The bullet that killed Peter Gent mushroomed when it hit his chest. It pierced the pulmonary artery, the left atrium, the trachea and the esophagus and deflected off the spine.
Gent, 24, was probably dead before he hit the ground, which was a long tumble from the water tower where he was perched.
An autopsy on the Branch Davidian showed that he was killed by a hollow-point bullet. It is, as one local gunsmith says, “a big-time killing bullet.”
A sniper with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms shot and killed Gent, who reportedly was firing at agents attempting to serve an arrest warrant Feb. 28 to cult leader Vernon Howell. Four ATF agents died at Mount Carmel that day, as did at least five Branch Davidians.
ATF officials did not return several calls Friday requesting an interview about the ammunition officers carried.
The autopsies released so far show that three Branch Davidians died from wounds produced by hollow-point bullets. Waco attorney Gary Coker, who represents several Branch Davidians, said he believes the cult used military-style ammunition.
Coker noted that hollow-point bullets are prohibited during warfare by those who signed the Geneva Conventions. He questioned the use of such lethal firepower at Mount Carmel.
“The bullets are prohibited for use against the Iraqis, but someone can use them against American civilians who have never been convicted of a crime,” Coker said. “It galls me. Those bullets are intended for maximum damage. They’re similar to hunting cartridges.”
Though banned in war, the hollow-point bullet is standard issue at many American police departments, including Waco’s.
Armor officer R.C. Anderson explained the reasoning.
“It has stopping power, but it is also a bullet designed not to over-penetrate the body,” he said.
“The old military, ball-type ammunition can go completely through a body. We use the hollow-point so the bullet doesn’t pass through the perpetrator and then hit an innocent person. The hollow-point is actually a safer bullet than the old round-ball ammunition, so far as innocent people go.”
Dr. Charles M. Friel, a criminal justice professor at Sam Houston State University, said the ammunition used by police requires a juggling act on the part of society.
“Society uses police to protect the community,” Friel said. “So society has a responsibility to set policy so the police can reasonably protect themselves. But, on the other hand, society has to protect itself from the police, who are always going to push the edge of the policy for their own self-protection. You have to strike a balance.”
‘We shoot to kill’
Given their potent ammunition, police departments like that in Waco strictly govern how officers use their weapons.
“Our officers are not allowed to fire warning shots,” Anderson said. “They cannot pull their weapon unless it’s in self-defense of a third party. When an officer draws his weapon, he has to be prepared to use deadly force. We don’t shoot to wound anybody. We shoot to kill. That’s a bad way to put it, but I guess it’s the only way to put it.”
Focus on policy
Friel thinks the discussion of deadly force shouldn’t focus on ammunition, but on policy. While most people understand you should not give police “grenades to lob into crack houses,” most deadly force issues are not as clear-cut, he said.
“If the policy debate focuses on the end of a barrel, you’re at the wrong place,” Friel said. “You trivialize a complex issue. You need to back up to the officer’s head, or even further, the department’s head, to what they consider civilized use of force.”
Government forces have an advantage over police when it comes to the issue of deadly force, Friel said.
Government has time
“The government usually has the opportunity to sit down, talk through and sleep on a decision like talking a facility,” he said. “Do you have to do it?
“It can ask those questions. It can consider the use of force, how to minimize casualties to occupants and officers. Government can pick the best people it’s got, those coolest under fire. They can look at a variety of issues. They have time. A police officer on the street has to react and use whatever weapon he has at hand.”
How well the raid on Mount Carmel was planned is still unknown. ATF officials have not released much information pending the trials of several Branch Davidians in connection with the deaths of the four agents.
Coker, though, questions how much thought the government devoted to issues such as what kind of ammunition to use.
“I’m sure they thought about that,” he said. “They were so careful about human life. I’ll bet they were just as sensitive to that issue as they were to protecting the Branch Davidians’ property.”
Any law enforcement officer’s best weapon is his brain, Friel said.
“If his IQ is in his gun belt, you’re going to have a problem,” he said.