This post continues a series called “Gun Owner 101.” This post discusses some of the less-concrete aspects of concealed carry and the use of lethal force. In my opinion, material of this sort is grossly under-represented in the carry/defense/EDC space. I think these are incredibly important concepts to be exposed to, consider, and factor in your concealed-carry and home-defense plans. If I were teaching a concealed carry class I would work hard to present these concepts.
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A big “thank you” to my friend Neil who read over this article and provided me with some invaluable feedback. Thanks, man!
Caveats and Disclaimers
A lot of articles have been written in the past year for the new gun owner. Gun ownership has surged and many of those articles have been geared at the firearms you should purchase. Comparatively little has been written about the non-hardware aspects of self-defense. I hope this answers a few questions you may have. Much more importantly I hope it raises many, many more questions in your mind that you will answer for yourself.
I am not a lawyer. This article will discuss some legal topics. Consider these nothing more than discussion from a layman. Nothing offered here should be considered legal advice. Nothing here should be considered a hard-and-fast fact. The best legal advice (in the colloquial, rather than professional, use of the term “advice”) I can offer is this: seek the advice of a professional in the field of self-defense.
Keep in mind that law enforcement officers, security guards, military personnel, gun store clerks, concealed carry instructors, etc. are not professionals in the field of self-defense law. Sure, many of these individuals carry firearms in the execution of their duties, but their “rules of engagement” vary widely from the each other, and from the average civilian on the street. Some of the worst firearms advice I have ever heard has come from gun-store employees and concealed carry instructors. Choose your experts carefully.
Terminology: I use the terms “lethal force” and “deadly force” interchangeably throughout this article. They mean the same thing.
This information is incomplete. This article does not purport to tell you everything there is to know about lethal force. I strongly recommend reading widely and deeply on the topic. Unfortunately it is very likely you and you alone who will face the consequences of what Claude Werner terms a “negative outcome.” It is your duty to educate yourself on the legality of lethal force in self-defense, just as it is your responsibility to develop skill with your chosen defensive tools.
Let’s get into it.
Bottom Line Up Front
Every bullet you fire – whether in the act of self-defense or not – carries a tremendous and terrible responsibility. I usually like to phrase it this way, and this will touch at the heart of this article: like it or not, you accept full legal, financial, and moral responsibility for every bullet you fire. And I mean every single bullet – every bullet fired in training, while hunting, every bullet loosed as the result of negligence or accident, and certainly every bullet you fire in self-defense.
We all probably image “our shoot” occurring under perfectly clear-cut circumstances. Sometimes that is the case and there is very little ambiguity. Many times, though, fights are extremely fast paced. They begin suddenly with seemingly little warning, are a frenzy of activity happening mere feet away or possibly in contact with us, and are over in a matter of seconds. They may be extremely confusing in the moment but still demand a defensible decision about what level of force you chose to use. When that decision is made and force employed, we accept responsibility for that use of force.
Allow me to relate the anecdote that sparked my train of thought for this article. Then we will look more closely at each of these categories of responsibility.
This article was spawned as the result of a conversation I had with my mother, probably two years ago now. I have thought about this conversation over and over again. She related the story of going to her church, mid morning on a weekday to clean it. I will paraphrase her words here.
“I went over to the church to clean it. I got there and the side door was open. I didn’t know if I should pull out my gun and go in, or call the police, or what!”
I responded to her with a question: “would you have gone in looking for the burglar if you didn’t have a gun?” Her answer, of course, was in the negative.
“Then why would you go in since you have a gun?” She didn’t really have an answer at all, and that’s what concerns me so much about this conversation. She was willing to risk the legal, financial, and moral consequences of a deadly force incident without a really good, articulable reason for doing so.
In this instance my mother was going to willingly put herself in closer proximity to someone already in commission of a crime. That’s not smart. If this person is willing to burglarize a church he may well be willing to harm anyone blocking his escape route. Apprehending him is the job of the police, not a civilian woman in her late-60s. Instead, she had the option to completely avoid the situation by getting her car, driving down the road to a safe distance, and calling the cops. Avoidance is almost an ironclad guarantee against negative outcomes like the ones I will spent thousands of words discussing in this article. Many situations are different. It’s unlikely that your self-defense scenario will be as clear-cut, but think you should about these things in advance.
