by Lt. Col Dave Grossman (with Loren
honestly don’t know you’re doing it”
In life's small things be resolute and great
To keep thy muscle trained: know'st thou when Fate
Thy measure takes, or when she'll say to thee,
“I find thee worthy; do this deed for me”?
- James Russell Lowell
research found that 74 percent of the officers involved in a deadly force encounter
on automatic pilot. In other words, the actions
of three out of four officers in combat were done without conscious thought.
My co-author, Loren Christensen, a career police officer and world-class martial
arts instructor, with many best-selling books and video tapes on the fighting
arts, says that many veteran martial artists, highly motivated individuals who
have spent 30 or 40 years of their lives ingraining fighting techniques through
hundreds of thousands of repetitions, often find after an explosive self-defense
situation that they have no recall of what they did. Although the attacker has
been reduced to a whimpering bloody pile, the martial artists cannot recall what
they did because their responses were purely automatic.
One police officer told me of his powerful autopilot experience:
Let me tell you how powerful
this autopilot business is. I came around the corner
of this guy’s van; I’m just going to tell him to move it. I didn’t
know that he’d already killed one person. You honestly don’t know
you’re doing it. All of a sudden a gun appears in his hand. Then a hole
appears in his chest and the guy drops. My first thought was, “Whoa, somebody
shot him for me!” I actually looked over my shoulder to see who shot this
guy. Then I realized I had my gun in my hand and it was me who had shot him.
Is it possible to see a gun pointed at you, draw your own weapon and shoot without
conscious thought? Not only is it possible, in this case it is highly desirable.
Of course, his training must be state-of-the-art so that he knows instantly that
the threat is indeed a gun, and not a wallet or a cell phone.
If, however, our warriors are still using blank, man-shaped silhouettes, they
are being conditioned to shoot anyone who jumps up in front of them. Or they
may hesitate when a real armed opponent--complete with clothing, a face and a
gun--pops up in front of them, because the target they trained with did not have
these features. A far superior training tool is the photorealistic target. When
one of these pops up, revealing a life-size photo of a man holding his wallet,
the trainee does not shoot. When the next one pops up with a picture of a man
holding a gun, the trainee reacts to the deadly threat by instantly firing. On
the range, it looks like this: gun!-shoot, gun!-shoot, cell phone-don’t
shoot, gun!-shoot, gun!-shoot, wallet-don’t shoot.
Warriors don’t shoot bulls eyes. Warriors don’t shoot silhouettes.
Warriors shoot lawful, legitimate, deadly force threats. With this preferred
method, warriors develop conditioned reflexes using superior, dynamic, realistic
training to ingrain the proper response.
Whatever is drilled in during training comes out the other end in combat--no
more, no less
would make habitual, practise it; and if you would not make a thing habitual,
do not practise
it, but habituate yourself to something else."
- Epictetus (1st century A.D.)
How the Semblances of Things are to be Combated
January 2003, I went to Camp Lejeune, North Carolina,
to train the 2d Marine Division. We filled up the base
theater twice, each time giving a four-hour block of
instruction to Marines about to deploy to Iraq. As usual,
I taught them, and they taught me. One marine told me, “Colonel,
my old Gunny taught me that in combat you do not rise
to the occasion, you sink to the level of your training.”
We can teach warriors to perform a specific action required
for survival without conscious thought but, if we are
not careful, we can also teach them to do the
wrong thing. Some trainers call these “bad muscle memory” or “training
scars.” They are “scar tissue” in the midbrain that is counterproductive
to survival. One example of this can be observed in the way police officers conducted
range training with revolvers for almost a century. Because they wanted to avoid
having to pick up all the spent brass afterwards, the officers would fire six
shots, stop, dump their empty brass from their revolvers into their hands, place
the brass in their pockets, reload, and then continue shooting. Everyone assumed
that officers would never do that in a real gunfight. Can you imagine this in
a real situation? “Kings X! Time out! Stop shooting so I can save my brass.” Well,
it happened. After the smoke had settled in many real gunfights, officers were
shocked to discover empty brass in their pockets with no memory of how it got
there. On several occasions, dead cops were found with brass in their hands,
dying in the middle of an administrative procedure that had been drilled into
Stories like this would be hard to believe if you heard them in a bar. It is “passing
strange,” indeed, but after hearing about this repeatedly in personal interviews
and seeing it in scholarly research, we know that it is actually happening. In
biomechanics and kinesiology this is called the Law of Specificity. In other
words, you cannot get stronger legs by doing push-ups, you must train your specific
leg muscles to get stronger legs.
One police officer gave another example of learning to do the wrong thing. He
took it upon himself to practice disarming an attacker. At every opportunity,
he would have his wife, a friend or a partner hold a pistol on him so he could
practice snatching it away. He would snatch the gun, hand it back and repeat
several more times. One day he and his partner responded to an unwanted man in
a convenience store. He went down one isle, while his partner went down another.
At the end of the first aisle, he was taken by surprise when the suspect stepped
around the corner and pointed a revolver at him. In the blink of an eye, the
officer snatched the gun away, shocking the gunman with his speed and finesse.
