Emotional Control in a Gunfight

Mexican Police--Los Zetas

Admin Note: this article is written by a veteran police officer who currently serves as a SWAT Training Cadre Member in a large metropolitan department in California. He has been involved in 6 officer-involved shootings, all successfully resolved.  The question this officer addresses is the following: “How do you keep your emotions under control during the stress of a gunfight?”  One of the keys to emotional control is maintaining a strong “situational focus.”

 The Need for Ongoing Assessment

How do you keep your emotions under control during the stress of a gunfight?  That’s a tough one.  That’s one of the key elements to a successful resolution.  I think most people have asked themselves, “What would I do, if this happens to me?”  There’s no way of knowing until you are in that moment.  When the time comes to press the trigger, there are no certainties. 

There are many factors to consider and process in short amount of time.  By the time you make the decision to shoot, the circumstances can change.  The decision to shoot has to be an ongoing assessment.  You will be in an excited state.  I have talked to over a hundreds of people that have been in shootings.  It is definitely an adrenaline rush.  The consequences of reacting too slow versus acting too quick can be a life changer.  React too slowly and you or the person you are trying to save can die.  React too quick and you can find yourself in a courtroom as a defendant.

My First Experiences

 I have 4 years of training in the US Marine Corps and over 20 years as a police officer.  I was in Desert Storm.  I crossed into Kuwait for the short 3 day ground war.  We encountered Iraqi soldiers, but they were waiting for us to take them prisoners.  The closest I came to shooting someone was when we first encountered the Iraqi soldiers.  I had them in the sights of my M16a2 rifle, until we determined that they did not want to fight.  I give us a lot of a credit during that time.  No one in my unit was out of control or did anything you might have seen in a Hollywood movie.  Our main concern was to make it back home together. 

The 1st shooting I was involved in was when I had 2.5 years on the police department.  My partner and I responded to a fight call.  3 men were supposedly beating up a man.  We arrived at the location and I saw 3 men walking across the street.  One of the men was holding a revolver in his hand.  I immediately notified my partner of the gun, stopped the police car and deployed with my gun drawn on the man with the gun.  I yelled out, “Police, drop the gun.”  When the men saw my partner and me, they ran and took cover behind a car.  They were now out of my sight.  I had decent cover, but was at a disadvantage because of my position.  I didn’t want to redeploy at that moment, because I was afraid of losing sight of where the suspects were.  I gave out orders, “Show me your hands.  Come on out.”  After a few seconds the two men that were with the man with the gun stood up with their hands up and began to walk away from us.  My partner yelled out, “I got them.” 

I maintained my focus on the man with the gun.  He was still behind the car.  I had no eyes on him.  I kept yelling out, “Put your hands up.”  My attention was redirected elsewhere for a second and when I refocused, the man with the gun popped up with the gun pointing in my direction.  I fired.  My round missed, but it did cause the man to drop his gun and raise his hands.  The situation was resolved.

The Moment of Firing

I remember the moment I fired.  The first words that came into my mind were, “oh fuck.”  My heart was beating a mile a minute.  I fired instinctively.  My training and experience was limited.  It wasn’t the first time I pointed a gun at someone, but it was the first time I shot.  I was in a heightened state before the shooting, but even more so after.  Surreal describes it best.  I had thought about this moment for years.  The training given to me in the police department didn’t really prepare very well for something like this.  I am not sure if my tactics instructors had ever been involved in a shooting.  No one described to me what the emotions were going to be.  It took me a half second to come back into the situation.  A half second in a gunfight can be a lifetime.   I was mad at myself for not maintaining focus.  I gave the guy with the gun a half second to react.

Situational Focus

This was a lesson learned for me and it is a lesson I pass on to other officers.   You have to keep your emotions in check and keep your situational focus, without letting yourself get distracted.  It is definitely easier said than done.  Any lapse is an opportunity for your opponent to use against you.  I tell people to worry about what you can control.  I am not in control of my opponent.  I can influence him by the things I do or say, but the decision for his reaction is ultimately his.  Maintaining control of your emotions comes from experience. 

We are all unique.  My timeframe is different from everyone else.  The more exposure you have to gunfights, the more confidence you will achieve.  Training also helps.  Scenario based and force on force training is the best.  But realize its limitations.  Simunitions and airsoft are not going to kill you intentionally.  There is no way of replicating the fear and excitement of a real gunfight. 

Summary

I have been involved in a total of 6 shootings.  I have come a long way from the first shooting.  I have seen brand new officers killed as well as the most experienced.  Their killers have ranged from juveniles who got a lucky shot off—to hardened parolees who trained in prison to kill the police. 

I don’t take anything for granted.  I try to be aware of my situation and my options at all times.  I live my life as a normal person on the outside, but inside my brain is constantly assessing.

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