Next, she was mentally more aggressive because she had a firearm on her person. This is a really dangerous mindset to get into. Carrying a gun makes me kinder, less likely to respond to verbal slights, insults, inconsiderate behavior like someone cutting in line, etc. I’m not going to be your doormat, but I’ll let 99% of stuff slide off my back. It’s not worth saying something to the person who then decides they need to escalate, and things getting out of hand. First, that might cost me the element of “innocence” in a lawful self-defense claim (I started the altercation). Second, whether I’m legally right or wrong, if a shooting results I’ve just subjected myself to the legal, financial, and moral consequences of a shooting that probably could have been avoided altogether.
She was also considering a deadly force response in defense of property. The church in question is small, country church with a weekly attendance of maybe 40 people on a good Sunday. There is nothing of any real financial value in there, and since this occurred midday and midweek, no one else was at the church. The only thing that could have been defended was property, none of which holds significant value. She failed to seriously consider the situation and assess the risk.
What is the risk if she doesn’t intervene? The theft of some replaceable hymnals, or maybe the church is vandalized, requiring a few thousand dollars to repair. But what is the risk if she does intervene? First, she might have been hurt or killed. With her concealed carry permit as her sole formal training I’d hesitate to call her a “gunfighter.” Even if she were highly skilled in the use of arms she would have been entering the situation at a disadvantage. If her use of force was “successful” she might have faced criminal charges, and defending herself against them might have cost her retirement. If not charged she might’ve been sued and still lost the house she’s lived in for four and a half decades, her car, and her bank accounts. And certainly there would have been a moral toll had she shot someone.
Upon hearing the rest of the story I learned that my mother (wisely) chose not to intervene and instead called the police. She didn’t do everything right – she stood near the open door until police arrived. The responding deputy determined the church had been broken into at some point prior to my mother’s arrival (hours to days) and nothing was damaged or missing.
This situation and my mother’s mental response matrix created a potential recipe for disaster. It astounds me that her concealed carry class left her so unprepared to choose between hunting down a bad guy or walking away and letting the police deal with it. Let’s look at some of the legal, financial, and ethical consequences she might have faced had this situation turned out differently. This is what I wish she’d been taught in class, and I hope the considerations here help you make better decisions should you face a similar situation. Though the scenarios below sound far-fetched they have all happened. Nearly all of them have happened to one individual who defended himself with deadly force and is not a household name because of it. These risks are very real.
Let’s first look at the potential legal responsibility inherent in using deadly force.
On one hand, legal responsibility is probably the easiest for most of us to imagine – we know the cops are going to get called if we shoot someone. Most of us can imagine at least some sort of cursory interaction with law enforcement officers in the immediate aftermath of a shooting – hence the ubiquity of sayings like, “better judged by twelve than carried by six.”Paradoxically, it may also the most difficult to imagine. Most gun owners and concealed carriers probably assume that they are in the right, they aren’t a criminal or a “bad” guy, and are generally perceived as a “good” guy. Let’s really think about the potential legal responsibility we’re signing ourselves up for.
First, there are no special “good guy” cops that are going to come to the scene of your shooting. They are just normal cops, and they will very likely treat you like they normally treat a person who has shot someone else. You may get the benefit of the doubt because you called 911, or you may not. What you probably won’t get is a pat on the back and a hearty, “thank you for cleaning up the streets,” from the sheriff. You will very likely be detained and placed into the legal system, at least for a short period of time. Maybe not, but it’s probably reasonable to assume you’ll get to check out the back set of a police cruiser.
At this point you’ll probably get a crash course in the fine art of the interview. You just went through a ridiculously high-stress event. Your entire body was flooded with a complex cocktail of hormones. You’ll probably be amped up and want to talk. Cops know this, and they will absolutely let you talk. They may encourage you to talk through various means – you may be warned that the more you tell them now the faster this will be over. You may be “befriended” by a cop who tells you he would have done the same thing. You might be told if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear. At this point you may vaguely remember hearing somewhere that cops are allowed to lie to you, but this guy seems like he’s on your side, and you’re tired and stressed out – why not just get this over with?
