Hostage with gun to the head: just shoot the bad guy?

You’ve seen it- bad guy grabs innocent bystander and sticks the gun to (most often) the woman’s head. “Stay back or I’ll shoot!”

Should the cops just shoot the bad guy in the head quickly? Or could that cause the gun to go off? Snipers are pretty good, and I would think that the chances of missing the bad guy and accidentally hitting the woman are pretty slim. Or at least better than waiting for the bad guy to develop a sense of morality.

What is the policy for situations like that? Are police required to try and talk the person into giving up, or are they authorized to blow them away, if given an opportunity?

Aside: Remember Robocop and the woman in this situation? “Ma’am, please spread your legs.” and then he shoots the guy through her skirt. I thought that was funny…


I’ve talked to a police officer about this, and according to him almost any shot can cause the gun to go off, except, for some reason, a shot hitting the bad guy straight in the throat. This is difficult.

Snipers are good, but the bad guy is not going to stand still, and nor is the hostage, in all probability. No matter how good a shot you are, you can’t predict the bad guy’s movements.

Also, life is not a movie. Policemen tend not to kill people if they can avoid it. Most police officers go through life never having to fire a gun at another human being, and they’re perfectly happy that way. While James Bond blows people away without giving it a second thought, your average police officer has a conscience.

Finally, there are legal hassles. The police (at least in Sweden) has to write an exhaustive report about every single bullet they fire in the line of duty. Neither are you immune to prosecution just because you’re a policeman. If you kill someone, there’ll be an investigation. If it was uncalled for, you’re going to jail.

These four factors combine to making negotiation an option preferable to violence.

Shoot the hostage.

Pop quiz…

Even a head shot has a pretty good chance of causing the shootee to relfexively clench, jerk or spasm his muscles, all of which could set the gun off… and any shot short of one right through your head is not guaranteed to kill you instantly, and a wounded suspect might start shooting.

It’s just my subjective impression, but when you think about it, MOST hostage situations of this sort are resolved with the hostages being rescued. Almost every time I hear about this sort of thing, the hostage gets rescued; it’s unusual, although it does happen from time to time, to hear about the hostage being killed. The typical police tactic of stalling and “negotiating” while waiting for the suspect to either let his guard down or just give up usually works, and with the added (and not insignificant) benefit of frequently sparing the life of the suspect. So why would they deviate from this strategy? It’s a good one.

plus there is always, from the suspects point of view, the fact that if they kill the hostage they lose their only bargaining chip. The police can use this fact to help defuse the situation.

Excellent responses above…

In some cases, however, it depends on the goals of the bad guys in question, particularly terrorists. Things would get particularly dicey for the hostages, for example, in cases involving nuclear facilities and/or weapons.

As a Navy midshipman (many years ago), I was temporarily assigned to a ballistic missile submarine at an overseas port. I was told in no uncertain terms that if terrorists ever attempted to take control of the submarine, and I found myself taken hostage, that I was to do my best to get away. I was told that there would be no negotiations in such a situation. Any “rescuers” would do their best not to target hostages, but they would not go out of their way to protect them, either, as they eliminated the terroristic threat.

This made perfect sense to me. A handful of hostages is of little consequence compared to terrorists getting their hands on nukes.

It also pretty much sinks the plot of movies such as Under Siege. We would never allow terrorists to keep control of nuclear weapons. The battleship in the movie would have been retaken in short order, regardless of any hostages. If need be, it would have been sunk. (Yes, I know there were many other problems with the movie as well.)

WAG is that such a shot severs the spinal cord above the shoulders, preventing any neuron firings from reaching the hand and reflexively causing a trigger pull.

A shot to the head does not sever the spinal cord and would not necessarily prevent a reflexive action of the arms or hands.

That a huge difference between police officers and military, in my opinion. Cops try not to shoot and work for a peaceful solution. There is no MOS for Negotiator that I am aware of.

My personal favorite is the last scene in 48 HRS where Nick Nolte shoots the guy holding a gun to Eddie Murphy’s head. IIRC the first shot didn’t kill the guy but he was so shocked to actually get shot he didn’t kill Murphy.