No doubt this criminal was surprised and confused even more when the officer
handed the gun right back to him, just as he had practiced hundreds of times
before. Fortunately for this officer, his partner came around the corner and
shot the subject.
Whatever is drilled in during training comes out the other end in combat. In
one West Coast city, officers training in defensive tactics used to practice
an exercise in such a manner that it could have eventually been disastrous in
a real life-and-death situation. The trainee playing the arresting officer would
simulate a gun by pointing his finger at the trainee playing the suspect, and
give him verbal commands to turn around, place his hands on top of his head,
and so on. This came to a screeching halt when officers began reporting to the
training unit that they had pointed with their fingers in real arrest situations.
They must have pantomimed their firearms with convincing authority because every
suspect had obeyed their commands. Not wanting to push their luck, the training
unit immediately ceased having officers simulate weapons with their fingers and
ordered red-handled dummy guns to be used in training.
Consider a shooting exercise introduced by the FBI and taught in police agencies
for years. Officers were drilled on the firing range to draw, fire two shots,
and then reholster. While it was considered good training, it was subsequently
discovered in real shootings that officers were firing two shots and reholstering--even
when the bad guy was still standing and presenting a deadly threat! Not surprisingly,
this caused not just a few officers to panic and, in at least one case, it is
believed to have resulted in an officer’s death.
Today, in most police agencies, officers are taught to draw, fire, scan and assess.
Ideally, the warrior should train to shoot until the deadly threat goes away,
so it is best to fire at targets that fall after they have been hit with a variable
number of shots. Today, there are pneumatically controlled steel targets on which
photo realistic images are attached. The shooter might fire two rounds and the
target falls, or the exercise can be designed so the target is supposedly wearing
body armor and remains standing even after it is shot multiple times. To knock
it down, the shooter must hit it in the head. Even better, in paintball or paint
bullet training, the role players are instructed not to fall until they have
been hit a specific number of times.
You do not rise to the occasion in combat, you sink to the level of your training.
Do not expect the combat fairy to come bonk you with the combat wand and suddenly
make you capable of doing things that you never rehearsed before. It will not
There must be a continual effort to develop realistic simulations training so
the warrior develops a set of skills that will transfer to reality. One two-tour
Vietnam veteran put it this way.
Vietnam, I was always surprised to find I had done
the right thing in tight situations. I sort of went into
automatic and didn’t think about what I was doing,
or even remember it later. I'm a firm believer in training,
that dull, boring "If I have to do this one more
time I'll scream" training that every GI hates.
It lets people like me perform in combat when common
sense was telling me to run like hell.
Killing on autopilot: S.L.A. Marshall was right
hope a great man’s
memory may outlive his life half a year."
Again, whatever you train to do comes out the other end.
Self-preservation can become secondary to training. Any
natural or learned resistance to killing, any sense of
the sanctity of human life, any human emotions, any remorse
or compassion at the moment of truth, can all be overcome
and overwhelmed with training.
The subject of training to kill on autopilot, without conscious thought, was
addressed extensively in On Killing. Therefore I will only recap and update the
You may think that it is easy to kill, that a person only has to walk onto the
battlefield and he will become a killer simply because he has been ordered to.
The truth is that it is hard to get people to kill. Consider the murder rate,
which is only six per 100,000 per year. Millions of people bump against each
other every day, many of them depressed, angry, hostile and full of hate, but
only six out of 100,000 will kill. Only four per thousand even attempt to inflict
serious bodily harm and suffering (aggravated assault) in the average year. How
We learned in World War II that only 15 to 20 percent of the individual riflemen
fired their weapons at an exposed enemy soldier. If there was a leader present
ordering soldiers to fire, then almost everyone would do so. Likewise, a crew-served
weapon, with a gunner and assistant gunner fighting together, almost always fired.
But when soldiers were left to their own devices, the vast majority them, on
all sides, could not kill.
There was concern about the scholarship of these findings a few decades ago,
shortly after the death of the key researcher in the field, Brigadier General
S.L.A. Marshall. But his research has since been extensively replicated and validated.
I wrote an entry to the Oxford Companion to American Military History and three
encyclopedia entries on this topic, all peer reviewed by leading international
experts in the field.
At the end of World War II, our military leaders knew that Marshall’s findings
were true and they understood that this was not a good thing. After all, a 15
percent firing rate among our riflemen is like a 15 percent literacy rate among
our librarians. These veteran leaders understood that the low firing rate was
a problem that had to be fixed, which is exactly what they did. Twenty years
later in Vietnam the firing rate had increased to around 95 percent. There was
still a lot of “spraying-and-praying” going on, but among the individuals
who saw an exposed enemy soldier, the firing rate was up to 95 percent.
