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self defense with firearm

When Can You Shoot Someone?

A good practical question for people who concealed carry or have a gun in the home for defense purposes is when to shoot or not to shoot. It's not terribly different from knowing when to draw your gun and when not to.

Bear in mind that this isn't legal advice, just a discussion about the topic. Seek qualified legal advice if you are in need of it, and from a source qualified and knowledgeable in the self-defense laws of your city and state.

Self-Defense Theory Vs. Reality

reality of self defense

By now, most people are aware of what legal self-defense entails or something like it. The short version is you must have a reasonable belief that your or someone else's life will be taken or that you or someone else will suffer crippling, debilitating injury if you don't use it.

That, or something like it, is what most state laws say, though there are some variations on the theme. Some states mandate you try to run away first (duty to retreat states) and others (Castle doctrine/Stand Your Ground states) do not.

A person defending themselves under the legal requirements is said to have "perfect self defense." Anything short of that, but closer than sheer manslaughter or murder, would be "imperfect self defense," where a person had an honest belief of being in danger, but said belief was not reasonable.

When To Shoot

how to know when to shoot

When should a person shoot? The easiest answer is when death or injury is clearly imminent. However, there may be situations where you don't know that it is...or isn't.

For instance, say you discover a strange man (or woman) in your home in the middle of the night. They have a knife in their possession and are clearly advancing toward you.

In this situation, shooting would be (likely) totally justified. This hypothetical person has the ability to harm you with the knife, the opportunity since they are in close proximity, and most likely intent, since they are closing distance with a deadly weapon against the rightful occupant of the space.

What about different circumstances? Say you find a (different) hypothetical person in your house. They're awake, walking around and so on, but clearly disoriented. They aren't responding to communication or orders to vacate the premises.

The person could be merely drunk or on drugs. They may be, due to their stupor, incapable of harming anyone or ready to. They could be also be mentally ill, possibly violently so but also possibly not. In short, you don't know that they mean you or anyone else harm.

Or say you arrive home to find a burglar in your home. The burglar doesn't attempt to fight; they drop what they've attempted to take and bolt for the back door. The attempt to flee would indicate they don't mean harm to life or limb or that they even want to fight.

Do you shoot? These scenarios are deep inside the "gray" area. There have been real-life cases of both where a home invader or burglar was shot and/or killed in similar circumstances. The shooters have been variously never charged, charged but acquitted and also convicted and sentenced.

It isn't easy to substantiate self-defense if the person posing the threat was shot in the back.

Present, Active and Credible Threat Must Be Present

how to handle a threat

Almost all statutes mandate that you have to be presented with a real, present and credible threat to life or limb. You must have no other option but to shoot in order to shoot.

Unfortunately, there aren't too many large studies into defensive shootings by private citizens. Something approaching one has made the rounds in the blogosphere, consisting of an analysis of five years' worth of data from the NRA's "Armed Citizen" column. (You can find it at TacticalProfessor if you're interested - in PDF.) One finding is that most defensive shootings in the data occurred at just out of arm's reach.

In other words, assailants weren't shot until coming close enough to do actual harm.

It's better to be judged by 12 than carried by 6, but the best answer on when to shoot appears to be if the burglar, robber, car jacker or other assailant legitimately poses a threat and comes close enough to make good on it.

Sam Hoober

About The Author

Born in southeastern Washington State, Sam Hoober graduated in 2011 from Eastern Washington University. He resides in the great Inland Northwest, with his wife and child. His varied interests and hobbies include camping, fishing, hunting, and spending time at the gun range as often as possible.