Warning Shots: Fire Them At Your Own Peril

By Harold F. Callahan

“Sarge”, the Constable began, “you wont believe this haas (civilian) I was talking to.” I remember looking up, hoping upon hope this might be slightly more interesting than checking the charge office registers at 3am. “What?” I offered a bit more excited than I felt. This response seemed to offer the young man more enthusiasm for his story than I intended.He was the type of kid who looked way too young to be a policeman. One of those cases where even after a year out of some pretty serious training, he still looked like a school kid playing dress up in his dad’s uniform. We called him “Soup” due to his skinny figure. Soup-bones. No meat on him. The white-blonde hair slightly longer than I thought was appropriate was comically offset with his desperate intermittent attempts to grow a moustache. After a month Soup managed to produce about three platinum hairs. I’d catch him in the passage sometimes, pretending to be examining the glassed-in portrait of General JBM Hertzog, when in fact I know he was using the reflection to try spot a new recruit to his upper lip. It broke his heart two weeks ago when I told him to be clean shaven by the next shift.

Warrant Officer Cutter was dozing in his chair under a copy of Die Beeld. He snored with that “ggggggg-brrrrrrrrr” sound that pushed just enough air to lift the newspaper but not enough to blow it off his chest. Because he was out of it I didn’t bother correcting the Constable into addressing me as Sergeant. I screwed the cap back onto my pen and made a mental note to buy more red ink. My empty coffee cup was just out of reach so I made deliberate eye movements between it and Soup, who looked like he was about to pop. Luckily he caught-on and leant over the fingerprint block, pushing the kettle plug into the wall. I nodded for Soup to continue.

He eagerly spooned ingredients into my cup without rinsing it out first. “You know I went to the attempted housebreaking now, right?” I nodded. “So this guy meets us in the driveway with this bloody revolver in his hand.” He glanced at the snoozing Cutter who still held anything that carried a magazine in utter contempt. “He says his dogs woke up with someone in his yard. He claims he saw something and was kakking himself ‘cos he said he fired a warning shot.” I passed him the Cremora tin I had stashed in my desk. “And…?” I asked. “Well he didn’t know what he hit. Even after gooing lood he admitted he didn’t know if he was allowed to do that or not or if he was supposed to give a warning shot. I took my boiling hot cup from Soup and asked, “So what did you say?” “I told him he’s bloody lucky I didn’t lock him up for disturbing the peace!”

“Soup,” I hissed, pulling my mouth back from the burning rim, “please tell me that’s not all you said.” His bright eyes darkened and his grin dropped. “Um, what should I have said, Sarge?”

“Sergeant,” Growled Cutter from under his paper, “please educate Constable Lategaan.”

“Yes Warrant.” I replied sharply, and indicated with a sideways nod that we were going to talk out on the patio.

Before that night, and countless times afterwards, I’ve been presented with almost the same scenario. When we adopted a new Constitution some years after that night, I had to slightly adjust the advice. The core message was the same however. The topic comes up from firearm owners and non-owners and essentially asks whether it is good manners, lawful or compulsory to take a warning shot, or even if it is discouraged.

The answer is not as simple as a yes or no, do or don’t do. We first have to cover several factors which must encompass the law, the situation you are in, the readiness of your firearm, and the safety aspect of letting loose. Let’s look at the factors one by one.

Weather you have owned and handled firearms for fifty years or have never touched one, the primary rule under law is you do not pull a trigger of a firearm (in self-defence) unless your life or another human life is under mortal threat or that threat is imminent. That’s the law, friends. I don’t care if you like it or agree with it. If you don’t you have three options. Sell your firearms now. Choose to obey the law. Choose to disobey the law. By the way we have a name for people who disobey or break laws. Similarly, laws carry a feature of equal application. Despite what you think or believe they apply to everyone. A court doesn’t accept a defence of “ah but there are worse people out there hey”.

Another, despite what you think or your Castle Lager experts tell you, there is no compulsion under any law to fire a warning shot. You do not have to fire a warning shot before a (for lack of better word) “kill” shot. There is no charge of any higher “intention” to kill if you do not fire a warning shot. Using a firearm is lethal force, weather you miss, wound or kill with one shot.

Lastly, smile, nod and vacate the vicinity of the expert who tells you to shoot the person first and then fire some rounds into the ceiling/bush/ground etc. Even higher ranked experts might tell you to shoot the (now dead or dying) person again in a less lethal spot to show you didn’t mean to kill him at first. This qualification is available from the same school as “if you shoot him outside, drag him in, and, after you’ve shot him, put a knife in his hand.” Both Masters and PhD level degrees.

Read this following statement carefully and as many times as you like: If your life or another human life is in danger you may use your firearm immediately as lethal force to stop that attack.

If you expect to be called and be counted among the “good guys” you have to behave like one. You do not fire a warning shot because someone is running away with a leaf blower on his shoulder. You do not fire a warning shot because a bag has been snatched. Why I’m making this “no negotiation” statement is simply because when I haven’t, I’ve been literally assaulted with every possible scenario under the sun. So, here I ask pre-emptively, where exactly are you when this warning shot is fired? Your garden, street, a car park, shopping mall? Are you being hijacked or is a suspect in your house? How close is the suspect to you? What is he armed with? How many innocent people are around? What is the nature of surfaces around you that your bullet may strike? Where is that bullet going to eventually stop? The fact is you don’t know any of those answers for sure, so you stick to one rule.