Some would argue that this dramatic increase in the firing rate in Vietnam was
a result of the M-16 weapon and the jungle environment, but this theory does
not hold up to careful evaluation, since M-1 carbines and Thompson submachine
guns in the South Pacific jungles in World War II were not more likely to be
fired than other individual weapons of that era. One of the most dramatic examples
of the value and power of this modern, psychological revolution in training can
be seen in Richard Holmes' observations of the 1982 Falklands War. The superbly
trained British forces were without air or artillery superiority and were consistently
outnumbered three-to-one while attacking the poorly trained but well-equipped
and carefully dug-in Argentine defenders. Both sides fought with similar weapons
(mostly 7.62mm NATO standard rifles) in open terrain. Superior British firing
rates (which Holmes estimated to be well over 90 percent), a result of modern
training techniques, has been credited as a key factor in the series of British
victories in that brief but bloody war.
The definitive U.S. military source, The United States Training and Doctrine
Command (TRADOC) Historical Monograph titled, “SLAM, the Influence of S.L.A.
Marshall on the United States Army” strongly defends Marshall’s observations.
His work was widely accepted at the end of World War II when our Army consisted
of a high ratio of veteran leaders who had led us through one of the greatest
wars in history. In Korea and Vietnam, Marshall was treated with the deepest
respect by men in war, and he was asked repeatedly to visit, train and study.
Were all of these military leaders wrong? Did Marshall fool all of them, and
then, somehow, a few people discovered the “truth”? Marshall may
have padded his resume in a few small areas as to his World War I experience.
He claimed that he had received a battlefield commission while he was actually
an OCS graduate after the war, although he may have been assigned to an officer’s
position prior to the training. He also claimed to be in an infantry unit while
he was really in an engineer unit, but his unit may well have been attached to
a line infantry unit. Admittedly, Marshall’s methodology does not meet
rigorous modern standards, but that does not mean that he lied. Let us hope that
our life’s work gets better treatment after we are dead and gone, than
to have a few people question our work, and everyone thereafter simply assume
that we had intentionally lied.
Basically, all that S.L.A. Marshall was saying was that some of our warriors
do not shoot in combat, and more realistic targets will raise the firing rate.
Marshall was the pioneer whose research and writing spurred warrior trainers
to change from bulls eye targets to realistic combat simulations, and who can
argue with that? We can disagree about how much of an advantage it gives us,
or exactly how much of an increase in the firing rate this kind or realistic
training has created, but today no one wants to go back to shooting at bulls
eye targets. And every time you shoot at a silhouette, or a photo realistic target,
or a video training simulator, you should take a moment to remember and thank
Today the body of scientific data supporting realistic training is so powerful
that there is a Federal Circuit Court decision which states that, for law enforcement
firearms training to be legally sufficient, it must incorporate realistic training,
to include stress, decision making, and shoot-don’t-shoot training. This
is the Tuttle v. Oklahoma decision (1984, 10th Federal Circuit Court), and today
many law enforcement trainers teach that a law enforcement agency is probably
not in compliance with federal circuit court guidance if they are still shooting
at anything other than a clear, realistic depiction of a deadly force threat.
And, again, we have S.L.A. Marshall to thank for that.
Bulls eye targets don’t shoot back
is preserved and increased by correspondent actions,—as the habit of walking,
by walking; of running, by running."
- Epictetus (1st century A.D.)
How the Semblances of Things are to be Combated
The men who fought in World War II were superb soldiers
armed with excellent weapons, but they had poor combat
training. The problem is that most of the time they were
taught to fire at bulls eye targets, as were police officers
just a few decades ago. The fundamental flaw in training
for combat this way is that there are no known instances
of any bulls eye targets ever attacking our warriors.
If we expect our warriors to be capable of using the weapons they have been issued,
they must practice on realistic simulators that replicate what they are going
to face. Men and women who served in the U.S. military since the Vietnam era
were universally taught to shoot at man-shaped silhouettes that popped up in
their field of view, thus ingraining in them a conditioned response. The stimulus
appeared and they had a split second to respond. Stimulus-response, stimulus-response,
stimulus-response. Hundreds of repetitions. When an enemy soldier popped up in
front of our troops in Vietnam, the enemy was shot and killed, reflexively, without
conscious thought. Stimulus-response. It was a revolution on the battlefield,
and any military or law enforcement organization that does not train this way
today will get their tails seriously kicked by those who do.
If you have served in the military since 1990, you have seen a transition in
training. It took only the implementation of a plain, man-shaped “E-type” silhouette
during the Vietnam era to dramatically improve the firing rate of our troops.
But now we use a pop-up target that is a three-dimensional image of an enemy
soldier. The target has a face, it wears a helmet and it is depicted holding
a rifle. It is many times more realistic than the old green silhouettes, making
it much easier for soldiers to transfer what they learn to reality.
This is an example of a principle called “simulator fidelity”. A
simulator’s fidelity refers to the degree of realism provided by a training
simulator. The higher the fidelity, the greater the transfer to reality. The
realistic images on the new shooting targets depict a face, a body and hands
that grip a weapon, all designed to train our soldiers and law enforcement officers
to react instantly to any deadly threat that pops up in front of them. It is
the same training concept used by our pilots who train extensively on state-of-the
art, highly realistic flight simulators.
