When Is It OK To Use Deadly Force?!
By: William P. Flinn
With all the publicity that the George Zimmerman trial is attracting, a great deal of speculation abounds with regard to the questions about using deadly force, or any force for that matter, against another human being in self defense. In fact, questions that my students often ask is "When is it OK to use deadly force? When are we allowed to deploy a firearm to defend ourselves" While the answer to those questions about the use of deadly force really depends on the scenario, some of which will be discussed in this article, there are a few rules of thumb you can use to help you understand when you are more likely to be justified in using deadly force. Remembering that the possibilities for attack scenarios are endless, however, and this humble writer cannot possibly presume to know them all. I simply urge you to do some homework, ask a lawyer if needed, and above all use common sense! But read on, and I will attempt to at least clear up a few of the questions surrounding the use of firearms for self defense.
Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer. This is not legal advice. The following information is for educational, illustrative, and instructive purposes only. I cannot presume to know all the possible scenarios where self defense skills will come into play. Please consult a lawyer in your area to find out what laws exist, and how they apply to you and your particular situation. Use common sense.
Reasonable Force versus Deadly Force: One of the first things to realize when it comes to the question of whether or not to use deadly force in a self defense situation, is that the amount of force needed to defend one's self needs to be appropriate to the attack. You cannot use deadly force simply because you are being attacked or threatened. For example, if you are a normal and healthy 175 pound man and you are being attacked by another normal and healthy 175 pound man who is unarmed, then deadly force will most likely be looked upon as being excessive. In this example, you are at risk for getting a fat lip or some bruises. Responding by using an implement which breaks the attacker's bones or kills the attacker is simply not justified. I suggest you take some empty hand self defense training, in addition to your firearms training. But what if you are that same 175 pound man facing three 175 pound men, at least one of whom has a bat or a knife? You are facing disparate force in this case, and your only way to defend yourself may be your firearm. Deadly force is probably justified. One very common definition for the justification of deadly force is often stated like this:
"Deadly force may only be used when there is an immediate, and unavoidable danger of death or great/grave bodily harm to an innocent person, where no other option exists other than the use of deadly force."
Note the words/phrases "immediate," "unavoidable," "death or great/grave bodily harm," "innocent," and "no other options exist." I think these are pretty self explanatory. But let those words sink in real good because if you are ever involved in a self defense shooting, you will need to be able to articulate how each one of those phrases applied to your situation.
The Purpose of Using a Firearm (Deadly Force): One of the most common questions about carrying a concealed firearm that should be first and foremost in our minds - "what is the purpose for carrying a firearm for self defense?" This answer is, and always should be, that a firearm is simply a tool of last resort to stop an attack where you risk death or severe bodily injury from an attacker. Firearms are the great equalizer against an attacker, or multiple attackers, who present greater strength or deadly force of their own. Whether it is a 200+ pound thug attacking a 125 pound woman, or a lunatic with a knife attacking someone, even if the victim is about their same size and weight, or multiple attackers with varying degrees of physical strength and unknown weapons, a gun allows a person to defend themselves and stop the attack.
Deadly force is a component of self defense that the firearm gives us. People who have been trained (at least by ME anyway), know that the purpose for using a firearm in self defense is not to kill; it is not to maim; it is not to injure. The purpose for carrying a firearm for self defense is to use as a tool to stop an attack where we risk death or grave injury, and when no other means will do. A firearm is a tool of last resort, in other words. For example, I am suddenly being attacked on the street, I brandish my firearm and give a command to the attacker to stop. If the attacker stops and/or runs off, then I have stopped the attack. No shots fired, deadly force not used, attack stopped. The firearm was the likely reason why the attack was stopped, even though I didn't need to fire a single shot. Another example: an attacker is running at me with a knife, and will have it planted firmly in my chest within the next second or two. I quickly sidestep away of his line of attack, un-holster my firearm, and shoot the attacker. The attacker goes down. The attack is stopped.
The Shark Tank Analogy: One of the simplest ways to answer the question at hand is to use this analogy. Imagine that you are standing near the edge of a deep tank of water, and there are man-eating great white sharks swimming around in that tank. Question: What has to happen in order to make you willing to jump into that tank? If your child fell into the tank, would you jump in to save your child, even knowing that you may die or be severely injured in the process? Of course you would. If your brand new iPhone fell into the water, would you jump in to retrieve it? Hopefully, not.
The principle is this: Ask yourself the question "What danger has to exist to make me willing to potentially take another human life, and risk going to prison in order to take action and use deadly force?" Life? Property? If it's not worth risking jail for, then it's not worth using deadly force against. If your life or another innocent life is in immediate danger, then a firearm is a tool at your disposal. If only property is at risk, then let the property go, call for help, be a good witness, and go on to live another day knowing that your freedom is not about to be taken away.
Using the "AOJP" Principle: There is a short acronym that you can remember to help illustrate the decision flow for whether or not to use deadly force: "AOJP"
A - Does a potential attacker have the Ability to cause harm?
O - Does a potential attacker have the Opportunity to cause harm?
J - Does a potential attacker place you in immediate Jeopardy?
P - Is there any way this attack could have been Precluded?
