Cowboy Hero Syndrome

Back in the 1940s and 50s the Lone Ranger, Roy Rogers, Gene Autry and others were the cowboy heroes. If a good guy was about to be hanged, the Lone Ranger would ride in and shoot the rope and the good guy was saved. Or Roy Rogers would shoot the gun out of the hand of a bad guy and the gun fight would end.

So, why doesn’t law enforcement do that today? Why not shoot the gun out of the hand of a bad guy? Or shoot her in the arm? Or in the legs? That would stop him, wouldn’t it?

The answer to those questions was clearly shown in the “Shoot/Don’t Shoot” session I attended and participated in at the Writers’ Police Academy.

The instructor for this session had various videos he could show, each creating a scene where a law enforcement officer (us in this case) has to decide if shooting a suspect is necessary or not and sometimes even which person to shoot. There were seven other men and women in the session with me, and we were each given a different scenario. The “gun” we used during our turn weighed about what a real gun would weigh and was set up with a laser so when the trigger was pulled, the laser would hit (or miss) the target as a real bullet would. If we missed and the “bad guy” shot us, the scene would immediately end. We were dead.

We were told to aim for the head or throat since a bullet there would immediately end the threat. Our second best area would be the chest. A bullet there wouldn’t end the threat as quickly, but would stop the shooter who would eventually die. He said hitting hands/arms even legs was not easy since these body parts moved so much. And even if a bullet hit the upper arm, disabling that arm, the shooter could switch the gun to his (or her) other hand and keep shooting. A shot to the legs might put the shooter down, but wouldn’t stop the person from continuing to shoot.

ALSO, and I felt this was the most important point he made, if you shoot for the hand or arm (which is usually a moving target) and miss, that bullet is going to keep going. Who are you going end up injuring or killing behind the shooter? When a person is under stress, adrenaline takes over and the hand isn’t as steady. Even aiming for center mass—the chest—doesn’t guarantee those bullets will hit that target.

The instructor went through a scene first to show us what to expect. We saw the bad guy holding a gun by his side and the instructor repeatedly told the man to put his gun down. The bad guy kept walking closer, still holding the gun by his side. Finally the bad guy raised the gun and the instructor shot, “killing” the bad guy.

One of the men in my session asked the instructor how many shots he fired. The instructor said he thought 3. He then ran the scene backwards and we could see where each shot landed. The instructor was surprised to discover he’d shot 5 times.

After that, we each had a chance to participate. What was interesting was even though I knew this was just a mock situation, I was nervous. My man had a shovel and a nasty attitude. He kept walking toward me, telling me to “Get back in your car. Leave me alone.” I finally shot him when he raised the shovel to hit me. I aimed for center mass and hit him once in his shoulder. My other shots hit the ground and a picnic table. My bad guy fell to the ground, but the instructor told me I waited too long and the guy probably got me. I’m not sure about that.

My take away from this session

1. When you hear a police officer shot someone with a gun ten or twelve times, that officer probably has no idea he shot that many times, that it was the stress of the situation that kept her pulling the trigger.

2. Deciding when to shoot and when not to shoot is not easy.

3. Shooting the gun out of a person’s hand is almost impossible under most situations, even harder under stress, and potentially puts “innocents” surrounding the shooter in danger.

4. Real life isn’t like those old time cowboy movies. A police officer can’t have a retake of the scene until the rope breaks or he actually manages to shoot the gun out of the villain’s hand.

Tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

24 Responses to Cowboy Hero Syndrome

  1. Mary R says:

    Thanks Very informative and answered my big questions as to why so many shots were fired at the bad guys.

    • Maris Soule says:

      Thanks, Mary. I’ve always had the same question, but I can now understand how the adrenaline (and an element of fear) can keep the officer pulling that trigger.

  2. Melissa Keir says:

    What a powerful example of what it takes to take someone down. I’d love to do this one year! So much great information!

  3. I did Shoot, Don’t Shoot at WPA too and at the end of one shooting, they asked the woman next to me and myself how many bullets we’d fired and we both said one. We’d actually emptied out weapons.

  4. Now I know. Thanks so much for this information that answers my thoughts about shootings and makes sense.

    • Maris Soule says:

      I know how nervous I felt, Irene, when I knew I had to stop the guy with the shovel. I can’t even imagine if it had been a real situation and stopping that man from hitting me might have meant actually saving my life.

  5. Jacqueline Seewald says:

    This is very informative, Maris. It’s important and I appreciate you sharing it with us.

  6. Really interesting, Maris. Thanks for sharing.

  7. Very interesting, Maris! Sounds like a great session.

  8. Shoot, Don’t Shoot was the session that had the biggest impact on me, Maris. It was there that my paradigm shift occurred and I came to the same conclusions you have described. I was amazed at how quickly a scenario could go south. I had been quick to judge actions taken by police, but I understand much more now. Great post.

    • Maris Soule says:

      Thanks, Betty. As I said, even I have wondered often why so many shots need to be fired after the suspect is already down. Carrie Nichols, in a comment above, said it perfectly.

  9. HiDee Ekstrom says:

    Interesting! Thanks for sharing, Maris!

    • Maris Soule says:

      My pleasure, HiDee. I would love to do one of those activities again. It really helped me understand how a person (at least me) feels in a life or death situation.

  10. Carole Price says:

    Thanks, Maris, for answering my question about why so many shots fired at bad guys. I could have asked the officers at our PD where I’m a volunteer. Never seemed the right time.

    • Maris Soule says:

      That would be a difficult question to ask, Carole, without sounding as if you’re criticizing them. The Shoot/Don’t Shoot experience was a good way to SHOW rather than TELL.

  11. Caroll says:

    Great post. Thanks