Stephen Hunter: Thoughts on Ferguson

We first got to know Stephen Hunter when he was the Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post movie critic. He is best known as a successful novelist, and he happens to know a great deal about guns. Sniper’s Honor is his new Bob Lee Swagger novel. Here he offers his reflections on the shooting incident in Ferguson and the media coverage of it. Submitted for your consideration:

So much has been written about the incident at Ferguson, Missouri, that it’s remarkable none of it is of any use. So let’s try something new.

My idea is to look at the shooting as a shooting, not as an avatar of social malaise, a tragedy or an inevitability. Instead, let’s determine what can be learned from the few facts known and considered incontrovertible. I am no expert but I do know a little about this stuff.

SUB-JP-BROWN-2-master495 The four shots that hit Michael Brown in the right arm, according to autopsy drawing provided by Dr. Michael Baden at the insistence of Brown’s own parents, penetrated the outside, leading edge of that limb, just inside the bone. Thus it seems unlikely that those shots, assuming they came directly from in front, could have penetrated the arm at those locations while maintaining a front-to-rear angle.

Try this simple test. Raise your arms. In that position, examine which surface of your arm is vulnerable to frontally incoming gunshots. Clearly, it is the inside, unless you torque your arms inward in order to make the outsides vulnerable to incoming shots, an inconceivable notion. As I see it, Brown’s arms were not up when he was shot, at least four of the six times.

Or let me put it this way. Stand naturally. Place your left forefinger on a spot you determine to equate to one of the wounds. You’ll see that it faces the front. Now, keeping the finger in place, raise the arm. NOW the spot faces the rear and the bullet direction is clearly front to rear.

Next examine the pattern of the four shots. Beginning at the thumb, they are spaced a few inches apart, in a rising line on a rightward bias, essentially climbing the arm. I see this pattern on the handgun range all the time, as do most shooters. It is a consequence of shooting quickly without aiming, a sure signature of a shooter in a panic mode (as when being charged by a much larger assailant) or someone preparing for just such a moment.

This is what happens: the gun, no matter if gripped properly in two hands or improperly in one, rises in recoil in each shot and the shooter brings it back down as he resets the trigger and fires again. But the reset is faster than the full return, so the subsequent shot is fired from a higher location; thus the bullet strikes higher. It is typical of anyone except perhaps a Special Forces professional or a full-time professional competition shooter to produce this pattern on a target when shooting fast and without aim, relying on crude instinctive reflexes instead of technique.

When I look at the shot placement in the Baden sketch, I infer the officer is firing as fast as he can pull the trigger without aiming, but merely pointing; he’s not looking at his sights (crucial to aiming) but at the man oncoming. Thus he sees he’s striking to the left margin of the target (the arm) and makes a gross correction, though he continues to place his shots more highly. His fifth shot hits the eye, the young man drops immediately and is tumbling forward when the sixth shot hits him in the top of the head. The officer was locked into the fast-fire scenario and even if he observed the effect of the fifth shot, he was unable to command his trigger finger to halt before firing the sixth.

Finally, I note that much has been made of the fact that Brown was shot six times, as if that’s somehow relevant. A man shooting in defense of his life, police officer, soldier, or citizen, will shoot until his adversary is down. Many–but not Officer Wilson–will then shoot him a couple of more times on the ground, to make certain. People who think six is “a lot” are not familiar with the speed at which a reasonably trained shooter can fire six times with a semi-automatic pistol. The answer is less than two seconds. I bet I could do it in less than one.

Thus any insistence that Michael Brown was shot with his hands up or an inordinate number of times is simply unsupportable by the known facts. It should not be assumed or repeated in any journalism that considers itself informed and unbiased. One of the saddest aspects of contemporary journalism–I worked on great newspapers for 38 years–is that almost no one on staff knows a single fact about things that go bang in the night. Some can’t tell an earplug from a rubber bullet or a semi-automatic from a full-automatic. Thus reportage on shooting incidents is always woefully flawed by ignorance and the public is ill-served, as in this disgraceful case.

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