Note that "immediate" is the key part of "jeopardy." While the word "immediate" may be subjective, you will need to articulate why it is that you felt that you were in immediate danger. When it comes to "preclusion," think of conflict avoidance. You may be required to articulate why it is that there was no way for you to avoid being in the dangerous situation to begin with.
So let's take a look at a few scenarios to help illustrate how the AOJP decision process might work:
Scenario 1: You are in a gun store looking around. There are many gun owners there. Some are probably carrying concealed firearms. The people who work there are all openly carrying loaded firearms.
A - Do the people in the gun store have the Ability to do you harm? Yes - many people in the store have firearms, and they probable know how to use them. Firearms are readily available elsewhere in the store. Ammunition is also readily available.
O - Do they have the Opportunity to do you harm? Yes - the people with the firearms are right there, right now, and can easily deploy one to hurt you. Firearms are readily available. Ammunition is readily available.
J - Are you in immediate Jeopardy? NO! No one is threatening you at the moment. In fact, knowing the gun store crowd the way I do, they are probably being very cordial and striking up friendly conversations. You are not in any immediate or perceived danger.
P - Is there any way to Preclude being in danger in a gun store? Yes - don't go into the gun store.
Actually - in this scenario, you need not even go past "J" since you weren't in any danger in this situation. You would not be justified in using deadly force.
Scenario 2: You are walking your dog at night. You notice that down the street, on the same side of the block you are on, there is a suspicious individual whom you have never seen in your neighborhood before. That individual is walking towards you very quickly. They are not talking, and they have made no gestures toward you.
A - Does the person coming toward you have the Ability to do you harm? Possibly. You don't know who this person is, you do not know their intent, and you do not know if they have a weapon or can physically overpower you.
O - Do they have the Opportunity to do you harm? Possibly. They are walking toward you quickly, and their opportunity is increasing by the second.
J - Are you in immediate Jeopardy? NO! No one is threatening you at the moment. They look suspicious, and they look potentially threatening. But they have not yet communicated a threat verbally or physically. You are not in any immediate danger.
P - Is there any way to Preclude being in danger in this situation? Yes - go across the street; go down a different street if able; find the safety of a well lighted and public place if there is one readily available. Run away.
In this scenario, even though the other person was quickly heading toward you, you did not perceive an immediate threat. They were not actually threatening you. And since there was a way for you to avoid being in immediate danger in this situation you probably would not be justified in using deadly force.
Scenario 3: You are sitting in your home reading a book. Your spouse is in another room watching TV, and your child is in her room sleeping. Suddenly, an unknown person comes crashing through your back door, and has a crow bar in their hand. Like all good armed citizens, you have a firearm within easy and immediate reach.
A - Does the person who just broke into your house have the Ability to do you harm? YES. You don't know who this person is, they came into your home uninvited, and you feel that they are obviously there to commit a crime. That crow bar he is holding is raised in a threatening manner to be used against you.
O - Do they have the Opportunity to do you harm? YES. This unknown person is right there, right now, and that crow bar he is holding is raised in a threatening manner to be used against you.
J - Are you in immediate Jeopardy? YES! An intruder is in your house, he has something that can be used as a weapon against you capable of killing or gravely injuring you, and he is right there, right now.
P - Is there any way to Preclude being in danger in this situation? NO! You are in your own home, you are in a confined space, and there is nowhere to run to get away.
In this scenario, since there was an immediate threat of severe injury or death to you and possibly other family members from an uninvited home invader. You probably would be justified in using deadly force. But, you have to be aware of some state laws. There are some states that dictate that you have a duty to retreat, even in your own home.
So What Can You Do? For starters, here are some important things to remember:
Raise your levels of awareness. Know what's going on immediately around you and near you, and be able to anticipate likely scenarios.
If you use deadly force, or even brandish a firearm in a defensive situation, you will face legal consequences. Make sure you have a lawyer whom you can contact in the event of an event. If you live in Northern Colorado, we have an excellent 2nd Amendment friendly attorney in the Terry Ryan Law Firm.
If you need a lawyer, you are going to need a way to pay for the fees. I highly recommend that you look into one of the companies that offers self defense insurance and get coverage.
Make sure you also have liability insurance for coverage of damages. Remember - the standard of care in a civil case is much lower than the standard of care in a criminal case. Even if you are acquitted in the criminal case, you may still be found liable in the civil case. Insurance will help offset these costs.
Get trained in self-defense and defensive firearm use. Continue with advanced training. Your knowledge of the laws and how they apply to you will be key in helping you avoid a defensive shooting situation if it possibly can be avoided. Your knowledge and skills in firearms handling will help you ensure that when you are required to deploy a firearm for defensive us, you will engage as proficiently and accurately as possible to prevent unintended injuries.
Stay informed and stay safe.
About The Author: "The Gonz" is an NRA Certified Firearms Instructor (Pistol, PPiTH, RTBAV), US Concealed Carry Association Affiliate Instructor, and an NRA Certified Range Safety Officer. Additionally, he a trained and certified Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) member, with several years of training in the Incident Command System (ICS) procedures and practices.
Note: This article is in no way a commentary or opinion on the George Zimmerman trial. No inferences or comparisons are to be taken. I thought this was a timely subject, and therefore decided to write about it.