In the very best of cases you will be released but the case will be under investigation for days to weeks. Not a big deal, right? During that time you will doubtlessly be under tremendous stress. You may begin to appreciate the scope of possibilities, the array of charges that may be selectively leveled at you. You should be paranoid of the eyes that are on you. You should absolutely be concerned about the content of you social media accounts. Is there something there to indicate you may be careless, show some disdain for the law, are a self-styled vigilante? The police will interview bystanders. Is your “MAGA” hat or “Bang Bang MF” t-shirt going to influence their perception of you, and their statements to police? They will confiscate and inspect your gun. Is the Punisher backplate on your Glock going to raise the hackles of the politically-appointed chief of police? You should be very concerned at this time.
If the other party didn’t die as the result of your application of lethal force you might only be charged with attempted murder, manslaughter, or aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. All of these are felonies, and all can result in serious prison time. If the other party died as the result of your use of lethal force (a reasonable assumption that he might), the possibility now exists for you to be charged with murder. Because you are claiming self-defense you freely admit that you shot the other party. You cannot claim that you both “didn’t do it” and “did it in self-defense.” Because you used self-defense you are admitting to homicide while hoping to convince the jury it was justified.
If charges are filed, you will probably spend some time in jail before the trial. If you cannot come up with several hundred thousand dollars for bail, you will probably spend months in jail awaiting trial. During all this time you will be separated from your family and friends and will be surrounded by career criminals. You will surrender your freedom, the ability to eat what you want when you want, wear what you want, go where you please, even the ability to read what you want.
If your case goes to trial there is at least some chance you will be found guilty. Remember, you will be forced to defend yourself against the state. You are certainly starting behind the eight-ball. The state already has a good idea of their case when they bring charges against you. You do not, and are forced to react to the state. The state is able to bring ponderous amounts of money to bear on a case against you. The state can afford to hire expert witnesses. Do you have the money to hire expert witnesses to counter the state’s claims? You will learn first-hand how powerful the sworn testimony of a police officer in a clean, pressed-and-starched uniform is. You will learn the power of the media. You will find a newfound respect for the concept of “innocent until proven guilty” and wish others had the same.
Your actions will be intensely scrutinized. Your “shoot” occurred at night, lasted about 3 seconds start-to-finish, and seemed to come out of nowhere. You were completely blindsided and reacted to an incomplete set of facts, and made a decision in a split-second. But now, months later and in perfect safety, attorneys wearing $1,500 suits sitting in air-conditioned offices from 9-5 will pick over every action or inaction attributed to you – not just during the shooting, but before and after it, too. They will probably have video (because everywhere has video now) and they will have 911 recordings, your testimony, and your actions on police body cams. Do you look sufficiently remorseful? Did your actions seem in keeping with a man who was “forced” to defend himself, or did you seem a little too relaxed or pleased with yourself?
Your words will be picked apart. Remember all the stuff you said to the cops months ago when this happened? There’s a good chance you got some of it mixed up. Did you perfectly recall the exact sequence of events? Were your words measured and precise? Would you bet your freedom on words spoken while your body was coursing with adrenaline and cortisol? Do you trust a prosecutor to represent the spirit of your words fairly, and not twist them to fit a certain narrative?
But you’re the “good guy,” so you don’t need to worry about that, right? There is a pretty good chance the charges will be dropped. If not, there’s a decent chance you will be judged “not guilty” by the court. Let’s say you are. That’s cool – logic and facts won the case and you’re now free to go. Freedom will feel especially sweet for a while. Soon you will realize that though you are free, “Not Guilty” is not the same thing as “innocent.” Now you are a person who has been charged with murder. You may have to disclose that at various occasions throughout your life, like applying for a job or renewing a professional license. Even if you don’t have to disclose, news articles with your name, photo, and details of the case will exist online forever, just a Google search away. Every time a cop runs your license plate he or she will be able to see that you were once charged with a serious crime.