I swear to you now, the biggest falsehood I’ve ever heard is “don’t bring a knife to a gun fight”. I assure you, if you believe that statement, you have never been in a knife fight. You do not get to choose the proximity of the bad guy when you are attacked. I go back to my scenario of having the time and space to cock your firearm rolling around on your bedroom floor. Now someone wants to tell me I apparently should fire a warning shot, just in case the bad guy is suddenly overcome with the realisation of your seriousness and surrenders. In a dynamic attack, it is very, very unlikely you will ever have the time to fire a warning shot, so my sincere advice is to completely forget it, and exclude it from your plan. Your one and only focus must be to get your firearm out and hit what you need to hit to save your or another human life immediately. People, this readiness does not come from standing on a nice range and pumping magazine after magazine into a cardboard target at prescribed distances. It comes from proper training and readiness to respond appropriately to a threat. Outside of the Castle Lager expert opinions, in the real world you either survive or you don’t.

You may remember when I covered condition of firearm carry, the question of legality or choice of carrying a round chambered. (In case you forgot, it’s completely your choice.) Have you tried drawing, cocking and shooting from the hip in a hurry? I’m sure some of the IPSC and IDPA guys will nod knowingly and think they are pretty good at that. Unfortunately, a nice Weaver stance with your hands punched out in front of you is no good if I am standing on your toes. What I will say, is no matter your firearm condition or how fast you draw, aim and shoot, in the world, there is no time or space for a warning shot.

Now I’m going to get deadly serious. Every bullet fired travels in a pretty much straight line until it is acted upon by another force. It is propelled by the burning powder in the line the barrel was pointing and the moment it leaves the barrel it succumbs to drag, the air density in front of it, and gravity. (Newton’s Laws of Motion in the Principae Mathimatica in the original Latin for clarity) All the prayers, tears and best wishes will not make a bullet take mercy on you and halt its predetermined path. In simple language it will hit what you aimed it at.

It is almost assured someone will ask, “What about ‘soft earth’?”.

I say, do you really know what’s under that earth? And then go back to where I said you simply cannot have a separate plan for every terrain and environment. Soft earth in a parking lot? By the time you look for a convenient tree to come free of running people or a flower bed, the fight is over. And you’ve lost. If you haven’t been near one, ricochets are nasty things. Surely you recall the absolute basics of what you would have learned when you did your competency training, that you have to know what your target is and that includes what is beyond your target. A 9mm bullet will travel between 300 and 610 metres per second depending on the load. Depending on the elevation you fire at, that’s a lot of rugby pitches very quickly before it gets tired and comes back towards ground. Sorry, um, what were are you aiming at for that warning shot? Do you really want an innocent life on your hands because you were careless with a trigger pull, or you wanted to express your anger and frustration?

Let me talk from personal, on the street, experience here. I’ve had myself and colleagues shot at because stupids fire into bush upon “hearing noises” or into parks because they “saw a shadow”. Tell me how do we differentiate a crook we are tracking by dog from an asshole neighbourhood watch patroller who thinks he’s Rambo? Let me put it out there that a) one day, Mr Jones from number 35 will die in a hail of full auto 5.56, b) Mr Goosen from number 18 will face murder charges and the full anger of the Police when he plugs my buddy. God help either of those (currently fictitious) people.

That night so many years ago, my lesson was cut short as we rushed back inside to find Warrant Cutter’s pipe had slipped from his sleeping mouth and set his Beeld on fire. What I had to conclude to him later as I found another shirt for our shift commander was that we (police) were thoroughly instructed that we would be held accountable for each and every shot we fired. That means we will be required or expected to justify our actions or decisions and be held responsible for them. Before a court if necessary. That friends, includes you too.

It’s your gun. You bought it. You learn how to use it. If you want me to retire and follow you around and make sure you don’t stuff up, my charge is R2500 a day. We are dealing with human life. If you cannot take on that responsibility or don’t think you can make a proper decision on what to do, get rid of your firearm. It takes a flash of time to kill a person. The mark of Cain is there forever.


*Harold F. Callahan is a police officer with many years of experience, and who will be gracing Gunservant (and its rebranded guise when the new site is launched) with hopefully regular and useful articles pertaining to SAPS-related information and issues.

7 thoughts on “Warning Shots: Fire Them At Your Own Peril

  1. What happens when you have an intruder in your yard trying to steal your vehicle or some property of your and you show him you aware he is there but you cant shoot a warning shot? Cos your life is not in danger but your belongings are. Is it not that you own a firearm to protect your life and your family as well as your belongings. By the time you call the cops to attend the guy is long gone…..probably over the border with your vehicle…..that how long they take to respond

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  2. Well said, if only every gun owner knew when they are allowed to pull the trigger. If warning shots were aloud and shooting to protect property was aloud (no matter how unfair, waving your car or household belongings goodbye, as it is not aloud to kill or fire a warning shot at someone over earthly goods) there would be many dead innocent people.
    The law seems to be written in such a way that at that moment just before you or your family is about to be murdered, are you then aloud to use your firearm. Sad truth, but that is the way it is.

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