Politics & Policy

Unarmed Man, Six Shots

Protesters demand murder charges against Officer Darren Wilson. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
These details are important, but not the end of the matter.

The central question in the case of Michael Brown remains as it has always been: That is, “Was Officer Wilson justified in his decision to pull the trigger?” As it stands, we cannot answer this in any useful or definitive manner — and, crucially, we should not try. We have not heard directly from the shooter himself; we do not yet have any way of determining which of the witnesses are reliable and which are not; and, in the absence of reliable testimony from those who do know what happened, we do not have the raw information that we would need in order to come to a conclusion. Thus far, everything has been mere speculation.

This being so, it has become increasingly irritating to watch those who are longing for a particular outcome begin to draw conclusions from the detritus. Over the last week or so, reports that Michael Brown was a) “unarmed” and b) shot six times have been spun in some quarters into “evidence” that suggests that his killing was either unjustified or overblown. This, I’m afraid, is a considerable mistake.

Let’s start by restating what should be palpably obvious: It is wholly possible for an “unarmed” man to pose a threat. That some people are naturally stronger than others is precisely why weaker people arm themselves, recruiting weapons to their side in order to counteract the advantage that their potential assailants enjoy. Day in, day out, across the world, men beat and abuse women with little more than their fists, sometimes fatally. In the United States alone, more than 800 people are murdered by “hands and fists” each year — twice as many as with all types of rifle. That Michael Brown was unarmed is important. But it is by no means the whole story, and it is certainly not enough to spur claims of innocence. With nothing but his own body, Brown could still have posed a mortal threat to Wilson. He could still have charged Wilson. He could still have gone for Wilson’s gun, as a handful of eyewitnesses suggest that he did. Crucially, he could still have made Officer Wilson reasonably fear for his life. Did he? We have absolutely no idea. Simply saying “he was unarmed,” however, as if it suggests that this must have been an execution? Well, that’s premature and silly.

Equally peculiar is the lamentation that six shots were fired. Providing that Wilson had cause to draw his gun — and, again, we have no idea if he did — an officer’s using six rounds during a fight is by no means abnormal or egregious, and it should not necessarily be seen as “excessive.” It is well documented that people shoot extremely poorly during emergencies; that, in the heat of the moment, shooters are unable to tell whether their rounds have hit their targets; and that panic leads a significant number of those with guns to pull the trigger repeatedly, without too much concern as to where the bullets are flying. It is also well documented that it is difficult to stop large men with a 9mm handgun unless one shoots them repeatedly. Bottom line: If — if — Wilson made the right call, then multiple shots were all but inevitable.

This is important. As a general rule, if one is justified in shooting somebody once, then one is justified in shooting them multiple times. In fact, if one’s life is genuinely in danger, one is justified in continuing to shoot at a threat for as long as that threat remains extant. Contrary to what one sees in old movies and on CNN, there is no such thing in either police or civilian self-defense protocol as “shooting to injure”; one doesn’t ever shoot a firearm at somebody unless one is prepared to kill them, and there is no abstract “ideal” or “fair” or “reasonable” number of shots that should be fired in one’s own defense. Instead, there is justified lethal force and there is unjustified lethal force. If Brown did need to be taken down in the moment, then he needed to be taken down in the moment — however many continuous rounds it took. The autopsy seems to suggest that the first four shots that Wilson fired hit Brown in the arm, and that this was not enough to incapacitate him. If this was the case, and Brown kept coming, of course Wilson kept firing: He wanted to stop his target, not placate the uninitiated.

Certainly, I have no idea what happened that day. Almost nobody does. But I do know the right question to ask. That question, as always, is not “Why did Wilson shoot Brown so many times,” but “Did Wilson need to shoot Brown at all?”

Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.

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