Justifiable Long Shots

“I don’t know how I could justify shooting at a…

“I don’t know how I could justify shooting at a man who was twenty-five yards away from me,” said one poster on an Internet firearms bulletin board.

“That 50-yard shooting the bulls-eye shooters do is ridiculous,” says another defense-oriented handgunner. “If I shot at a man who was that far away from me, the lawyers would eat me up in court.”

I don’t know if either of those speakers has spent any time in court with cases involving self-defense shootings, but I’ve spent more than my share. And I beg to differ with them.

Three Factors
Where distance comes into it in the courtroom aftermath is in the “opportunity” factor of the ability/opportunity/jeopardy triad. For the use of lethal force to be justifiable, the shooter must be in a situation of immediate, otherwise unavoidable danger of death or great bodily harm to himself, or to another innocent person he has the right or duty to protect. For that situation to exist, the three factors of ability, opportunity, and jeopardy must be present on the part of the opponent.

Ability” means the power to kill or cripple. This normally means that the perpetrator is armed with a per se weapon such as gun or knife. It can also encompass a makeshift weapon, such as a clubbed lamp or a deliberately swung bottle. And, as we’ve noted in this space many times, ability can also be constituted by an element called disparity of force. Disparity of force exists when the defender faces overwhelming force of numbers, overwhelming size and strength, an able-bodied attacker attacking a disabled victim, or some similar situation where the likelihood of the ostensibly unarmed man causing death or crippling injury becomes so great that this ability is the equivalent of a deadly weapon.

Jeopardy” means the suspect’s words or actions would convey to any reasonable and prudent person who was in the same situation and knew what you knew, that the person’s obvious intent was to kill or cripple someone he had no right to harm.

Opportunity” means that the opponent is capable of immediately employing that power to kill, and carrying out that clear threat of killing or maiming within a very close time frame. This is where the distance comes into it: the space between attacker and victim is a key element in determining the opportunity factor. So is the presence of obstacles of various kinds.

If the opponent was a 100 yards away, waving a club and screaming at you, “I’ll bash your brains out,” you would not be justified in unlimbering your rifle and shooting at him at this point (although it might be awfully sensible for you to draw your gun and prepare to use it, he might just be awfully quick at the 100-yard dash). If he was only 7 yards away and started moving toward you with the club, however, you would be wise to shoot immediately. 

I acquired a Glock 31 pistol in .357 SIG, and before committing to carry it, I wanted to see how it shot at various distances. While testing, I couldn’t help but think of situations I knew of where the ability to use firearms at unconventional distances had saved good people’s lives. I was using ammo I had already determined was the most accurate .357 SIG load in this particular pistol, a batch of 125-grain Remington Golden Saber brass-jacketed hollow point.

Across The Street: 25 Yards
I dropped to kneeling and used the bench for support from 25 yards, like shooting over a low barricade such as an auto hood. This is an accurate position, but not true “bench rest” shooting. The five shots from 75 feet were a sloppy 4.15 inches apart. From true bench rest, the Golden Sabers had delivered a 1.25-inch group out of the same G31 earlier in the week. 

I thought of CASE ONE. Georgia lawman and instructor Bobby Tribble had been about 25 yards away from an armed robber who had just gunned down a security guard. Both men had taken cover behind vehicles in a parking lot outside the mall where the robbery/murder attempt had taken place.

Bobby was armed with a little off-duty gun, the Smith & Wesson M642 Airweight. His opponent was armed with a 1911 .45ACP. They shot at each other. The perp with the .45ACP missed. The cool cop with the snub-nose .38 didn’t.

Bobby’s hot Federal .38 Special Hydra-Shoks nailed the perp and ended the fight. Always an excellent shot, Bobby was glad he had taken the time to do some distance shooting with all the guns he ever “carried for real,” and knew where they hit at various ranges.

CASE TWO happened a number of years ago in New York City, friends on the NYPD told me.  A perpetrator opened fire on a female officer, without warning, from across the street. She coolly unlimbered her sidearm, took a sight picture, and squeezed her trigger once. The bullet flew the 25 yards or so across the (at that moment) un-traveled street, and center-punched the perpetrator and stopped the fight.   

CASE THREE took place in Columbus, Ohio. A highly skilled and particularly dangerous gunman shot it out with a squad of cops in a parking lot. He was moving too fast, and using cover too well, for them to hit him. All the officers were using semi-auto pistols.

On the periphery of the gunfight was a young man who, more than once, had won the National Police Revolver Championships sponsored by the National Rifle Association.  He drew his S&W M64 and stroked the trigger double-action, four times. Four .38 Special bullets hammered into the suspect’s torso in quick succession, and he fell to the ground and died. The distance was determined to have been approximately 35 yards.

The Long Line: 50 Yards
At Camp Perry, the 50-yard distance is colloquially known as “the long line.” That used to be the long distance for cops too, but it’s a rare department today where the officer’s handgun marksmanship is tested at that kind of distance. This is not to say that it will never be needed there.

I thought of CASE FOUR, which went down on the West Coast in 1981. A seasoned deputy sheriff pursuing a carload of bank robbers found them waiting for him at a dead end. They opened up on him with three rifles and a shotgun. He bailed out of the driver’s seat, taking a good cover position behind the engine block, and returning fire.  He got off six shots, wounding one of the four long-gunners, and his revolver ran dry. He reloaded, but made the mistake of emerging at the same spot where they had last seen him. One of the gunmen was dialed in and waiting. He shot the deputy through the eye with a .308 rifle, killing him. The perps were all killed or captured within 24 hours. That particular gunfight had taken place at a measured 54 yards.