I strongly recommend that you understand what is legal and what is not, in regards to self-defense. There is a ton of self-defense folk lore out there. Don’t base your self-defense strategy around your Uncle Bob’s cool sayings like, “if you’re found here at night, you’ll be found here in the morning.” It’s a recipe for getting intimately familiar with your state’s criminal system. An invaluable source of information is Andrew Branca’s outstanding Law of Self Defense. I’ve also attended one of Andrew’s classes and can’t recommend it highly enough.
Now let’s explore the financial responsibility of lethal force.
“I’d rather be alive and broke than dead and rich,” is another aphorism I hear applied to the concept of financial responsibility for the use of lethal force. And it’s true to a point; I actually would rather be alive and broke than dead and rich. I’ve been broke before. If I’d been dead before I wouldn’t be writing this. However, being bankrupted, losing my real property, and very likely losing a considerable chunk of income are potential outcomes of using lethal force. Financial ruin is a not only a potential outcome of self-defense, but of being careless or reckless with a firearm, too. Let’s look at what you have to lose.
First there is the loss of income. This loss of income can be a first-, second-, or third-order effect of the event. A first-order effect would be losing income because you are locked away and can’t work. That is certainly a realistic expectation if you spend more than a night in jail. A second-order effect would be your place of employment deciding they don’t want you working there, “until this thing is cleared up.” Maybe you live in an at-will state and it’s perfectly legal for them to kick you to the curb. And even if you don’t end up in jail and your case “only” drags on in civil court, how understanding is your employer going to be at your continual absences for court appearances? Maybe your company fires you unfairly. That sucks, but right now are you really going to have the time and money to pursue them in court? Probably not, at least for a while. A third-order effect would be the notoriety, media entourage, and death threats that would make going to work impractical if not outright impossible.
Loss of income probably wouldn’t seem like a big deal for a few days. However, if you can’t raise the money to effect bail and have to sit in jail for months I have no doubt that it could get pretty trying. It will seem like a big deal when the mortgage, car payments, insurance, and other bills are going unpaid, your spouse is listing the things she can’t buy, and someone else is feeding your kids. It will seem like a very big deal when you begin to realize the cost of defending yourself in court.
You start calling attorneys. Attorneys are expensive – let’s say $250/hour for criminal lawyer. We’re erring way, way on the low side – competent criminal attorneys can easily charge 3-4 times that hourly rate. And yes, you’ll need a criminal lawyer because you’ll be tried in criminal court, not some special “good guy court.” Obviously that cost is going to add up quickly. In a system where you get all the justice you can afford, do you want your attorney skimping on the hours and cutting corners to stay within a budget? Or do you want all the stops pulled out to get you out of jail with a Not Guilty verdict? I’m guessing most of us will desire the latter, but it’s going to cost. The alternative is a public defender earning $50k/year…is that who you want defending you?
Your attorney may need to call an expert witness or two. This might be to demonstrate something, or simply to refute an expert witness brought by the state. Though some will, most don’t work out of the kindness of their hearts. Most charge handsomely for their time under oath, their time spent reviewing the case, and you’ll pay for their travel, as well. And what if you need expensive forensic testing, say a ballistics test or a DNA test? Those tests can cost tens of thousands alone. Your attorney will also probably need some help – ideally at least one other attorney and a paralegal or two. They will spend time tracking down and interviewing witnesses, reviewing evidence, studying relevant case law, conducting depositions, driving back and forth to meet you – basically making themselves experts on the ins and outs of your particular case, all of which equates to billable hours.
At this point you can probably imagine how quickly that adds up. An attorney would only have to bill 400 hours at $250/hour (that’s 40 hours a week for 10 weeks – not that much time for a capital murder case) to burn through $100,000, just charging his or her standard hourly rate. A competent criminal defense is expensive – very expensive. One notable case in the last decade (one that is now a household name) racked up a legal bill of somewhere between $1.5 and 2.5 million dollars, depending on what source you follow. Sure, he “won” the case, but if that’s what winning looks like…
Maybe you don’t get charged with a crime at all. Maybe it’s an open-and-shut case. You did the right thing and it’s easy for the police to see, so they tell you that you aren’t being charged, they aren’t taking you to jail, they aren’t even taking your gun. You’re free to go on about your business. That’s great! But you aren’t out of the wood when it comes to civil litigation. You can still be sued by the individual you shot. If he is is deceased, you can still be sued by his family.
