Staff Views
L.E. Forum

Covering Suspects

Bert DuVernay

Staff Member, PPSC

November 11, 2002

Recently, a respected firearms instructor for a major agency wrote a piece advancing the premise that as long as good habits are displayed concerning “indexing” the trigger finger, in what we at PPSC call “register” position [i] , it was permissible to allow your muzzle to cover suspects, suspected innocents and other officers.

I agree with the other instructor about the importance of proper trigger finger indexing, but disagree strongly with his dismissal of muzzle control as a component to practical firearms safety. We need both.

The special operations units that disregard muzzle control as a cultivated part of organizational culture have records of accidentally shooting themselves and each other. I know of an FBI HRT member that shot himself in the thigh with his 1911 while manipulating it at home. SAS members will admit, in relaxed social settings, that they have shot each other in both training and operational environments. Without a culture of muzzle control, along with trigger finger control, it is just a matter of time until we shoot ourselves or an associate.

A thorough discussion of this topic recently occurred on firearms instructors’ internet group. It does appear that there could be legal justification for pointing a firearm before the shooting decision is made. I still don't think that it's a good idea to train people to do that, though. Training is intended to set the default performance by the student. Even if circumstances occasionally legally excuse the pointing of the firearm early, that wouldn't be the default performance that we want officers to display.

The philosophy of "we don't need muzzle control because we are professionals" is very seductive to aggressive confident young officers. It is fed by contact with "high speed, low drag" trainers who have a strong IPSC or Action Shooting background. While these trainers might be very successful at their selected forms of competition and have some limited contributions to make to our field, we must be very cautious about what we chose to take back to the street from what they have to offer. Being "professional" implies that we can abide by our most basic safety fundamentals under stress, not that we disregard them. To argue the opposite is Orwellian.

There are simply no serious consequences for an unintentionally shot target in the competitive environment compared to the consequences that could be experienced on the street for the same offense. The rewards of a big win at a match far outweigh the possibility of penalty points for hitting a "no shoot" target. The pressure to perform well in competition, coupled with the lack of consequences for a mistake, result in a tendency to cheat a little with technique. It is the nature of competition and of competitors to slice things as closely as possible. Combatants would and should do the same thing. The problem is a lack of recognition of the advantages, disadvantages and consequences of that "cheating" in the changed environment, once we move from the competition field to the street.

We need to be very careful about the techniques that we borrow from match shooters and how we apply them to the street. Neither the conditions nor the ultimate purposes are the same, so the unexamined use of match techniques in the ambiguous, fluid street environment is an invitation to tragedy.

Further, experience and research have shown that even the best trained officers can't rely on the trigger finger indexing under stress. As the stress level increases, officers are likely to experience what some call "trigger affirmations." That is that the trigger finger leaves its properly indexed position, touches the trigger briefly, then returns to the properly indexed position. The first person to mention this phenomenon to me was Dave Spaulding from Montgomery County OH Sheriff's Office. Others have confirmed the same observations. The really interesting thing about this is that tendency is common to officers of all training levels and appears to be subconscious. People don't remember doing it. If it is subconscious behavior, we can't train to overcome it, at least with current levels of LE training.

Thus, we know that we can't depend on (Cooper's) Rule 3 alone to prevent ourselves from shooting someone that shouldn't be shot. If we disregard Rule 2 (muzzle control) and if we experience a stimulus for involuntary muscle contraction during a "trigger affirmation," we will shoot someone without justification. True, this doesn't happen often, but it is inevitable that that it will happen or has happened already. We need to use Rule 2, in a layered approach, with Rule 3 to avoid this tragedy.

In addition, the premature muzzling of the target contributes to tunnel vision and physically blocks the view of nearly 180 degrees of the lower field of view. Other opponents could be in that area. That area also likely contains the hands of the recognized opponent. If we can't see the hands, how can we make a good shooting decision? We are faster, not slower, in shot delivery when we start from a muzzle depressed position on the street.

