Saturday, August 25, 2012

Sorting out the latest mass shooting

It now appears police bullets are what turned Friday's shooting near the Empire State Building into a mass casualty affair. I'm not pointing fingers. Maybe we can even learn from some aspects of Friday's incident.

News accounts say Jeffrey Johnson shot and killed former co-worker Steve Ercolino, and then turned his gun on police before police shot him dead. Nine other bystanders were shot when police opened fire. The New York Times reports:
From a distance of less than 10 feet, the officers, Craig Matthews and Robert Sinishtaj, answered in unison; one shot nine times and the other seven. 
Investigators believe at least 7 of those 16 bullets struck the gunman, said Paul J. Browne, the Police Department’s chief spokesman. But the officers also struck some, if not all, of the nine bystanders who were wounded.
Fortunately, none of the bystanders suffered life-threatening wounds.

Some may question how police could miss their target so many times at such close range. Some will say police marksmanship isn't what it once was (more on that in a minute). But the officers involved had to make split second decisions. They saw a threat to their lives and those around them, they sought to shut down that primary threat. That part makes sense.

Bystanders sometimes do get hit in urban gunfights. It happens in gun battles between thugs, it can happen when police exchange fire with a perp. And it can happen when police fire on a perp brandishing a gun.

But remember after the Aurora shooting, where gun control advocates defended the theater as a gun free zone, in part, by saying counter fire from armed civilians shooting might have hit bystanders? These gun control advocates seem to hold lawfully armed civilians to a higher standard than they do authorized law enforcement.

The Times report indicates Friday's bystanders may have been hit by ricochets or bullet fragments. For those critical of law enforcement (local or federal) carrying hollow point bullets, risk reduction  in crowded settings is one of the primary reasons law enforcement now prefers HPs.

It usually works out in the bystander's favor to be hit with a frag from an HP round compared to be struck with ricocheting round-nose or Full Metal Jacket projectile  (those tend to remain intact). And those non-HP varieties tend to penetrate much farther, putting even more bystanders at risk.

Another thought crosses my mind. Was Friday's gunman intent on more killing? Police say the amount of ammo he carried suggests he was. But it might also be his actions were intended to provoke what's sometimes referred to as suicide by cop. Either way, facing an armed gunman, and from the circumstances as we know them now, police were unquestionably correct in their decision to shoot.

I do wish police could returned to the more precise, measured use of shooting force like we seemed to have had in the days of five or six-shot revolvers. Years ago, when I was invited to observe training at a local police academy, recruits were drilled on putting two rounds into their target. Do police academies still put emphasis on double tap? It can be a life-saver for police to have more rounds in a semi-auto, but at times the additional ammo seems to have led to a sloppier shooting phenomenon that Don referred to on yesterday's (August 24) show as spray and pray.

It remains to be seen if investigators of Friday's shooting deem the number of rounds fired by officers to be excessive. Sixteen rounds fired by two officers at a range of ten feet or less from the target seems high. But, at the very least, it also appears the officers exercised enough self control to stop firing before their guns were empty.

Updated 8/26/2012 8:54 am

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