Today our young warriors are performing peacekeeping operations all over the
world, and in that capacity they have precise rules of engagement, just like
law enforcement officers. With the right training and realistic simulators, killing
can become a conditioned, response that will save the lives of fighting men and
women. It is paramount, however, that they be taught to do so only under the
rules of engagement.
Violent video games and automatic pilot
habits well pursued betimes
May reach the dignity of crimes."
- Hannah More
Violent video games have been in existence for several
decades now, and many kids who played them years ago
are now in their mid- to upper- teens and even into their
20s--the exact age group of the average perpetrator our
law enforcement officers are confronting every day out
on the streets. When talking about conditioned reflexes,
we must also talk about violent video games, because
to understand how we can make killing a conditioned reflex--stimulus-response,
stimulus- response, stimulus-response--it is important
to understand how the average opponent has been trained.
This topic was outlined briefly in On Killing, and more
extensively in Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill, co-authored
with Gloria DeGaetano. Once again, I will only recap
and slightly update this information here.
Does a kid playing a violent video game shoot at blank, man-shaped silhouettes?
How about bulls-eye targets? No, he shoots at people--that is, vivid, realistic
depictions of people. The holy grail of the video game industry is realism, and
every year they get ever more realistic. The incredibly lifelike characters bleed,
twitch, sweat, beg, fall, and die, all before the eyes of the very impressionable
Today’s video games offer a completely different type of play than my generation
engaged in as kids. When I was little and playing cops and robbers, I said, “Bang,
bang, I got you, Jimmy.” Jimmy said, “No you didn’t.” So
I said, “Well, bang, bang. Now I got you.” Again he argued that I
didn’t. So, I smacked him with my cap gun, and after he went crying to
his mother I got in big trouble. Along the way I learned one of life’s
important lessons, a lesson that usually had to be taught over and over again:
Jimmy is real, Sally is real, and Fido is real, and if I hurt them, I’m
going to get into big trouble.
For thousands of years kids have whacked each other with wooden swords, or played “Bang,
bang, I got you.” This was healthy play because as soon as someone got
hurt the play stopped, and all the kids gathered around and tried to convince
him not to tell momma. Today, kids are immersed in a virtual reality environment
where they repeatedly blow their virtual, hyper-realistic, playmates’ heads
off in explosions of blood and gore. Do they get into trouble? No. They get awarded
points! This is pathological and dysfunctional play.
When kittens or puppies play they gnaw at each other’s throats. When one
of them gets hurt, though, the play stops and mama walks over to see what is
going on. When a player gets hurt in a basketball or a football game, the play
stops and the ref hurries over to deal with the injured and the one who caused
it. The purpose of healthy play is to teach the young how not to inflict serious
harm upon their fellow species.
The video game industry says that the images on the screen are not real people.
This is true, but puppies and kittens are not real human beings either, and we
know that the way a child treats a puppy or a kitten predicts how they will treat
real people. Think of a puppy as a virtual human that is used to teach kids how
to interact with real people. What if you awarded a child with a cookie every
time he made that puppy cry in pain? Would you consider that sick?
Our kids today have virtual playmates in the form of realistic characters that
populate the video games. Many kids live in a dark, gray and depressing world,
and for them the video games are more real than reality. Dr. Marshall Soules,
at Malaspina University in Canada, calls this the “hyper-reality effect,” meaning
that some kids “begin to think of the hyper-real as more meaningful than
the thing or event it relates to.” Kids playing these games make the puppy
cry, that is, they make virtual human beings die in what the child deems to be
a vivid and intense reality. Then they are given a cookie, a reward. This is
In July 2000, the American Medical Association, American Psychological Association,
American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent
Psychiatry--all of our doctors, all of our pediatricians, all of our psychologists,
and all of our child psychiatrists--made a joint statement to both Houses of
Congress. They said that, “Well over 1,000 studies point overwhelmingly
to a causal connection between media violence and aggressive behavior in some
children.” Words such as “cause” or “causal” are
powerful scientific terms that are not used lightly. In this statement they also
concluded that, “Preliminary studies indicate that the negative impact
of interactive electronic media [violent video games] may be significantly more
severe than that wrought by television, movies or music.”
That statement by our medical community was reinforced in 2001, when the National
Institute for Media and the Family released their research involving a database
of over 600 8th and 9th grade students from four schools. They concluded that:
...children who are least aggressive in nature but are exposed to violent video
games, are more likely to get into fights than children who are very aggressive
but do not play violent video games.
The study found that children who play violent video games:
-See the world as a more hostile place.
-Argue with teachers more frequently.
-Are more likely to be involved in physical fights.
-Don’t perform as well in school.
Video games as “mass murder simulators” and “marksmanship
see before me the gladiator lie.
There were his young barbarians all at play,
Butchered to make a Roman holiday."
- Lord Byron
Childe Harold's Pilgrimage
The American Sniper Association’s training periodical
published the following “Training Tip” from
a law enforcement sniper in the April 2000 edition.
the incident in Littleton, Colorado, much was made
of the fact that teens are using graphic video and computer
games to train and condition themselves to kill. There
is some truth to this. However, we do not and should
not, allow them to have a monopoly on this training “tool.” Video
games can be used as a unique and inexpensive method
for honing your skills as well.