If that isn't enough, we also shoot better from a muzzle depressed position. Unless we've actually trained with a shooting stimulus received from an "aimed in" position, we're putting ourselves in a position of doing something in a fight that we've never trained to do. As trainers, we should recognize this fatal flaw immediately. During informal observation, I've noticed a tendency to rush the trigger in this situation with many shooters. A fast miss is of no purpose. It is better to shoot from the ready position as we've trained hundreds or thousands of times to do.

Even if we do decide to train from the "aimed in" position, now we've added an additional shooting technique by doing so. Training time is generally better spent with more repetitions of fewer techniques.

So, by developing a culture of muzzle control, we are 1) safer to ourselves and others, 2) able to respond to threats more quickly and 3) able to shoot more effectively with current training constraints. Again, this is not to replace the idea of proper trigger finger indexing. Muzzle control and trigger finger control must be used in conjunction to achieve an acceptable level of safety in the fluid ambiguous street environment.

Muzzle control, by itself, is not sufficiently safe either. It is acknowledged that we are likely to experience tunnel vision under stress. That vision impairment obviously limits the effectiveness of our muzzle control in a volatile environment. There are limits to how effectively we will control either our muzzles or our trigger fingers in such an environment. To purposely train ourselves to disregard either one of them from the outset is foolish and greatly increases the likelihood of tragedy.

We often hear of the intimidation value of pointing our muzzles at people, even before they've committed any aggressive acts. I think it is generally a mistake to train officers to do anything simply for intimidation value. This is no exception.

First of all, innocent persons are far more likely to be intimidated than actual bad guys, who know when you can shoot and when you can't. Guns are for stopping lethal behavior with probable lethal results, not for psychological control. We recently saw the outgrowth of the intimidation philosophy with the widely publicized event of a Federal Air Marshall holding the entire passenger load of an aircraft at gunpoint as a response to a single unruly passenger!

Using guns to intimidate is to discouraged. Compromising all the reasons listed above for using good muzzle control in an effort to intimidate, which will probably be ineffective anyway, is unwise.

It is difficult to improve on the Universal Cover Mode as taught be Manny Kapelson. Still, I offer a single enhancement of Manny’s idea. Manny suggested that the muzzle be held at an angle that placed it below the suspect's hands, in recognition that the muzzle would then be below the vital areas of the chest.

I suggest that the muzzle be held completely off the body for two reasons. First, shooting the lower part of the body can kill a person. There are major blood vessels in the area of the groin, as well as the thigh. Rupturing any one of those blood vessels can easily result in death, considering the tactical limitations on rendering first aid, especially if the officer is alone. Breaking the thigh bone alone results in a massive blood loss, even without severing a major artery or vein. Though not likely to be fatal alone, with other injuries it could have fatal results.

Second, depending on how high on the lower body the muzzle is held, a person could drop into or below the bore line, either on purpose or by accident. By holding the muzzle just below the feet of a suspect, we can preclude both of these problems without significantly delaying our shot time in response to a threat.

The competition shooter mentioned earlier in this piece would be quick to point out that the lower muzzle will result in a slower hit. That is true enough, in the structured environment of the competition field. However, in the more ambiguous setting that a police officer occupies, the shooting stimulus must be interpreted as life threatening, not simply reacted to by the trigger finger. I believe that the interpretation of movement is more quickly and accurately done without the visual obstruction of the muzzle.

Additionally, the time increment that the competitive shooter is speaking of can be measured in fractions of hundredths of a second. Those increments, vital in winning a match, are insignificant on the street when one considers that, unless the central nervous system is severed, bullets require several seconds to work reliably.

The key to surviving is in incorporating sound tactics, such as movement and the use of cover, not in compromising the safety of all present in order to shave a few thousands of a second in response time.

All things considered, it is obvious that two elements need to be present in any technique for holding someone at gunpoint. First, the muzzle must not cover flesh. Second, the trigger finger is in a position that will resist a discharge during an involuntary muscle contraction. In my view, the ways of accomplishing those ends may be open to discussion, but those two elements are not.

[i] The elements of Register position are: 1) trigger finger outside the trigger guard, 2) trigger finger braced on the receiver/frame, other than the bow of the trigger guard.