The Laws of (TV Gunshot) Physics

Television takes liberties with reality for the purpose of storytelling. It requires a certain amount of suspension of disbelief. As a result, it ends up creating its own set of rules. My favorite set of these TV laws relates to being shot.

The real-life physics of gunshot wounds is too wild to properly translate to television. First of all, dying instantly isn’t something people do under most circumstances, let alone gunshots. We simply don’t have time for the necessary lingering unless there’s a confession or plot point to convey. Second of all, millimeters and luck play into the survival rate in such a way that people would likely struggle to find it believable if they saw it on their favorite procedural.

However, what does translate to screen is somehow easier for viewers to swallow. In addition to the prevalence of instant deaths, there’s also the understood notion that getting shot blows you off of your feet depending on the weapon used. I think it’s generally known that this doesn’t happen (more fascinating is the range of physical reactions gunshots survivors describe), but it’s something we as an audience have come to expect, especially when it’s the bad guy getting blown away. We prefer that dramatic liberty.

When it comes to the survivability of a gunshot, it’s guaranteed that our good guys will survive any wound inflicted unless they’re leaving the show. Bad guys, unless they’re a recurring threat, are probably dying instantly no matter where they’re hit. Westerns are my favorite example of this. Bad guys do not survive gut shots; good guys do. In reality, surviving a gunshot wound to the abdomen is a toss-up. There’s a lot of organs, arteries, and blood vessels packed in there. If you don’t bleed to death because the bullet nicked an artery or hit an organ, you just might die of sepsis, peritonitis, or some other kind of infection due to a perforated bowel. And then of course, the bullet might miss everything vital and you’ll be just fine.

Speaking of our good guys surviving their gunshot wounds, they rarely suffer any negative aftereffects unless the plot calls for it. So often they’re shot in one episode and then right back to work the next episode with nary a mention. When it comes to older reruns, this is more a matter of treating each episode as its own thing rather than adhering to any serious continuity. Look no further than our Five-O heroes for an example of this. In one episode, Steve McGarrett is shot three times and left for dead. In the next, he’s back to work and well-enough to be stabbed.

Or perhaps we can consider the interesting gunshot wound continuity of Eric Delko on CSI: Miami. He was shot twice at the end of the first part of a two-parter in the fifth season. During a firefight in a parking lot, he was shot once in the right thigh. Horatio Caine dragged him behind a car where Delko was then shot in the back of the head by a different, unseen shooter. During the second part, Delko fought for his life, rallied, and lived. However, they couldn’t get all of the bullet fragment out of his head and Delko did suffer aftereffects from this head wound. He lost memories from around the time of the shooting, had some confusion issues regarding aspects of his job, and had transitory hallucinations. In the eighth season, the fragment jarred lose during a shooting/car chase/car crash and he ended up on the operating table yet again to have it finally removed. He recovered from that without any issues. So, that one incident had long-lasting implications.

However, the gunshot wound in his leg was literally only addressed once…when he was initially shot. It was never mentioned again: not when Delko was in surgery, not when he returned to work a few weeks after getting shot, nada. It was as though it never happened. Setting aside the fact that it was dubious at best he’d be returning to work so soon after being shot in the head, Delko definitely would have been limping if he had. He’d probably know every time it was going to rain for the rest of his life, too.

Many of our law enforcement leads could find themselves in a similar situation, especially if they’ve been shot in the shoulder, which is a favorite target of the writers and bad guys it seems. Shoulder wounds are notoriously nasty as there’s a lot that can go wrong in that region and not much room for it not to. There’s the subclavian artery, which could easily have someone bleeding out in minutes, not to mention all of the muscles, tendons, and bones in that area that work together to move the arm. Starsky got shot in the shoulder on the first season of Starsky and Hutch, nearly died, was back to work in the next episode without a bandage, and never had a problem using his arm to enforce the law for the rest of the series. Heroes don’t get arthritis from traumatic injuries.

Rumor has it that the best place to get shot (aside from nowhere) is in the backside. The abundance of fatty tissue is ready-made for high-impact projectiles (good luck if you have a flat ass, I suppose), but rarely do shows, cop shows in particular, have one of their mains take one for the team in this fashion. I guess there’s something less dramatic about spending the week on their stomach than taking one in the gut or the shoulder and still managing to chase down and arrest/kill the bad guy. Or maybe spending most of the episode in a coma while their besties get justice for them for maximum viewer angst.

No matter where they get shot, we all know they’ll be back and better than ever in the next episode anyway.

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