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Guns, Knives, and the Hollywood Death Sentence

by Jason Thalken PhD, September 21, 2015

In order to become a successful screenwriter in Hollywood, you need to watch a lot of movies, so you can learn from the screenwriters who came before you, and so you can get a feel for what else is out there and popular today.  Unfortunately, this important part of a screenwriter's education is also how Hollywood ends up propagating and recycling incredibly stupid ideas over and over again to the point where the audience just accepts it without question.

One such horrible inaccuracy occurs when a character is knocked out by a single punch and then wakes up in a different location.  Any competitive martial artist or doctor knows that most knockouts result in unconsciousness for only a few seconds at most, so if a character has been knocked out long enough to wake up in the next scene of the movie, that next scene should probably take place in a hospital, and the rest of the movie should probably be devoted to that character's very slow (and only partial) recovery from traumatic brain injury.  These sorts of inaccuracies run rampant in Hollywood because everything a screenwriter knows about things like knockouts comes from watching some other screenwriter's characters get knocked out in the movies.  For the most part, these sorts of inaccuracies end up being little more than comical bits of trivia, but when it comes to gun violence, a little Hollywood fiction can mean the difference between life and death in the real world.

Animals Don't Understand How Guns Work

Hollywood gunshot wounds typically result in an instant death where the victim grabs his chest and immediately collapses to the floor, lifeless.  This is, of course, nonsense.  Unless the bullet has actually entered the brain, the only way someone is going to die from a gunshot wound (or from getting stabbed) is loss of oxygenated blood to the brain.  This can happen as a result of bleeding out externally, bleeding internally, circulatory shock (inadequate levels of oxygen in tissues throughout the body), or cardiac tamponade (pressure from fluid in the sac enclosing the heart), but no matter what the specific process is, the basic premise is always the same; Blood started flowing somewhere it was not supposed to be, and now there is not enough of it bringing oxygen to the brain.  The time it takes for a person to die from these sorts of injuries can vary from a few seconds (for extreme cases, shotguns, assault weapons, etc.), to a few minutes, to many hours.  If it takes that long to die, why is it common for civilians to collapse to the ground immediately after getting shot in real life?  Is there something more to a gunshot, or is it a case of life imitating art with potentially fatal consequences?

Most Gunshot Wounds are Survivable (But Get Help Fast)

If we exclude suicides and accidental shootings from the statistics, your chances of dying once you have been shot during assault is somewhere around 20% (Gotsch, 2001; Beaman, 2000), but if we restrict ourselves to people who make it to the hospital alive, the number drops to 10% or less.  This is incredibly important because these numbers are very far from certain death.  If you get shot or stabbed during an assault, your odds of survival are still very good, but those odds depend heavily on how soon you can get medical attention (Fiedler, 1986; Crandall, 2013).

The necessity of prompt treatment is where the expectations set by Hollywood become a lethal inaccuracy.  If a gunshot or stabbing victim believes they have just been served a death sentence, and they collapse to the floor like the movies, then it very well may become true.  If, however, that victim knows that a countdown clock started the moment they got shot, and speed of medical attention is the single most important factor in determining their survival, perhaps more assault victims would find the ability to fight through the pain like a Moro warrior and get to help quickly.

Compliance With Criminals Is Bad Advice That Came From Bad Math

Another unspoken rule of guns perpetuated by Hollywood is the game-like way in which the character holding a gun gets to make demands of the other characters, and they all have to do exactly what they are told.  This can even become semi-comical as the gun changes hands, and characters take turns telling everyone else what to do.  In real life, being held at gunpoint can be an unnerving experience, and your brain may not have a chance to orient itself enough to do anything but comply, but it turns out that the unspoken rule of compliance reinforced by Hollywood is a bad idea if you have an opportunity to take action.

Of course, we cannot lay all the blame on Hollywood.  Prior to 1972, the only source for crime data was police reports, and those reports tended to show the trend that victims who resisted were more likely to get injured.  This data was inadequate to get a full picture of crime, however, and it was nearly impossible to find remotely similar results when comparing data from city to city.  As a result, the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) was launched, and after years of side-by-side analysis of police reports and victim survey data, it became clear that police reports provided incomplete and poorly representative data (Block, 1981).  The NCVS experienced a large overhaul in the 1980s to help improve the quality of the data, but it still looked like victims who resisted were more likely to be injured than those who complied.  It was not until the second major overhaul in 1992, when victims were specifically asked if they started resisting before or after they were injured, that the real trend became clear.  It turns out that the correlation between resistance and injury (including sexual assault) was primarily due to cases where victims provided resistance only after they had been injured.  If you correct this statistical error, victims who resisted their attacker were significantly less likely to be injured (Thompson, 1999; Tark, 2004).  In addition, 75% of the victims who resisted were of the opinion that their own actions improved their situation, while only 15% believed that resisting resulted in greater injury.

