And the personal toll it can take on your mental wellbeing can be surprising, often referred to as "post shooting syndrome." TV dramas and blockbuster movies portray good guys shooting bad guys in heroic fashion. But in the real world, it seldom feels heroic.
Here's a list from an article on PoliceLink that summarizes a few of the psychological effects of post shooting syndrome. This information focuses on police officers who have had to shoot in the line of duty, but the effects are the same for civilians.
1. Sensory distortion. Time slows down; everything happens in slow motion.
2. Flashbacks. Many things subsequently occur that instantly remind you of the shooting — another shooting, the sight of a body in the street. You live it over and over.
3. Fear of insanity. Officers may have this fear because of symptoms in (1) and (2) above.
4. Sorrow over depriving a person of life. It is very difficult to break the cultural and religious prohibition against killing. Even police officers who have previously killed in military combat state that a police shooting is entirely different. Detective Dan Sullivan of the Santa Barbara, California, Police Department states that "in a war, that's what you're there for . . . to wipe them out. Police work isn't like that. You are certainly not on a search and destroy mission" (Cohen 1980).
5. Crying. This usually happens outside the police environment because the macho image does not permit tears.
6. Grasping for life. Officers become very concerned about their families, their home life, being loved and accepted by others — a sort of guilt reaction to the shooting.
7. Nightmares. One officer reported frequent nightmares in which the suspect kept coming at him, looming ever larger and ever nearer while the officer frantically pumps bullets into the apparition.
8. Heightened sense of danger. A shooting brings officers face to face with their own mortality. No longer can they entertain the idea that "It won't happen to me." For some officers, this has resulted in their leaving law enforcement. Although exact statistics are not available, it has been reported that between 50 to 80 percent of officers involved in shootings have left police work (Baruth 1986, p. 307).
9. Anger and hate toward the victim/suspect. Solomon and Horn (1986) state that this is the second most frequent and severe post shooting reaction. Officers curse the victim/suspect for "making them do it," but this anger may mask the feelings of fear and vulnerability that the incident aroused in officers so that the curse more properly may be expressed as "goddamn you for making me feel so vulnerable."
10. Isolation/withdrawal. Officers may think that no one will understand what they are going through. They don't want to risk being ridiculed or put down. Peer support from another officer who has gone through a shooting experience can be most helpful at this time.
11. Fear and anxiety about the next time it happens. One officer who shot a suspect who he thought was armed (but wasn't) expressed fears that the "next time maybe I'll hesitate to shoot and this time the asshole will have a gun and he'll blow my f——- head off."
12. Fear that they will be fired, criminally charged, or sued in civil court. These are frequent reactions. Police policies and procedures may add unnecessary stresses to officers involved in a shooting. Delays in completing the investigation, a negative attitude, or lack of support from supervisors and/or administration can compound the psychological damage. One undercover narcotics officer had to endure a post shooting investigation that began in May and dragged on until he was finally cleared of any wrongdoing in August. In this time the stress on the officer and his family was so severe as to result in a divorce.