When Good Habits Kill

On the shooting range a couple weeks ago, I struggled with ammo feed through my little pocket of power .380. Hangup — good shot — failure to feed. Maybe the pistol, which is relatively new, just needs a few hundred rounds run through it, or maybe I hadn’t cleaned and oiled it properly, or maybe the semi-wadcutters I was firing weren’t powerful enough to cycle the small pistol’s action.

As I withdrew an empty magazine, stored it in my jacket pocket and inserted a loaded magazine, my shooting buddy asked if I’d heard about the cops that got shot recently in California. I hadn’t heard, but I knew that of the 900,000 or so law enforcement officers serving in the U.S. at any one time, on average, 150 die while on duty each year: gunshots, traffic accidents and so on.

Seems that a couple of policemen were too slow, too methodical in responding to a street fight and some gangbanger got the better of them. Now, I haven’t researched this story (and I’m not entirely sure that it is true), but the way my buddy explained it, it made sense and carried a grain of truth.

When we shoot in practice, on the range, we’re exceptionally careful. We’re attentive to range procedure and commands. We police our brass. We point the muzzle downrange, whether we believe the gun is loaded or not, and keep our finger carefully away from the trigger until given an instruction such as, “Commence firing” or, “The range is hot.” When we finish with one magazine, with the barrel in the air and hand off the trigger, we eject it, place it in our pocket and carefully insert another magazine, all the while being cautious about the direction of the muzzle.

This procedure makes good sense on the range and in a group, in competition or just in a friendly shooting environment. It’s all part of the essential rules of safety that the USCCA and the NRA promote; preach. And for good reason: Nobody wants to get shot accidentally when out plinking.

According to my shooting buddy, however, the tragedy in California unfolded when the cops responded to a bad situation in a range-satisfactory manner. Instead of moving to cover and simply dropping their spent magazines on the street, they paused to pick up the empties and store them in their pockets. After all, that’s how they trained; that was the correct procedure at the firing range … and it became habit. My friend said that’s when they each took a bullet.

In a “gunfight” — which sounds Wild West and glamorous, but is indeed over very quickly with pain and running and blood on the ground or running feet followed by shaking and nightmares — you can’t be governed by habit, by range-satisfactory thinking. (The famous “Gunfight at the OK Corral” only lasted 30 seconds.) In a real gunfight, things happen very fast and in a very deadly manner and some of the things that you learn and practice on the shooting range are positively a hindrance to heading home safely. One of them is stopping to pick up an empty magazine.

The “Gunfight at the OK Corral” took place in Tombstone, Arizona Territory in 1881. It took place at close range, 6-10 feet, and lasted a mere 30 seconds; three men died and three were wounded. This gunfight has grown in the popular imagination and symbolizes an era of American history. If you’re in a gunfight, it will probably be over in seconds. Don’t let static, habitual range-satisfactory thinking kill you.

Unless you are a one-in-a-million reactor (even well-trained military and law enforcement are sometimes caught by surprise and find that, in the excitement of the instant, they can’t shoot straight), it may be a life-saving practice to carry a spare magazine. Sure, needing it is perhaps a one-in-a-million chance, but the U.S. has nearly 350 million residents and is growing. With a flood of immigrants who refuse to accept our values, with no effective way to treat mental illness and with a federal law enforcement culture that identifies potential terrorists only after they have gone on a rampage, that moment might one day be yours.

So go to the range and train and shoot, and then practice scenarios at home, but when the moment comes, if it ever comes, don’t let static training and habit kill you. Practice rapid magazine release and fresh magazine insertion.

I imagine that what is tough at first is that you take your eyes off an imaginary perp to locate and orient and insert the new magazine. Practice with eyes closed or in a dark room? Sure. Maybe asking a spouse to yell at you (shouldn’t be hard) while flashing the room lights on and off, and playing your kid’s loudest rap music while changing magazines and learning to keep eye contact with a home invader while you’re moving or in an odd position is a good exercise and one you can develop and practice at home. At least, I know two California cops who would have benefited from this type exercise.