Despite our relatively new understanding of the importance of resisting your attacker, the old "conventional wisdom" about crime scenarios is still very prevalent.  Law enforcement officers will tell you "don't be a hero," but you should keep in mind that the personal experiences of those officers focuses very heavily on the small percentage of those victims who suffered greater injury as a result of their actions.  In addition, "don't be a hero" is most likely adopted as the official position of police departments and large corporations around the country because it is perceived as the position which is least likely to result in a wrongful death lawsuit for millions of dollars.

Despite these outdated official positions, there are some scenarios where even "don't be a hero" advocates will agree that compliance is a bad idea.  If an assailant ever demands that you to go to a secondary location, tie yourself up, or otherwise change the scenario to reduce the number of potential witnesses or make physical resistance impossible, this is because the assailant does not like his odds as they are right now, and he would like to put the odds more in his favor before proceeding.  Your own odds will only get worse from this point on, so even if you don't think you have an opportunity, you need to resist or run.

Your Best Defense is The Ancient Art of Run-Fu

Guns are great weapons for robberies and assaults because they can evoke the fear of death in people immediately, and the range allows the assailant to stay a safe distance from the fists and feet of their victims.  This distance between the assailant and the victim also means that the victim (hopefully) has the opportunity to turn around and run away as fast as possible.  This may be a scary proposal, and it may be impossible if the victim is unable to come to their senses, unwilling to leave a companion, or if the victim has been beaten, pepper sprayed, or cornered, but if it is at all possible to turn and run, the odds of survival are great.
If we break down the probability of dying into discreet conditional probabilities, we can put them together into an equation to help us understand how much we can improve our situation by running away:

PDeath = PShoot · PHit · PBleed_Out

where PDeath is the total probability you pass away, PShoot is the probability your assailant shoots at you (with the intention of hitting you) as you run away, PHit is the probability he is successful in his attempt to hit you, and PBleed_Out is the probability that you die from the gunshot wound you receive.  For each probability, we will pick a high-end and a low-end value, so that when we multiply them all together, we can develop a reasonable range of final values for PDeath .

PBleed_Out is probably somewhere around 20%, as we discussed earlier, but it could be as low as 10% if a victim has both the determination and the ability to get to medical help as soon as possible.  We will pick a low-end estimate of 10% and a high-end estimate of 30% for this number.

PHit is surprisingly low if your primary frame of reference is Hollywood.  Trained police officers in action tend to hit their target only 43% of the time at distances less than 6 feet, or 23% for distances between 6 and 21 feet (BAKER, 2007).  Considering most criminals do not have the same quality of training as law enforcement officers (61% of officers firing stated they were able to grip the gun with both hands, and 38% stated they were able to use their sights) (New York City Police Department, 2013), it is not surprising that according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics Special Report on Weapon Use and Violent Crime, only 27% of assaults where a firearm was discharged resulted in the victim actually getting shot (Perkins, 2003).  For this probability, we will pick a low-end value of 20%, and a high-end value of 40%.

PShoot is the most difficult of the three probabilities to determine.  If we consider only 15% of victims of assault who resisted their assailants felt their actions made the situation worse (Thompson, 1999), it would be unreasonable to assume that a much higher percentage than this would open fire on a victim as they run away, particularly when we consider that assailants wielding firearms are only half as likely to injure their victims as assailants wielding other weapons (or even no weapon at all) (Perkins, 2003; Thompson, 1999).  Even though 15% is probably already too high, because of the uncertainty around this number, we will pick a low-end value of 10%, and a high-end value of 25%, just to error on the side of caution.

When we multiply these probabilities together, we get 25% * 40% * 30% = 3% for the high-end chance of dying, or 10% * 20% * 10% = 0.2% for the low-end.  This is great news, because it means if you turn and run, your chances of survival are somewhere between 97% and 99.8%.  You will probably never see odds that good again if you comply with a stranger at gunpoint and get into their car.

Fight Like A Physicist

Of course, the game changes considerably when you have friends or family with you.  I personally recommend you have a conversation with your loved ones and specifically ask them to run at the first sign of trouble, so that it has already been clearly established that running away and getting help immediately is the preferred plan of action, and not perceived as abandoning each other.  You may also want to decide who should stay and who should run in an assault scenario, because sometimes you just don't have the option to run.

The above excerpt is from Fight Like A Physicist: The Incredible Science Behind Martial Arts by Jason Thalken, PhD.  If you like this excerpt, you might be interested in Dr. Thalken's videos on You Tube A Dichotomy of Human Punches, Protecting Yourself From High-Energy Strikes, How to Stop Momentum, Part 1, How to Stop Momentum, Part 2

Jason Thalken has a PhD in computational condensed matter physics from the University of Southern California, and bachelor’s degrees in physics, mathematics, and philosophy from the University of Texas. Jason has studied and competed in more than eight different martial arts styles since 1995 and has a black belt in hapkido under Grand Master Ho Jin Song.


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