Of course there is always the possibility you will face both a criminal and a civil trial. Imagine the stress of wrapping up even a short criminal trial with a Not Guilty verdict, only to discover the next day that you are the target of a wrongful death suit. Maybe you’ll win, maybe you’ll lose. But now you have to start all over again from scratch. Preparing a new defense, etc. Not only that, but you also have to pay a legal team – again – to defend you from the lawsuit. And of course there is a possibility you will lose the case and own a millions-of-dollars verdict. We all imagine our shootings to be squeaky clean but when humans are asked with weighing arguments and evidence the outcome can been really unpredictable.
Sure, money isn’t everything. But you’ll still want to put a roof over the heads of your family. You’ll still want to put food in their mouths and clothes on your back. You don’t want a shooting to make you have to start building your life all over again, from scratch, starting with a bankruptcy.
Finally, let’s briefly look at the moral responsibility of lethal force.
Then there is the much more squishy moral responsibility. I chose the term “moral” over the similar term “ethical” because of the different loci – or sources of origination and power – of the two terms. Morals come from an internal locus – your personal, internalized beliefs and values. Ethics, however, come from an external locus – what society thinks is right and wrong. To be fair you will have to tangle with some ethical issues, but society’s ethics will be imposed through legal and financial means (mostly – see “other factors” below).
First, let’s talk about the emotional impact of killing with complete, undeniable justification. A very few of you would have no problem at all with it. Many of you would, even thought you imagine you wouldn’t. In the modern world we have done everything we possibly can to separate ourselves from the idea of death. We employ euphemism to distance ourselves, like “he passed on” or “he passed away” rather than much more plain, “he died.” People no longer die at home with family. Now we send our elders off to die away from us, in hospitals, nursing homes, and hospice facilities.
We further distance ourselves from death buy buying packaged meat. I don’t know the percentage of meat-eating Americans who have killed an animal in the pursuit of their own nourishment but I daresay it is vanishingly small. For that matter we don’t even refer to cow meat as “cow meat.” Instead we call it beef, and we call pig meat “pork.”
Very few of us have ever been around a dead person, except perhaps passing a casket or two. Even fewer of us have watched a person actively die. An even smaller percentage of us have ever had a hand in the death of another. Most practitioners of self-defense probably imagine that shooting another person is no big deal, emotionally. I’ll just tell you – if you’ve been around someone who has died or been seriously injured in your presence – it will impact you emotionally. If they’ve died at your hand, that emotional reaction will be even stronger. Those emotions may be positive or negative, strong or mild, but they will be present. They might be unpredictable and until you know, you don’t really know how it will effect you. I’m not going to tell you what you’re going to feel, but I can almost guarantee it won’t feel like what you think it will feel like.
Now, imagine your “shoot” is perfectly justifiable, legally. Let’s further imagine there is no civil or other financial peril. You’re off Scot-free, right? Well, you will certainly have to deal with some emotions. Sometimes an application of lethal force can be perfectly justifiable legally, but still be morally questionable.
Greg Ellifritz recently penned an article about, “I’ll kill anyone who comes in my house.” I highly recommend you go read it. In my state I am legally justified in shooting anyone who is not an occupant and who makes entry into my home. Is it moral just because it is legal? Read the article above: killing an elderly woman with Alzheimer’s who found her way into my home is not in accordance with my morals. Greg also posted an article some time ago about a woman who shot at a figure in her home, only to discover she had killed her nephew (I really wish I could find that article). Her actions were perfectly legal but if you fired that shot would your moral code be satisfied?
Now, you also accept moral responsibility for unintentional deaths and in injuries that your action or inaction caused. This encompasses a broad swath of stuff: negligent discharges (from mishandling your firearm), errant rounds (whether on a poorly planned range or in a self-defense situation), firearms that were left accessible to unauthorized parties and used to cause harm (your kids finding your gun), the failure to secure your firearm resulting in its theft and later use in a crime (whether stolen from your car, your home, or off your body while open-carrying in a crap holster).
