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August 10, 2006

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Shooting in Self Defense: What Justifies Lethal Force?

Inthegravestextreme_book About 20 years ago, I took a course in defense shooting given by a local sheriff’s deputy. It was a very useful two days, and was also the scariest experience I’ve ever had, outside of seeing Hillary Clinton in Grand Central Terminal. The deputy put us through a dozen or so shoot/don’t shoot scenarios, in which he took pains to emphasize that the life-or-death decisions you make in a split second are based on inadequate information and stand an excellent chance of being wrong. (If you can’t get one of these courses, I urge you to buy a copy of Masad Ayoob’s book, In the Gravest Extreme.  Ayoob is a career cop, and you can either read his book or hope for an understanding cellmate.)

And, he continued, even if you survive the gunplay, your real problems begin when the DA comes after you, takes you to court, and makes you out to be a murderer. It was not a pretty picture.

But it may be improving. In 15 states, the law is being changed so that you no longer actually have to be having your throat slit in order to shoot in self-defense. (click here to read the story.) 

One of the main criticisms anti-gun advocates levy at right-to-shoot laws like these is that they hold civilians to a much lower standard of proof that there was reason to employ lethal force than is required of policemen. This, however, is as it should be.

The average cop has a list of options, short of shooting, that the civilian lacks, including:

  • An armed partner.
  • A real working knowledge of self-defense.
  • A radio to call for backup.
  • Mace.
  • A PR-24, which is a baton to you.
  • A sap. No, not a member of the Bush administration, but a blackjack.
  • Sap gloves. These are heavy gloves with pockets of lead dust sewn into the knuckles.
  • A Tazer.
  • A beanbag gun.

Moreover, the typical police officer has probably had a couple of violent encounters, and is less prone to panic than a civilian who has never had one, which is a huge advantage.

Civilians can’t get this neat stuff, so our options are submit (which often gets you killed) or shoot. And if the law cuts us a little slack, that’s fine. And way overdue.


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JA Demko

Another point about cops is that they typically are not subject to the kinds of attack that non-police suffer. When is the last time you heard of an on-duty cop being mugged, raped, or carjacked? The majority of police contacts that turn violent were initiated by the police themselves. Note that I am not saying they initiated the violence, but that they initiate contact whether by pulling over a speeder, responding to a call, whatever. I don't believe we can say the same for non-police. "Civilians" are pretty much constrained to reacting to circumstances as they occur.

Dick Filippini

Depending on the state in which one lives, the circumstances in which lethal force may be used may be different. If your state allows "concealed carry", I would urge you to take the course, pay the fee and get the permit. If nothing else, you should come away knowing when you may or may not use deadly force. Our state required 8 hrs. of classroom and a (too) short session of live fire at a target. (You want scary? You should have seen the targets shot by some people at 7 yards who were going to be issued permits to carry a gun.) You don't have to "carry", but again, you will come away knowing when lethal force is justified, either in self-defense or in the protection of others - at least in your home state.

Ralph the Rifleman

Knowing the law, in any circumstance, is a good thing. Defending yourself, or the life of another, and the use of deadly force is another story. Remember that even if you acted within the boundries of criminal law, you may still be subject to civil liability. I have been thru formal shoot-don't shoot-training, I found it very helpful, and highly recommend it to anyone, even if you choose not to carry a concealed weapon. And in defense of LE people, remember that the bad guy has planned his next move while the cop on the street is a known target to him, knowing when to use deadly force-by police or a civilian-is not an easy thing to do when it normally comes down to a split second decision and not a hollywood staged scene. Yep-been there-done that-don't wish to go back!


“Send Lawyers, Guns, and Money”! The S—t has hit the fan!
--Warren Zevon

Ho! Ho! Ho!. Going where angels fear to tread, DP.,,,Again.

My understanding of what justifies “Deadly Physical Force” and only “Physical Force” is dependent upon federal and state guideline. Federal use of deadly force is weird and almost seems dependent upon lunar phases at moments although one fact always remains: Warning shots are never justified. In my home state of New York Article 35 of the Penal Code denotes guidelines for deadly physical force and then when only physical force is authorized by LEO’s and the citizenry.

New York is really very liberal on this subject area, and this Article 35 makes for very good reading. There’s some very surprising knowledge folks need. Most libraries’ have a good law section. Anybody who shoots anyone for any reason in NYS can expect a DA Investigation and maybe a Grand Jury. That’s required by Article 35.

For the technical part, I was taught self defense shooting in the military and then by a two high-ranking retired NYSP. After watching these two wild men, I wouldn’t want to be a villain going up against NYSP. I also would use a short-barrel shotgun and buckshot for any social shooting. Handguns require constant practice.


There is a sayings out there that goes "Better to be judged by twelve than carried by six". For those who have not heard that before, the twelve refers to a jury and the six refers to pallbearers. You get the point. I'm glad the government is starting to back off cruxifying citizens who act in self-defense but law or no law, you have to question the sanity of a person who would practically allow themselves to be raped or murdered because of what some bureaucrat says.