I remembered CASE FIVE, the capture of escaped cop-killer Claude Dallas, who had slain two Idaho conservation officers. As the fleeing fugitive sped away from a police roadblock, the cops opened up on him. None of the pistol bullets got to him. It took a rifle bullet to smash his leg so agonizingly that he pulled over and surrendered. The shot had been fired by a lawman using a personally owned M1 Garand in .30-’06. The distance of the shot that stopped the convicted killer’s flight was well over 50 yards.

Then there was CASE SIX, which happened on an American military base in the Pacific Northwest several years ago. A soldier’s mind snapped and he began shooting people on post with a 7.62 x 39mm rifle. The first responding armed good guy was an MP on bike patrol. He neutralized the crazed killer with his 9mm Beretta M9 from a distance of between 50 and 60 yards, and saved countless lives.

Triple Distance: 75 Yards
Seventy-five yards is triple the distance at which most police and private citizens qualify and practice with their handguns today. Yes, it’s a long way for a pistol, but if you’re under fire from that distance and a handgun is all you have to shoot back with, wouldn’t you want to have your “range dope” memorized?

Is this a “never happen” distance for defensive use of a handgun? Emphatically, no!  Uncommon? Certainly. But, out of the question? Hardly, and we have two cases relatively fresh in the collective mind of our nation to back that up, cases that caught the world’s morbidly fascinated attention.

Both occurred in the late 1990s. CASE SEVEN was the North Hollywood Bank Robbery. Two heavily armed (and heavily armored) bank robbers shot more than a dozen police officers and innocent citizens before being killed in a drawn-out gun battle that lasted almost 45 minutes. Though for most of the shooting, they had the police outgunned, they were hugely outnumbered, and much of the public did not understand why the cops couldn’t hit them with the high volume of handgun and buckshot fire they sent the perpetrators’ way.

In truth, the perps were hit many times. However, they had taken cover well, and were massively armored, including their arms and their legs. What most commentators missed, however, was that the overwhelming majority of the shooting was at rifle distances, and until the end, the police only had pistols and buckshot loaded shotguns. Seventy yards and greater was the rule, not the exception in this widely known but not widely understood gunfight! The balance did not tip until patrol officers commandeered AR15 rifles and .223 ammo from the nearest gunshop, and when the SWAT team, held up in traffic, finally arrived at the scene.

CASE EIGHT seared the nation’s collective consciousness even more, the massacre at Columbine High School. The first engagement of the vicious, cowardly teen murderers Harris and Klebold with law enforcement occurred when the school resource officer, deliberately distracted off scene by a fake bomb the killers had planted elsewhere on campus to distract him, pulled up at the school. Armed with a 9mm carbine among other weapons, the perps opened fire on him at a distance of 70 yards. To his great credit, this deputy stayed in the fight, armed only with a 9mm pistol he had never fired at a greater distance than 25 yards. He was joined by the first responding back-up, a motorcycle cop also armed only with a pistol, and together they pinned Klebold and Harris in place for several minutes, allowing hundreds of potential victims to escape death by fleeing the school. The third responding officer had a Colt AR15 .223, and all of a sudden, the cowardly murderers didn’t want to play anymore. They fled back into the school. Tell me again that there’s never a need to know where your pistol hits at 70 yards. 

Further Out: 100 Yards
No, you don’t find a lot of 100-yard pistol battles in the history of gunfighting. But consider CASE NINE, the Texas Tower incident of 40 years ago. You want a 100 yards? You’d have had more than that if you were at the base of the structure the killer used as a sniper’s nest, because the tower was more than 300 feet high. Yet the gunfire of cops, and the gunfire of armed private citizens, who responded en masse, stopped the killing, once some people were able to get some rifles out of their cars and places of business. Had Texas had concealed carry then, it’s a sure bet that many more people would have had handguns they could have deployed sooner to keep the killer’s head down. Though he was not hit by return fire from the street, mass murderer Charles Whitman stopped effectively killing people once folks started shooting back.  He finally died when the courageous citizen Allen Crum, armed with a carbine, and equally brave Austin cops McCoy and Martinez, shot it out with him atop the tower.  

Things To Know
It is critical to know your trajectory at the various distances. In CASE TEN, a copkiller in Illinois barricaded himself in an isolated farmhouse where he controlled the only good nearby cover. Shooting from a considerable distance, one cop allowed too much drop for his .45ACP and put a heck of a tight group in the doorframe over the killer’s head. The gunman responded with a rifle bullet that crippled that officer for life. That incident taught me the importance of knowing where your pistol hits, just in case you have to deploy it at unexpectedly long range, as that officer did.

Bottom line? If the other guy has a gun and is trying to shoot you or some other decent person, distance doesn’t matter so long as you know you can hit at the given distance, and aren’t endangering bystanders with wild shots. Note that any of the above incidents could as easily have involved law-abiding armed citizens instead of, or as well as, sworn police officers.

Note too that none of the shooters who fired at these distances were ever criminally charged. A lawsuit was filed after the North Hollywood case on the theory that authorities had allowed one wounded perpetrator to bleed to death without medical attention after being shot, but none of the good guy and gal shooters in these 10 cases were ever successfully sued for shooting the criminals they shot.

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