Hostage Rescue for Tots

What was a 3-year-old doing at a paramilitary simulation exercise?

3rd Regiment troops

A French soldier wounded 17 people —including a 3-year-old child—when he accidentally loaded his gun with live ammunition during a hostage-taking simulation in the southern city of Carcassonne. What on earth was a 3-year-old doing in a military training scenario?

Enjoying the spectacle. According to news reports, the simulation was part of an army open house designed to allow French citizens—including the soldiers’ families—to get a closer look at the elite paratrooper unit stationed in their town. (“There were loads of children, because it was a party for children above all,” one witness said, according to the Times of London.) The scenario appears to have been relatively low-intensity—prior to the accident, the soldiers reportedly completed it five times without a hitch.

More sophisticated hostage-rescue training is usually conducted without a public audience. Civilians might be on the scene, but only as full participants—acting out the part of a hostage or a bystander, for example. At the Department of Justice-sponsored Mock Riot, an annual event in West Virginia that includes a hostage scenario, local criminal justice students volunteer as prison inmates; they must be over 18 and sign a legal release. (In one recent Mock Riot simulation, the faux prisoners—led by an inmate named “K-Dog”—took a hostage and issued a demand for Hot Pockets before being subdued with PepperBall ammunition.) In other cases, simulation leaders recruit professional actors or police volunteers to play a role in their scenarios. (To learn how to volunteer for a terrorism drill, read this 2005 “Explainer.”)

Even without civilian bystanders, however, simulations can become dangerous. According to research (PDF) compiled by the National Tactical Officers Association, at least 36 law enforcement officers have died since 1970 due to accidental weapons discharges during training exercises. In 1994, for example, a Palo Alto, Calif., reserve police officer playing the role of a terrorist was shot during a drill when a fellow officer forgot to unload his gun. Law enforcement agencies and military units are supposed to follow a strict protocol (PDF) before using firearms in simulations, which typically includes a search of every weapon before it enters the training area. Participants should also be able to tell whether or not they are using live ammo: Blanks are usually lighter than regular ammunition, and in the case of the French paratroopers, they were colored differently, too.

It’s not a great idea to fire blanks near a 3-year-old, no matter what the situation. While a blank cartridge doesn’t include a bullet, it still contains gunpowder, and a blank-loaded gun will expel a burst of hot gas when fired. (Historically, blanks also included a wad of cardboard or paper that served as a projectile.) At very close range, blanks can be deadly, and Army regulations suggest that they be fired at a range of at least 20 feet. In 1977, an Oklahoma City police officer was mortally wounded by a blank during training; 10 years later, actor Jon-Erik Hexum accidentally killed himself when he fired a blank-loaded pistol into his head on the set of the show Cover Up.

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Explainer thanks John Gnagey of the National Tactical Officers Association, Lt. Jeff Lanz of the Oregon State Police, Stuart Meyers of OpTac International, Steve Morrison of the Office of Law Enforcement Technology Commercialization, and Rick Washburn of Weapons Specialists LTD.