A new video game, “Silent Scope,” is the latest rage in the local
arcades. This game puts you, the sniper, behind a scoped rifle, interacting
in an unfolding scenario in which your talents are needed to help rescue
the President’s daughter from terrorists. The game will help you work
on observations skills, tracking and identifying targets, snap shooting,
and moves. It will never replace real range time, but it is a nice variation,
and it’s fun.
media games are murder simulators, except when police
officers and soldiers use them for training, in
which case they are combat simulators. Remember that
old point-and-shoot Nintendo video game called Duck Hunt?
It was such a good marksmanship trainer that the United
States Army bought several thousand of them. They replaced
the plastic pistol with a plastic M-16, and instead of
ducks popping up on the screen, the Army changed them
to man-shaped silhouettes. The game was renamed the Multipurpose
Arcade Combat Simulator (MACS). Of course, the troops
were not fooled by the name; they just called it “the
Nintendo game” since it has a big Nintendo stamp
on it. By whatever name, it was a powerful and effective
combat simulator for our men and women preparing for
(It is interesting to note here something that when I
testified before committee hearings held by both the
U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives
after the Columbine school massacre. When I said that a modified version
of the “Duck Hunt” game was used by the U.S. Army, the lobbyist
representing the Nintendo Corporation stood up and said that Nintendo has
never sold anything to the U.S. military. No, they sold these games to a
subcontractor, who then sold them to the Army.)
For the first time in human history we are dealing with a large scale epidemic
of preteen and teenage mass murderers. The autopilot impact of the mass murder
simulators was particularly obvious in the earliest of the school massacres.
(These occurred before the frenzied national media coverage of the Jonesboro
massacre established a national game in which the goal was racking up the “high
score” in school massacres, with the “winner” getting his
picture on the cover of Time magazine.) In the school massacres in Moses
Lake, Pearl, Paducah and Jonesboro, the kids appear to have set out to kill
just one person--usually a teacher or a girlfriend. But once they began,
they shot every living creature in front of them until they ran out of bullets
or were interrupted. Afterwards the police would ask something like, “Okay,
you shot the person you were mad at, but why did you kill everyone else?
Why did you kill the rest of them? Some of them were your friends.”
One kid is reported to have said: “It just felt like I had momentum.”
Why do these kids keep on shooting after they have gunned down the initial
person they went after? Could it be their “training?”
When kids use these games they are not just murder simulators, but mass murder
simulators. Is there a kid anywhere in the world who puts his coins into
a video game machine, picks up a realistic-looking gun, shoots only one virtual
person, puts it back down and then walks away? No. They are trained to kill
all the virtual people, to rack up a high score.
In these school massacres the kids kept shooting for the same reason that
police officers, under the old training regimen, put their spent brass into
their pockets in the middle of real gunfights without conscious thought.
The kids kept on killing for the same reason that police officers fired two
shots and then reholster in the middle of a gunfight when the deadly threat
was still in front of them. These officers responded the way they had been
trained on the firing range, and the same holds true for kids trained on
violent, video game, mass murder simulators.
Once a kid makes the decision to cross that tragic invisible line and shoots
his girlfriend, he earns one point. That is how the video games trained him.
If his girlfriend is one point, then another kid is a second point, another
garners him a third point, and then he gets a fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh,
eighth, and on and on. Once that line is crossed, they all become points
and the kid wants to earn a high score, just as he does in training. The
mother of the 13-year-old killer in the Jonesboro school shooting sat across
our coffee table and told my wife and I, several months after the killings,
that she finally told her son who he had killed that day. She said her boy
laid his head on the table, and sobbed, saying, “Those were my friends.”
There are no friends in violent video games; there are only targets. Points.
Thus, by understanding how a conditioned reflex is developed in our professional
warriors, we can understand what is going on in the minds of some of these
We saw the killing-enabling effects of video games being intentionally applied
by criminals in the “Beltway Sniper” attacks that terrorized
the Washington D.C. area in the fall of 2002. Soon after the suspects were
apprehended, sources close to the investigation told reporters that the killers
had used video game sniper simulators to desensitize and mentally prepare
themselves for their crimes. This effect is not limited to the U.S. The German
media reported extensively on the influence of video games on the boy who
committed a school massacre in Erfurt, Germany, resulting in 17 tragic deaths.
As video game technology gets distributed to third world nations, our military
forces that are fighting terrorists and serving as peacekeepers around the
world, will also face opponents who are trained with mass murder simulators
provided by the video game industry. In 1999, the International Committee
of the Red Cross (ICRC) invited me to Switzerland to be a member of a team
of international experts studying the effects of media violence and violent
video games on atrocities and war crimes around the globe. One Red Cross
official told of a gang operating in one war-torn, Central African nation,
in a city without electricity. The only electricity was provided by a generator,
which the gang used to keep their beer cold and to operate the violent video
arcade game that they used extensively as a training device to psychologically
prepare them to kill and to enhance their marksmanship skills.