I can’t determine what is and is not moral for you – you’ll have to figure that out for yourself. I recommend figuring it out ahead of time; once you pull the trigger you’ll be left to live with it. The moral responsibility will be much more tolerable if your actions were morally acceptable to you. Find and fix firmly your moral code now. Don’t act, then realize your actions were in conflict with your morality.
There are a few other life-changes that may result from the use of deadly force. I’m sure there are even a few more that I haven’t considered, so this list may grow in time.
Loss of privacy. If you are involved in a shooting you will lose some privacy. You may think of privacy as an esoteric concept now. When eight TV crews are parked in front of your apartment and you have to run a gauntlet of reporters to get to your car there will be nothing theoretical about it. You will lose some privacy, no matter what. It might be a simple mention on a newspaper’s website, or a local news story that only impacts you when someone Googles your name. It might be a national news story that makes it impossible for you to hold a job or even go to the grocery store, even years from now. One individual who used deadly force and became a household name is recognized nearly everywhere he goes.
Loss of family. You may lose your family. The stress of having shot someone can be intense. The stress of fighting for your own life again, in court, can be both intense and protracted. The legal bills piling up – hell, just the regular bills if you can’t work – pile on even more stress. Other kids at school make cruel remarks to your kids about their dad being a murderer, which ups the ante further. How long will your marriage survive this pressure cooker?
You may very well lose your family in the aftermath of a shooting. The higher the stakes are and the longer the post-incident proceedings drag on, the more likely this is to occur. No one imagines their family will leave them. Yours may not, so let’s assume they don’t. Your family may receive death threats. Your wife and kids may be harassed while the are out in public. Are they prepared to deal with that stress? Are you prepared to put them under that stress?
Alteration of friendships. Some of your friends will still be there but people are going to look at you differently. You’re exactly the same dude you were before the shooting. You’re still the nice, kind guy you always were. You’ve been through hell and now you need friendship and support more than ever. But people are going to look at you differently. Some of them won’t know how to act around you. They’re going to look at you and wonder if you really were justified, or if you got away with it. They’ll wonder what you went through in jail. Some insensitive types will probably joke callously with you, “hey, don’t shoot me, killer!”
Potential for injury or death. I’ve heard Grant Cunningham say something along the lines of, “if you get into a fight your chances of getting hurt rise above zero percent.” What he means is that you stand at least some chance of being injured. We all imagine being in a shooting where the bad guy is shot and we are unscathed – a little shaken up, maybe, but otherwise in good shape. That may or may not be how it plays out. When guns are drawn the stakes are raised for everyone involved. You may end up having your gun taken away from you. You may end up grappling, trying desperately to hold on to your firearm. You may end up being cut to pieces. The fact is you have no clue what will happen until it happens and its over.
Not only are you left to deal with the psychological after effects of extremely violence, you might bleed out and die. You might lose the use of a hand, an eye, or an entire limb. You might end up gut shot requiring extensive surgeries. A friend of mine who read this article before publication said, “I think I heard this from Dave Spaulding: ‘if winning means shitting into a colostomy bag for the rest of your life or being a cripple then how much of win was it really?'”
I am all for the preservation of life through means up to and including deadly force. However, I am also 100% in favor of the preservation of lifestyle, as well. I don’t want to save my own life only to find that I have a brand lifestyle that is completely different from the one I had prior to using deadly force. Sure it’s better to be alive in jail or be alive and broke. Personally I’m going to pursue the path toward being alive and free and financially intact.
Why Am I Telling You This?
At this point you may be wondering why I am telling you this. It may sound as if I am anti-deadly force. It may sound that I am trying to encourage you to be hesitant to employ deadly force, even if it is warranted. Those are not the case at all. I strenuously support the right of the individual to defend him or herself with force, up to and including deadly force. The goal of this article is to expose you to some of the problems that can arise from being poorly trained in the use of your firearm and ill-educated in self-defense law. The people I really want to discourage are those saying things like, “I’ll shoot anybody who [fill in the blank].”
