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“Why not just shoot ’em in the leg?”

In debates over police use of force, it’s only a matter of time until someone — invariably with little firearms experience and certainly with none in a “real-world” context — interjects with this prescription. At a recent ABC News town hall, former Vice President Joe Biden deployed the familiar “shoot ’em in the leg” refrain as a proposed alternative to a “shoot to kill” approach against charging assailants. Months earlier, Vice President Biden had offered similar advice to police faced with knife-wielding subjects, recommending they “shoot ’em in the leg instead of the heart.”

It’s neither a secret nor a surprise that loose talk about potential life-or-death confrontations drives cops nuts. Police carry firearms to counter immediate, serious, and violent threats to the public’s safety or their own. Discharging their service weapon is no trivial matter and is undertaken expressly to neutralize the perceived threat. That means aiming at center mass, not targeting moving extremities. Doing otherwise would dramatically increase the already not-insubstantial odds of missing altogether, hitting bystanders, or failing to incapacitate the suspect even if wounded.

But there’s a more important issue at stake than understanding how guns work or the physiological response to violent encounters.

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