JA Demko

The problem, Matt, isn't that most victims allow themselves to be victimized from fear of The State®. If you study history, or even just watch the news, it seems like it is wired into most people to submit when threatened. Similarly, most people are wired to find it very difficult to really harm another person. Our primate relatives demonstrate this frequently. Within a chimpanzee or gorilla troupe, there are lots of dominance displays (e.g. screaming and threatenng posturing) but very little actual fighting or physical harm done. Typically, one of the apes submits before that happens.
There's a minority of humans who are willing to harm another. Some of them do it outside the boundaries of what society finds acceptable and we call them criminals. Some of them do it within/for society and we call them heroes. The ability to unhesitatingly harm another human is, in itself, neither good nor bad.
I think there is also a third group who can be trained/coerced into killing, though it doesn't come naturally to them and causes them long-term distress afterward.
Where do people like those of us who post to this blog fit in? Of course, most of us like to think of ourselves as steely-eyed gunslingers on the side of the angels. We like to think that when push comes to shove, we'll shoot and do it well. Who knows though? Study of history and long talks with a good many combat veterans and police officers tells me that you don't know what you will do until the moment arrives. Further, just because you performed well one time doesn't mean you'll do the same every time. The same man may fight like a demi-god in one battle and run like his ass is on fire in the next. Training does, of course, make a difference; but still, who knows? We can train so that we are predisposed to react in certain ways to certain circumstances and that's about it.
The State®, or rather the rather small group of people who control most of the wealth_and therefore political power_would certainly like us all to be good little beta chimps and meekly present our rumps when they exert their alpha status. Most people would be content to do so as long as their bellies are full, their is reasonable order in the streets, and something good on TV. Is that enough for you?


Demko, I think you are right that a lot of people have simply been brainwashed into believing the propaganda put out by the likes of Sarah Brady that fighting back will only make that mugger or rapist mad and just doing whatever he says will cause him to leave you alone (more or less). You are alos right in that you really can't say what person A will do until it happens, but I have a feeling there are a lot of lemmings out there who would put themselves in danger by checking their God-given right to self-defense because The State® (love the ® sign, by the way) tells them to. Just a few weeks ago I saw on the local news about some guy who lost half his worldy possessions to some thugs. Even though he had a gun in his home, he didn't go for it and basically just stood there while he waited for the cops. You have to wonder why.

A. S. Moeggs

There may be a simple defintion for lethal force, but there is no simple answer to; when is lethal force justified. It dosn't matter if your a cop or civilian. I cannot think of any situation where a (totally innocent)person shot another out of self defense here in N. Michigan. (Thank God for that.) I can write of personal experience as a cop, where a partner shot a man who threatned his life with a revolver. The suspect was shot twice as he raised his gun towards the police at a distance of 20 feet. As my friends attempted to stop the bleeding and start CPR, the suspect died. The prosecutor's office ruled this a justified homicide and the officer's returned to work. But now these fine men have to live with the fact they took a man's life and who died in thier arm's. It's a tremendous emotional burden, something I do not wish on anyone having to do. The worse part is, some of the general public scrutinized these officers for their actions, second guessing if what they did was right. It wasn't the DA forming the lynch mob, it was just people, your fellow citizens. They based their beliefs on rumor, what the news paper said, not facts. It's sad to see that a cop can be seen as a killing machine, that we come prepared to kill each shift, with our SAP's, radio's, tazers and such. I will certainly kill another if I have too, but you folks are very wrong if you think it is something you can just prepare yourself for, and life will be honky dory after that. It isn't. Using lethal force isn't easy, cop or not.

Hey Demko, thank you for the advice about using the .300 on elk, I couldn't agree more.

JA Demko

It's dated in some ways, Matt, but you should read The Naked Ape by Desmond Morris. Also read some of Jane Goodall's copious work on the behavior of chimpanzees. Also, rent/borrow/buy the "Fighting" episode from the David Attenborough's Trials of Life series. You'll understand then, when I say that people's tendency to submit when threatened by another person_even when submission isn't going to cause the aggression to stop_is innate. It isn't the result of indoctrination by The State® or anti-gun groups. They simply use that pre-existing tendency for their own advantage. Hell, all rulers throughout human history have done so. That tendency is, perhaps, critical to the proper functioning of the group for social animals.

Charles  Benoit

In the Gravest Extreme should be in everyone's home library. Bought my book back in 1984 and read it every year as a refresher.
It provides simple logic on one's legal rights and responsibilities to gun ownership.

craig curtis

hay matt sounds like you should be writing for this magazine ,your points hit home we often forget that those days of salloon shooting are all gone but we have to do what we have to do , when the bad guy comes hither will the kehonees be their i hope so , im a firefighter and you never know what your getting into but you go head on just like a gunfight may the best man win !! no holds barred and i sure as hell aint gunna worry about some blood sucking laywer making my life miserable after i take this boneheads kneecap out from point blank.life doesnt dole out permission to shoot or not to shoot instincts are going to be all we have and frankly we all have our cross to bear hopefully it wont be a mans life taken with deadly force but if it is just wasnt his day ti live through his mistakes !!!!! thanks again for your insight it was enlightning ps hows the weather up their lol


JA, I have heard about The Naked Ape and so your mention has rekindled the urge to track it down and read. Craig, being a writer for F&S would certainly be an interesting and enlightening vocation. However, I have a feeling that between Petzal and Bill Heavy, the folks at F&S are drowning in smart-ass literary excrement and so a third rabble-rouser there would be too much for them. Of course, if they want to give it a go...

joe zurenda

regarding nys penal 35 a person has the right to use deadly physical force when he reasonably believes that his life or someones life is in danger when he his justified in using deadly force. one must be absolutely sure that the intruder is going to harm them and that the homeowner can retreat from his own home. yes the home owner must retreat from his own home, that sucks but if you cant retreat from your own home and the intruder displays a weapon and he clearly intends to harm you and your family then you are in your right to defend yourself.

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