Many competitive shooters practice by using “dry firing” to improve
the necessary body mechanics required to shoot accurately. To dry fire, you
simply point an unloaded firearm at a target, cock the hammer, and pull the
trigger, keeping the sight picture as steady as possible. By concentrating
on the technical elements of shooting--sight picture, grip, trigger pull,
arm position--you get a better idea of what you are doing right and wrong
without having to go to the range. There is also a highly effective way to
dry fire with laser feedback, an innovation that requires a laser to be placed
into your weapon so that each time you pull the trigger, it emits a bright,
visible beam. When a realistic, human target is hit, it falls. It is a dynamic
and effective simulation system used in the military and law enforcement
communities. It is considered state of the art training. Frighteningly, our
kids have it too when they play violent video games. The marksmanship training
these games provide our police officers, soldiers--and our kids--is stunning.
In Paducah, Kentucky, Michael Carneal, a 14-year-old boy, fired eight shots
into a prayer circle in the large foyer in front of his school achieving
a hit ratio of 8 out of 8 head shot or upper torso hits. Conversely, in the
Amadou Diallo shooting, four NYPD officers fired 41 shots at an unarmed man
at pointblank range, hitting him with only 19 rounds. These NYPD officers
achieved less than a 50 percent hit ratio with bullets distributed from Diallo’s
feet to his head. That is normal accuracy resulting from a fear induced,
spray and pray response. In the summer of 1999 Buford Furrow went into a
Jewish daycare center in Los Angeles and fired over 70 shots at a group of
helpless children. He hit five of them. But in the Paducah school shooting
Michael Carneal fired eight shots and got eight hits on eight different kids.
Five of his hits were headshots, the other three were upper torso. We know
that his video game training was a key factor in attaining this kind of marksmanship
A student pilot can train on a flight simulator forever, but he needs at
least one real flight with a copilot to help make that transition to a real
aircraft. All the time the trainee spent on the simulator makes for fast
learning during his transition period. The Army calls the transition from
a simulator to a real weapon, “transition fire.” Michael Carneal
conducted his transition fire with two clips of ammo a few days before the
Paducah school slaughter.
When I train elite military and law enforcement organizations such as the
FBI, Green Berets, LAPD SWAT and Texas Rangers--warriors highly trained in
firearms--they are stunned when I tell them of this 14-year-old boy’s
deadly accuracy in the Paducah case. Nowhere in the annals of law enforcement,
military, or criminal history can we find an equivalent achievement. This
unprecedented marksmanship was not done by some deranged Army Ranger (like
me), it was done by a 14-year-old boy who had never fired a real pistol before
stealing one and firing two clips of ammunition on a previous night. But
he had been on the simulator every night for years on end.
After I testified before the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives
about this, the video game industry’s lobbyists circulated a bizarre “confidential” document
to legislators and reporters, attacking my work but forbidding anyone to
quote them. This document was full of the kind of things you would expect
lobbyists to say in defense of their industry--just like the tobacco lobbyists
told us tobacco didn’t cause cancer. Their most absurd claim was that “police
reports indicate that Carneal [the Paducah killer] had his eyes closed during
the shooting and fired blindly.”
The police reports said no such thing. It was Carneal who said in a statement
to his psychiatrist: "I don't know, it was all, like blurry and foggy,
I just didn't know what was going on. I think I closed my eyes for a minute." (Emphasis
added.) All of the witness statements refute this. The psychiatric and psychological
evaluation of Michael Carneal, by Dr. Bebedek, Dr. Weitzel, and Dr. Clark
conclude that: "Certainly his claims ... to have closed his eyes when
he shot...are scarcely to be believed." But the video game industry's
lobbyists told legislators and reporters that this self-serving statement
by a juvenile mass murderer was a "fact" from a "police report."
Witness statements say that Carneal had a strange, calm look on his face
as he held his gun up in a two-handed stance. He never fired far to his left
or right. His first bullet went between his girlfriend’s eyes, and
then he proceeded to put one bullet in every target that popped up on his “screen.” His
own sister wrote in her statement that she started to move toward her brother
to tell him to stop, but then she says that she recalled thinking to herself, “He
doesn’t know who I am. He’s going to kill me,” so she started
What was Carneal doing? I believe that there can be little doubt that he
was playing a video game. He was in Condition Yellow, calmly putting a bullet
in every target that popped up on his screen. It is not natural to put just
one bullet in every target. What is natural is to shoot at a target until
it drops and then, maybe, move on to another. Many video games, however,
train kids to make a one-shot kill, and then before that target drops, move
on to the next one, and the one after that, because the goal is to earn lots
of points. Shoot them all and kill as many as you can as fast as you can.
By the way, many video games give bonus points for headshots. Carneal was
doing exactly what he was trained to do. Whatever we are trained to do is
going to come out the other end.
Across the decades, millions of police officers put their brass in their
pockets on the firing range so they would not have to pick them up when the
training was over. Only a few of them got into real combat situations in
which they did this, but those were enough for us to know that it was stupid
to train cops this way.
