Often, I hear someone who carries, or is considering carrying a firearm for self-defense say, “I don’t think I could kill someone, but I would shoot them in the leg.” Or after a shooting they ask “Why did they have to kill them? Why didn’t they just shoot them in the leg.” This has been repeated over and over again to the point that some people seem to believe that shooting in the leg is some form of less-lethal force. In fact, Steve Nash, the NBA point guard, even expressed the same sentiment on Twitter regarding the shooting of Michael Brown after the Grand Jury declined to indict Officer Darren Wilson who fatally shot Brown back in 2014.
@shootymcz You should not be shot to death and lay in the street for 4.5 hours. Wilson could have shot him in the leg.
— Steve Nash (@SteveNash) November 25, 2014
These sentiments often come innocently from people who don’t understand self-defense and feel sympathetic towards the taking of any human life, but ultimately can be a dangerous attitude to have. To understand why it is not advisable to shoot in the leg, first let’s consider the purpose of using a firearm in self-defense. From a legal (which will vary slightly from state to state) and ethical standpoint it is pretty standard that you only use lethal force to prevent serious bodily injury or death. Simply put, the point of using lethal force is to stop lethal force. You only use it when you absolutely need to in order to prevent loss of innocent life (often this will include serious bodily injury or other forcible felonies like kidnapping or rape). This is the stuff that is worth killing for. If it is my life or the criminal’s life I’m going to fight to make sure it’s mine that survives. So if you are willing to shoot in the first place, it’ should be something that you are doing to protect your life or someone else’s.
Once you have made the decision to shoot, it is important to note that you are not shooting to kill, but are rather shooting to stop. No…this isn’t just semantics. It’s an attitude that is rooted in how we respond and act through the course of a threat. To be honest, I don’t really care if they live or die-it’s not what I’m focused on. What I do care about is if they stop the attack. The other person started the fight and I will finish it as quickly and effectively as I can. All we really care about is that they stop the threat.
In many cases, the mere presence of a firearm will stop the attack. However, there are several factors that may be present which include the influence of drugs, body armor, and/or a determined/hardened criminal, all of which can result in an attacker who continues to fight through (or doesn’t feel) the physical and mental pain of getting shot in order to continue their attack. These people do sometimes eventually die from the gunshot wound(s), but prior to their death they continued the attack. In this particular scenario, an attacker is shot, but continues their attack and still pose a threat for a time (which could mean the difference between life and death to the innocent), after which they may die.
Consider another situation where someone is shot and lives, but was incapacitated and no longer able to carry out the attack.
Considering this, and the fact that is is typically illegal to shoot someone who is no longer a threat, we should be focused on the best and most effective means of stopping the threat. So, assuming the the appearance of the gun does not deter the criminal, in order to stop the attack then the bullet needs to incapacitate them.
There are two main ways to incapacitate someone. According to a FBI report, the best way to reliably cause immediate incapacitation is shots to the Central Nervous System (CNS) in the head or neck. The second way is through the loss of blood which will reduce oxygen levels to the brain which will shut down the body. Many people teach that you should shoot at the thorax or center body mass in order to put holes through vital organs or blood vessels such as the heart, which is the best way to cause high levels of blood loss.
So where should you aim on an attacker? The answer to this is going to be dictated by the situation and your training. Center body mass is not only the largest target that contains the largest amount of blood on the human body, but it is also the easiest place to hit because it has less movement than any other part. The central nervous system is best accessed through the head or neck, which is a smaller target that moves more than the center body. And since a miss does nothing to stop the attack, this is often a shot you would take after you have tried center mass and found it to be ineffective. Consider that some reports state that Miami Dade and NYPD law enforcement officers hits suspects approximately 15-20% of their shots at 3-7 yards. When under stress, even officers can have a hard time hitting their target, so increasing the difficulty of your shot isn’t advisable, leading me to feel that center body mass shots are typically the best shots to attempt first. But there are situations that would require immediate incapacitation in which a CNS shot would be advisable.
So let’s review shots to the leg (or other extremities) in this context? The thought of some is that a shot to the leg would stop the attack without killing the attacker. However, there are a couple major flaws with this. First, there are major arteries that run through your arms and legs so it is still quite possible to kill someone with a shot to an extremity. Less likely? Yes, but still possible. Bullets are unpredictable and they often bounce around once they enter a human body, so you never quite know where it’s going to go. If you do hit the leg and miss an artery you may not stop the attack. They don’t necessarily need the use of both legs and if they have a weapon they are still able to use that weapon and continue the attack. The main problem however, is that extremities are very hard to hit. They move more than any other part of the body and are generally more thinly spread out making them harder to hit. Misses don’t stop the attack–they waste time and bullets and you are responsible for every round you fire which is now traveling past your target with the possibility of striking something beyond. You never know how many shots it will take to stop an attack, and the possibility of more than one attacker suggests that you should not waste any rounds.
Obviously, you don’t know the reaction that people will have to getting shot and bullet holes to any part of the body may be enough to stop a threat. Every self-defense shooting is different and there are no hard and fast rules, other than to win the fight. The bottom line is that if you are shooting at another person, then you are looking to stop an attack in the quickest and most effective manner. A leg is not the quickest or most effective manner. In a study done on over 2000 shootings reported in American Handgunner in 2013, headshots had a 75 percent immediate incapacitation rate, torso shots showed a 41 percent immediate incapacitation rate, and extremity shots (arms and legs) had a 14 percent immediate incapacitation rate.
Trying to shoot the hardest part of the body with the lowest rate of stoppage isn’t a good idea, especially in a stressful life threatening situation. You shouldn’t be making things more difficult for yourself and you also shouldn’t be worrying about whether or not the attacker lives or dies. You should simply be worrying about the stopping the threat. If you are not justified in killing the person then you shouldn’t be shooting them at all.