I hope above all else that this encourages you to seek a vigorous training regimen. I also hope this article encourages you to think through some alternatives to deadly force that may prevent you from having to shoot someone. Relying solely on a gun – a tool useful only for when deadly force is justified – leaves you unprepared for everything short of deadly force. Here are a few options you can consider as an alternative when deadly force is not yet indicated.
First, you should work to develop your situational awareness. If you see someone coming who is displaying pre-attack indicators, get up and walk away. If you see that you are headed toward an darkened alley, switch sides of the street. If the tone of the room suddenly changes pick your head up and look around. Get your head out of your phone. Get the ear buds out. Look around you. If there’s a demonstration planned in a certain part of town, don’t go there. If someone gets aggressive with you and you can simply walk (or run) away, do it – don’t stand there and try to prove yourself. Instead prove your intelligence by avoiding a dangerous situation. If you can completely avoid a situation that might evolve into the use of deadly force, do so! That is the most desirable possible outcome..
Ironically, I started reading Violence of Mind by Varg Freeborn just as I was finishing this article. It contains some really good discussion on why avoidance is so important and the potential consequences of failing to avoid a confrontation. I highly recommend reading Violence of Mind by Varg Freeborn.
If you can’t completely avoid, get some verbal skills and use them. This might require taking a class or two on de-escalation (I know “de-escalation” is an unpopular word but it still has value). Talking your way out of a situation is massively preferable to fighting your way out. That might require different techniques for different situations. If someone is already highly agitated or in a highly-charged environment like a night club you’d might want to be a little more diplomatic. On the other hand, learn to be assertive when it is indicated. Learn to say “no” firmly to people like panhandlers or other people coming up to you unsolicited to ask what might be distracting questions like, “do you know what time it is,” or “do you have a light?”
You can’t avoid everything, and you probably can’t talk your way out of everything. You need some tools if things go beyond words. The first among those should be a non-weapon-mounted light (I have reviewed a shitload of suitable candidates here). A flashlight can help you be more certain of a situation, let that other person know you are aware of them, help you visualize someone’s hands, or take away their vision for a few seconds. It’s highly, highly unlikely you’ll be charged (or that the police will even be called) because you shined a flashlight at someone who turned out not to be a threat. The penalty for using a flashlight inappropriately is usually nothing more than a dirty look – it is a very forgiving tool.
You should probably have some empty-hand skills, too. If the first time you ever get punched or taken to the ground is in a bar somewhere, it is probably going to be pretty frightening. You probably don’t have the depth of experience to determine what is likely to cause grave injury and what is “just” a punch. You probably lose the mental ability to think through what is actually happening to you and assess it accurately. You also probably lack the skills to defend yourself without tools, and if a gun is the only too you have, it is the only option you have. If you get punched in the face and go to your gun in response you are very likely to experience a very negative outcome.
I would recommend developing some skills in empty-hand combatives. Go to your BJJ dojo a couple times a week, take a boxing lesson, do something. This will allow you to be punched without panicking. Some skill may allow you to disengage completely. You may need some skill to free your hands to even get to your gun, assuming its use is warranted.
I think carrying pepper spray is a really, really good idea, too. I’ve written at length on pepper spray. I would much rather leave my gun at home than leave my pepper spray. Pepper spray gives you a really effective tool to when deadly force would be disproportional. It gives you a tool that you can carry while drinking alcohol or going into places where firearms are prohibited. If, for example, someone insisted on punching me in the face, would I be justified in shooting them? There would really have to be some extenuating circumstances at play to justify killing that person for punching me.
Pepper spray gives me a very forgiving tool to break off that attack. And if I fuck up and completely misjudge the situation and use pepper spray without a good reason, or miss and hit the wrong person? At worse I may have to defend myself from much lesser charges that murder or attempted murder. Hitting the wrong person with pepper spray is still not ideal and non-lethal force should also be applied judiciously, but pepper spray is a much more legally, financially, and morally forgiving tool than a firearm.
Sometimes Deadly Force *Is* The Answer
Does this mean I recommend against the use of deadly force? Absolutely not – when deadly force is justified it is the safest, surest method of defending your life. Sometimes deadly force is the only reasonable and appropriate response to an attack. You should be prepared to employ deadly force decisively and without hesitation when it is called for. Employing deadly force does not require you run through the entire spectrum of force first. You don’t have to issue verbal commands, followed by non-lethal force, followed by hands-on force before you can go to deadly force. If you are presented with an imminent, credible threat to your life you can jump immediate to deadly force to deal with that threat.