Although hundreds of thousands of police officers were trained to fire two
shots and automatically reholster, only a handful got into real gunfights
and did that as their adversaries were still shooting at them. But that was
enough for us to understand that we were teaching them to do something stupid.
Millions of kids train on violent video games every day, and only a few will
go on to use the skills and conditioned reflexes that they learned in the
video games to commit an unprecedented juvenile mass murder. But that should
be enough for us to understand that we are doing something very foolish indeed.
In the military and in law enforcement communities, people qualify at the
firing range every six months. More is better, but every six months appears
to be the minimum since conditioned reflexes have a kind of “half-life” and
begin to decay after just a few months. It is truly like a radioactive half-life:
there is a steady decay, but there is always a little residual available
to tap into. However, as long as warriors can refresh their skill at least
every six months, it will be there when needed. Again, more training is better,
but every six months is minimum. Kids, on the other hand, qualify on these
murder simulators every day.
John Foy, the head firearms instructor and range master for the Ohio Peace
Officer’s Training Academy, has developed a powerful model that helped
me understand exactly what video games were doing to kids. For many decades
John has tapped into some of Abraham Maslow’s work, teaching that there
are four levels of mastery.
incompetence is the lowest level of mastery. Most
American male teenagers are at a level of unconscious
incompetence when it comes to driving. They are bad drivers.
They don’t know it and usually they refuse to admit
it. The first step in making them better drivers is to
get them to admit that they need experience and practice
before they can be entrusted with human lives at high
-Conscious incompetence is the next level of mastery.
Most young men coming into military firearms training
are convinced that they are experts with
a weapon. The drill sergeant’s first job is to convince them of their
ignorance. Many firearms instructors will tell you that women are easier
to train because they know they need to learn, they know that they are ignorant,
and they are willing to listen. They are easier to train because they are
already at the level of conscious incompetence.
-Conscious competence is when you can do the right thing, but you have to
think about it. That is fine for many tasks, but for life-and-death skills
to be performed under stress, it is not good enough.
-Unconscious competence is the highest level of mastery. This is where, as
martial artist Bruce Lee put it, you, "Learn it until you forget it." This
is what autopilot is all about. This is the goal of warrior training
Many firearms instructors tell me that there are some
officers in today's new generation of young recruits
who walk onto their pistol ranges, hold a real pistol
in their hands for the first time and, after firing a
few shots to adjust themselves to the weapon, are supernatural
marksmen. When asked, almost all of them say that they
are avid players of the point-and-shoot arcade video
games. Their video game play has permitted them to reach
a level of unconscious competence, just like Michael
Carneal in Paducah, Kentucky, when he hit eight-for-eight,
with five head shots.
There can be no doubt that video games can teach marksmanship skills. A controlled
experiment conducted by the Center for Successful Parenting, written by Tom
Stoughton and published in 2002 in the Newsletter of The UNESCO International
Clearinghouse On Children, Youth and Media, demonstrated that those kids
who were proficient at point-and-shoot video games are significantly better
shots when they pick up a real gun for the first time.
Ray Blinn, a police officer in East Providence, Rhode Island, wrote, telling
me about a 15 year old police cadet who went through the qualification program
on their Firearms Training Simulator--a highly realistic, state-of-the-art
video simulator used by military and law enforcement agencies worldwide.
He went through five scenarios, with only one miss(just
barely missing a headshot). He had multiple double taps
to the heads and center mass of the suspects. Of the
100 hundred officers that went through the training,
this cadet shot in the top five.
At the end I questioned him about his shooting ability.
He stated that he had never shot a real gun in his life.
I then asked him if he played a lot
of video games and with a big smile he said, "All the time, especially
the shooting ones. They’re the most fun."
Good thing he wants to be a good guy.
tobacco industry was able to hire doctors to appear
on national TV and lie for them, saying: “I’m
a doctor, and I don’t believe that tobacco causes
cancer.” But to the best of my knowledge the TV,
movie and video game industry cannot find one single
medical doctor or psychiatrist to take their money and
say that their violent products are not harmful to kids.
Any medical practitioner who did so might very well lose
their license. However, they have found one psychology
professor in Canada, Jonathan Freedman, who freely admits
that his research is funded by Hollywood. Yet even he
does not try to claim that video games do not teach skills.
In an interview in the on-line video game magazine, The
Adrenaline Vault, Freedman is referred to as “the anti-Grossman.” (I’ve always
wanted to ask them if that is anything like being the Antichrist.) He is
one of those “scholars” who uses the murder rate to claim that
violent crime is down to 1960’s levels, when we know that it is medical
technology that is holding down the murder rate. Yet even he says,
you go into a video arcade: it's a gun you hold,
and you aim it. Gun clubs teach you to shoot more
presumably. Why shouldn't this? So I think that's a silly
argument. Grossman's right: of course they get better
The “game over” effect:
what made them stop
use doth breed a habit in a man!"
