Huffpost Politics
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Paul Helmke Headshot

Firearms Training a Sobering Lesson

Posted: Updated:

When I was the Mayor of Fort Wayne, Indiana and we had a police-action shooting I would often be asked why the police officer didn't shoot the weapon out of the assailants' hand, or just wound them in the arm or leg, rather than shooting to kill. I would have to point out that real life was not like the movies.

In a situation involving the exchange of gunfire with a criminal suspect, police officers generally hit their target only 20 percent of the time. The most critical decision a law enforcement officer makes is whether to shoot. When the decision is made to shoot, police are trained to shoot to kill, because even that is very difficult to do.

Given how difficult this is for law enforcement officers, who are regularly trained and tested, it seems clear that it is also very difficult for private individuals. And more guns, in more inexperienced hands, are likely to make tense situations worse. Just ask Phillip Van Cleave, an experienced gun owner, how hard it is to have a successful outcome.

Van Cleave is the President of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, a gun organization that takes some positions with which I strongly disagree. But Van Cleave recently posted an account that I found very insightful, a cautionary tale about how hard it is to succeed at being a "hero." His honest account deserves to be widely read.

Van Cleave took a "force-on-force" training course, and he wrote about the scenarios the class went through, and he pointed out that they mostly didn't come out too well. In the latest installment, Van Cleave wrote "gun fights tend to be very, very fast. They're best avoided altogether. Even if you do everything right, you still might lose."

Here is his tale of a simulated gunfight in a convenience store:

I slowly and quietly sliced to my left. The closet door was my safety shield.

Suddenly I spotted him. Actually, I caught only a glimpse of my opponent: his foot and part of his leg. He was about five feet away on the other side of the door, just in front of one of the other closets.

Great. Now that I know where he is, now what?

Do I rush him, firing, risking running straight into a volley of bullets? Do I run into the room at an angle and open fire? While I would be harder to hit while moving, it would be harder for me to hit the bad guy, too.

Do I step forward past the door for a clear shot and open fire, trying to stay behind that door as much as possible? That seemed my safest option, even though it left me relatively stationary with partially obscured vision.

Whatever I was going to do, I knew I had to act quickly. If he'd spotted me, there was nothing to keep him from jumping out from behind that door and blasting me as I was considering my options.

I stepped out from behind concealment to get a clean shot, still trying to stay somewhat behind the closet door.

When I had him in sight, I opened fire. So did he.

The exchange had just begun when I saw an explosion of blue in front of my right eye (remember I am wearing a protective face mast). It was over for me. I took my face mask off in disgust. Had that been a real scenario, I would have been be lying on the floor, dead.

Equally sobering: I hadn't hit the bad guy even once.

I know Phillip Van Cleave is still a strong believer in gun rights. But his story should be a cautionary lesson. After tragedies like the recent one in Manchester, Connecticut, when a disgruntled employee shot and killed eight coworkers, there are usually comments from the gun love community about how the tragedy could have been avoided if only someone else there had been armed.

Many of those who collect guns passionately, and wear them concealed wherever they can, think they are ready for a showdown, and ready to be a hero, if any criminal pulls out a gun. To them I say read about Van Cleave's experiences.

Like everything else in life, matters don't always turn out as we'd like, or as we plan. And sometimes, a would-be hero just makes matters worse.

Register To Vote