Some people misunderstand the purpose of deadly force. I hear this somewhat often in my job which consists of a high percentage of gun owners but an extremely low percentage of exceptionally well-educated gun owners. I hear things like, “if he comes on my property I’ll show him!” or “I’ll kill anybody that [fill in the blank].” The purpose of deadly force is not to kill, it is not to punish, it is not to be judge, jury, and executioner. The purpose of deadly force is the stop an attacker from continuing whatever action made you shoot him in the first place. When an attacker discontinues violent action against you it is time to stop shooting. If he runs away, falls to the ground, or puts his hands up – it’s time to stop shooting.
You may read this as me being “soft” or recommending applying insufficient force, or whatever. The fact is, I only want to use deadly force when it is the only viable option. I only want to use the minimum force necessary to stop the deadly force threat to me. As we’ve discussed ad nauseum, every time you use deadly force you incur significant risks. The more deadly force you use the more opportunity there is to miss your target and harm someone else. The more force you use after my target ceases to be a threat, the more jeopardy you potentially place yourself in. The more rounds you fire the more opportunity you give the prosecutor to make you look like a bloodthirsty killer.
To reiterate I’m not advocating hesitation in the face of a threat that warrants deadly force. Hesitation may get you killed. I’m also not advocating using less-the-sufficient force. I am advocating thoughtful use of force. I am advocating avoidance of situations that are more likely to escalate to deadly force. I am advocating making smart decisions in the moment about whether or not to use deadly force. I am advocating for the application of enough force to stop a threat, no less, and no more. Acting inappropriately or at the wrong time may save your life, but alter your lifestyle to the point that is completely unrecognizable. I am willing to act to save my own life, but I am also highly interested in saving my lifestyle.
The best and most important thing you can do to ensure you own survival, and the preservation of your lifestyle is to get training. Training is expensive and time-consuming but it is absolutely worth the investment. The only thing at stake is everything: your life, your freedom, your financial stability, your family and friends. Those things seem like reasonable justification for spending some time training and practicing. There are three general categories of training that I would recommend you seek out.
If all of your mental bandwidth is tied up just flipping the safety off of your brand new P365 because you haven’t really trained with it, you’re at a mental deficit to assess the rest of the situation. Training can make the manipulation of your firearm happen without conscious thought so your mental capacity can remain focused on what is still, doubtlessly, an evolving situation. Training can reduce the likelihood of a fouled draw, a malfunction, or other problems that can suck all your mental bandwidth and attention away from the events happening around you.
It would also be well worth your time to participate in some training outside of simple handgun manipulation. Force-on-force training is invaluable. I have taken hundreds of Simunition and UTM rounds and can testify to the effectiveness of high-fidelity force-on-force training. Force-on-force will first teach you that things happen much faster than you imagine and that things will almost certainly occur in a sequence that you haven’t yet imagined. It will humble you and make you realize how far you have to go. Then it will make you more effective at dealing with a dynamic, fluid event.
Some legal training is a really, really good idea, too. Plenty of people have used deadly force then they thought they were “good,” only to find out they weren’t. Massad Ayoob’s MAG40 class was a groundbreaker in this arena and is still highly respected; unfortunately I have not attended it and don’t know if I’ll ever have the chance to. I have attended live training with Andrew Branca and highly recommend it. If you can’t attend their live training, you owe it to yourself to at least read some books. I realize this is a training gap I have; while I can and do recommend Law of Self Defense I need to expand my repertoire of books pertaining to self-defense law. I will be following my own advice and posting some of that information for you shortly.
As I said in the beginning of this article, this is incomplete information. There is much more to know about deadly force. Some of it must be learned for oneself. Some of it must be developed through the development of one’s own, internalized morals. Some of it must be captured through training, thought experiment, discussion, and case studies. I am a student myself and can only take you so far. I sincerely hope that this has been helpful. If you have found it helpful I ask you to share it with someone who can benefit from it.