The Two Gentleman of Verona
Let us examine one final aspect of what warrior science
can teach us about the influence of video games on an
up-and-coming new generation of mass murderers. What
was it that made these juvenile mass murders stop shooting
their classmates; what was it that turned off their autopilot?
Dr. James McGee wrote the brilliant “Classroom Avenger” profile
of 19 school shooters, which is used by the FBI and many
other law enforcement agencies.
McGee studied all aspects of these young kids, and he identified the fact that
all of them had an infatuation with media violence.
Not every kid who plays a violent video game becomes a mass murderer, and not
every kid with an unbuckled seatbelt is going to smash through the windshield.
The vast majority of kids who ride with unbuckled seatbelts will be just fine,
though not fastening it is a risk factor. Likewise, most kids who play the mass
murder simulators will not commit mass murder.
But some will. Consider these case studies (which as Dr. McGee notes, are all
kids infatuated with media violence), and note what made them stop.
Mississippi. A 17-year-old kid walks along a hallway
in Pearl High School gunning down other students.
The vice-principal has a .45 automatic in his car (a
federal offense, though no one has ever pressed charges)
and runs out to the parking lot to retrieve it. A moment
later, this educator stands face-to-face with the kid,
pointing his gun at the young man, and says, “Stop!” Amazingly,
the kid stops. A 17-year-old crazed mass murderer with
a loaded gun in his hand is ordered to stop shooting
people, and he does.
Kentucky. A 14-year-old stands in a perfect shooting
stance in the middle of a hallway shooting other
students, one after the other with seemingly supernatural
accuracy. He still has one round left and there are still
lots of targets running and screaming all around him.
But before he can shoot one more time, the principal
runs up to him and demands, “Stop!” He stops. “Put
the gun down,” the principal says, “You’ve
done enough.” And the kid put the gun down. So,
right in the middle of committing a mass murder, with
the capability of killing at least one more, a simple
verbal command stops the killer.
Arkansas. Two young killers empty their weapons into
15 people, reload and begin running over a hill
toward their stolen van. The boys are 11 and 13 years
old. As they approach the van, a police officer yells, “Police!
Down on the ground. Drop the weapon. Down on the ground.” These
two boys have just committed a bloody mass murder and
they still have loaded weapons in their hands, but what
do they do? They obey the officer and drop their weapons.
Canada. A 15-year-old is gunning down kids in a high
school when an unarmed educator approaches shouting, “Stop!” and
the killer stops.
Gibson, Oklahoma. An armed 13-year-old boy walks
up to a crowd of classmates waiting for the morning
and opens fire, wounding four. A science teacher runs
up to the shooter, right in the middle of his spree,
and commands, “Stop,” and the kid stops.
is going on here? We have never before seen mass
murderers stop just because someone tells them to.
it be because these killers are still kids, and their
training teaches them to accept interruptions? When a
kid plays a video game and his mom tells him to stop,
the kid puts the game on “pause,” and then
looks up to see what she wants. Kids are used to the “game
over” feature, and they are used to a verbal command
telling them when it is time to pause. In these cases,
the dynamics of their training--and it really is training
that we are talking about--is clear. The killers are
reacting as they have been conditioned to react: They
stop when told to.
It is important that we do not assume that all shooters
will stop just because you tell them to. I believe the
two killers in Littleton, Colorado, would
never have stopped just because someone told them to. The killer in Springfield,
Oregon, gunned down 24 kids. It was not a verbal command that stopped him,
but a high school senior, an Eagle Scout and wrestler, who sucked up the
killer’s bullets but still tackled the shooter and wrestled the gun
away. This juvenile mass murderer, a high school freshman, curled into a
ball and began sobbing, “Kill me, kill me, kill me. I wanna die.” His
gun had to be wrestled out of his hand. Incidentally, he was not thoroughly
searched and as soon as he was alone in the jail, he retrieved a buck
that was strapped to his leg. He called a deputy to him, and then lunged
at the man in an attempt to add one last body to his count. Never assume
that all will stop on command.
Under the proper circumstances, Plan A is a verbal command. If Plan A doesn’t
work, you need a Plan B. Plan B is to shoot them before they can hurt anyone
Never before in history have we had juveniles capable of committing mass
murders like we have today. In Vietnam and in World War II, most 18-year-old
kids responded with nausea and trembling after the first time they had to
kill in combat. They pulled the trigger, and then watched as another human
being fell at close range, gurgling and dying. Though many of these young
warriors vomited after their first kill, they found that the next one was
easier because they knew what to expect.
Many kids have also made their first kill--and their 101st and their 1001st--playing
realistic, state-of-the-art violent video games. They have watched over and
over as their “victims” bled, gurgled, twitched and begged for
mercy, all the while earning points for inflicting brutal death and suffering
upon their virtual playmates. Those of us whose job it is to make killing
a conditioned reflex can understand the training dynamic that is at play.
Never before have we seen juvenile killers like Pearl, Paducah, Jonesboro,
Springfield, Columbine, and Erfurt, and all of us--adults, parents, and the
video game industry--are enabling these mass murders.
Read Chapter Seven