if one is in a situation where one’s life is at risk and/or a forcible felony is occurring. Is it rational to want to give up the element of surprise, informing the criminal you have a gun and potentially where you are to satisfy one’s desire to not shoot another? For some sadly this calculus makes sense. Others, have not thought the whole self-defense equation through. No rational person wants to shoot another but neither does one want to give an attacker a better chance at being successful. If one’s desire to not shot someone would cause you to give an attacker threatening your life advantages they didn’t already have a gun may not be a good choice for your self-defense needs.
Think that dude heard me? Maybe I’ll do a warning shot.
A second order effect of firing a warning shot related to emphasizing another’s life over your own is a wily attorney could try to make the case, “Was the alleged victim’s life really at risk if they were able to fire a warning shot?” A criminal could add that the gunshot spurned him into action, an action he didn’t intend until someone fired a shot. That type of legal defense would serve those wanting to prove the adage, “no good deed goes unpunished.”
One of the strongest reasons to not employ warning shots in your defensive strategy is that they can very likely be illegal. Many jurisdictions allow for the discharge of a firearm in one’s defense but a case can be made that a warning shot isn’t a defensive measure. Further many jurisdictions have statutes against discharging a firearm inside the city limits. In a split second the victim of a life-threatening event can go from victim to fellow criminal. This type of thinking may not be too far from the realm of possibility if one lives in a non-gun friendly jurisdiction.
The principle, warning shots = bad idea is obvious to most shooters. I felt it necessary to write an article because I’ve had too many students new to firearms mention warning shots as part of their defensive strategies. It’s simply a terrible idea on too many levels. Instead of a warning shot I’d use the litmus test suggested by James Yeagar. When considering pulling the trigger on your gun ask, “Whose life are you saving?” If it’s the criminals’ you are using the wrong tool and likely have the wrong defensive mindset. Don’t fire a shot to warn your attacker. Stop the threat or, don’t count on a gun to be your self-defense solution.
Dang it. Is my teen really up past his bed time? Stand down son!
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