It was something out of a movie or TV show. A suicidal man who was about to shoot himself with a .38 revolver was saved by a SWAT sniper. The sharpshooter removed the pistol from his seated target’s hand with a single shot from a .308 rifle. His team members then swarmed in and took the hapless soul into custody without incident or injury.
But it wasn’t a movie and it wasn’t a TV show. This was a real SWAT operation conducted by the officers of a Midwest agency, and the shot that disarmed this potential suicide by cop was heard throughout the law enforcement sniper community.
Everywhere, snipers, tactical commanders, and departmental administrators watched the videotape of this incident and debated the pros and cons of the instantly controversial tactic. Some were impressed and they felt it was a tactic that merited practice and consideration. Others took a more skeptical stance, recognizing the dangers inherent in this course of action.
The shot, that day, was absolutely perfect. That .308 round was fired from 65 yards away and struck the revolver at precisely the right point. The weapon broke apart and was rendered inoperable.
More importantly, the subject was unharmed. However, it should be noted that that was a function of chance rather than the sniper’s skill. If you watch the tape of the incident in slow motion, you can clearly see a large piece of metal rip a large hole in the front leg of the subject’s chair. That shrapnel could have just as easily sliced into his leg.
Of course, the people responsible took full credit for the success of their operation. The sharpshooter says he knew exactly where to strike the weapon to make it inoperable and send the parts in a safe direction.
Admittedly, this was a good shot, and it accomplished the intended goal. However, do we realistically attribute this to skill, luck, or a fortuitous blend of both? And is shooting a gun out of a subject’s hand really a reasonable tactical option?
During SWAT Night at my agency’s Citizen’s Police Academy, I showed a tape of this incident. Afterward, I asked the students what they thought of the tactic. Across the board, everyone enthusiastically supported it, saying what a great idea it was, and commenting on how clever reaction by the police saved a life.
I then showed them the other side of the coin. The support quickly evaporated.
What else could have happened? On another day, with another marksman shooting at another weapon, how might the story have ended? This particular incident was highly publicized, appearing in local and national news reports. However, other less-publicized incidents have met with less perfect results. More on that in a minute.