Thomas Sowell

People for whom indignation is a way of life -- and there seem to be an increasing number of such people -- repeatedly have outbursts of outrage whenever the police fire a lot of shots at some criminal.

People who have never fired a gun in their lives, and have never had a split-second in which to make a decision that could mean life or death for themselves or others, are often nevertheless convinced that the police used excessive force.

As someone who once taught pistol shooting in the Marine Corps, it has never seemed strange to me that the police sometimes fire dozens of shots at a criminal.

While an expert shooter can run up impressive scores in the safety of a pistol range, it doesn't take much to make shots go off into the wild blue yonder in the stress of life and death shooting.

Even on a pistol range, it was not uncommon to see shooters not only miss the bull's eye, but miss the whole target, which was the size of a man's torso.

Among other things, this suggests that a pistol may not be the best firearm to keep for home protection. A shotgun is far more likely to hit the target -- and far less likely to have to be fired in the first place.

Any intruder who hears the distinctive sound that is made when you load a shotgun is likely to decide that he would much rather be somewhere else, very quickly. Nor is he likely to return.

Getting back to shootings by the police, now -- at last -- there is a study introducing some facts into controversies that have thus far been largely a matter of emotions, rhetoric, ideology, and politics.

This study shows how often the police in New York City miss when shooting at various distances during the stress of actual confrontations with criminals.

Even within a range of 6 feet or less, the police miss more often than they hit -- 57 percent of the shots at that distance miss and 43 percent hit.

As you might expect, there are even fewer hits at longer distances. At 75 feet -- which is less than the distance from first base to second base -- only 7 percent of the shots hit.

Moreover, just because a shot has hit does not mean that it is now safe to stop shooting.

First of all, this is not like an arcade game, where lights go on when you hit something. Depending on where the shot hit, the policeman who is firing may have no idea whether he has hit the criminal or not.

With the adrenalin pumping, the criminal himself may not be aware that he has been hit, if it is not a serious wound.

Even if the policeman knows that his shot has hit the criminal, the real question is whether the hit has rendered the criminal no longer dangerous. If the bad guy is still capable of shooting back, it is no time for the cop to stop firing, because his life is still in danger.

When there is more than one policeman on the scene, there is no reason for any of them to keep track of how often the others have fired. After it is all over, it may turn out that 30 or 40 shots were fired at the criminal.

But so what? It is very doubtful that the criminal has been hit 30 or 40 times.

Only part of the problem is that many people have no idea of the capabilities and limitations of different kinds of guns, much less how much difference it makes if the shooter is in the safety of a firing range or in the stress of a life and death battle. What is a bigger and wider problem is that too many people feel no hesitation to go spouting off about things they know nothing about.

People who have never run even a modest little business assert with great certainty and indignation that heads of multinational corporations are paid much more than they are worth. People who know nothing about medicine and nothing about economics unhesitatingly declare that pharmaceutical drugs cost too much.

Maybe all this is a product of the "self-esteem" taught in our schools, instead of the academic subjects in which American children trail children from other countries.


Thomas Sowell

Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institute and author of The Housing Boom and Bust.

Creators Syndicate