- There is no one in our sight that is an imminent threat to us; therefore we are not justified in shooting, and our muzzles should be depressed. Examples: searching a school hallway for an active shooter with no shooter in sight (we don't want muzzles pointed at the innocent students), entering on a drug raid with no threat in sight (there are often innocents and children in these places), challenging a suspect who we believe is not armed and we can see his hands, challenging a suspect who isn't armed and there's a gun on a table six feet away.
- There is someone in our sight that is an imminent threat to us; therefore we are justified in shooting, and our muzzles can be on the suspect. We are only muzzling them because we have decided not to shoot them at this instant, even though we are justified in doing so. (There are good reasons for not shooting someone every time we're justified.) Examples: a person with a gun in his waistband and his hand near it, or someone threatening us with a knife at a short distance. Our reasons not to shoot in these instances are based on the totality of the circumstances, our feelings about the suspect's intent and a host of other real-world factors. Hopefully our decision not to shoot is also influenced because we are challenging the suspect from behind cover or are otherwise mitigating the risk.
- The in-between place. What about those times where there is no imminent threat, thus arguing for muzzle depression, but we believe it entirely possible that one could appear in an instant? These are the hard calls, and I believe we have to resort to common sense and the totality of the circumstances in making a decision. For example, raiding the headquarters of your regional MS-13 chapter probably warrants a muzzle forward entry more than serving an arrest warrant on a check kiter. That's why many of the very high-end teams, such as the FBI's HRT (last I knew), train in the muzzle-forward approach - the kind of calls they are likely to get may warrant it. On the other hand, one high-profile anti-terrorist national-asset organization that I'm aware of embraces the muzzle-depressed doctrine until you are justified in shooting. These are tough calls, to be sure.
What the military calls collateral damage is known in the civilian world as negligence or murder, and there are consequences. There are some times where an innocent life is taken by a law enforcement officer and there is no fault - it's just a tragic alignment of the stars. But as professionals, we need to do all we can, within the boundaries of prudent and responsible risk management for all parties involved, to avoid an accidental shooting. If our guns are out, I believe that the general rule should be that we keep our muzzles depressed unless:
- There is an imminent threat (we are justified in shooting)
- We are startled or come upon by a potentially deadly threat (we probably can't help doing this)
- The likelihood of a truly deadly threat instantly appearing at any moment is high and there are no innocents endangered by our muzzles up.
P.S. In this article, I have referred to a muzzle depressed position as the safe position for an unholstered gun to be in when there is no imminent threat. The high muzzle position (or high ready position) is favored by some very highly experienced people, but for the purposes of this article it is probably not as safe, particularly if the officer falls. The undoubtedly hot debate over which position - depressed or high ready - is tactically better in what circumstances and why, we leave to another day.