When Are You Legally Allowed to Shoot Someone in the United States?
When you pull a trigger, two lives can be changed forever
(*** This is not legal advice. I am not liable for your actions. Read at your own risk. ***)
Given some of the stories we’ve seen in the news over the last couple of weeks, there are some people who quite obviously do not understand when they should shoot at another person. For example, earlier this week, there was a story about a young man who was allegedly shot for going to the wrong door even as a story broke about a young woman who was supposedly shot to death for pulling into the wrong driveway.
Unfortunately, whether you should pull a trigger or not isn’t an easy question to answer for a variety of reasons. There are different laws in different states and such a wide variety of situations that could occur, it’s impossible to cover them all in detail.
So, how do you untangle all of this? You go back to first principles. Long before you point a gun at someone and shoot, you should think hard about these questions until they’re practically second nature:
1) Would a reasonable person think your life was in danger?
2) Could you have resolved the situation without shooting?
3) Are you the aggressor?
4) Where is it taking place?
These may seem like relatively straightforward questions, but that’s not really the case because there are so many potential variables at play. Let’s talk about them.
1) Would a reasonable person think your life was in danger? This is by far the most critical question and the reality is that the answer may not be clear-cut. Are you a man or a woman? Big or small? An adult or a child? Young or old? Sick or well? Are they armed or bare-handed? Do you know them or is it a stranger? Have you already sustained a serious injury or are you unscathed?
Let’s say a weird, average-sized homeless guy is yelling at people on the street. He staggers towards you and says he might have to, “kick your ass.” A jury might come to very different conclusions about whether your life was in danger if you’re a martial arts instructor, Marine, or even a healthy 25-year-old man than they would if you were a woman, a child, or an old man walking with a cane.
Shooting someone for walking up to your door or turning into your driveway? It doesn’t meet that test and if your life is not in danger, you shouldn’t point a gun at another human being.
2) Could you have resolved the situation without shooting? In some places and situations (this gets into things like “Stand Your Ground” and “Castle Doctrine”), this matters less than others, but if you have to kill someone, you ideally want to be able to say, “I had no other choice.” When I took professional firearms training at Front Site, the instructors there flat out said that if someone broke into their house and they were alone, they’d lock themselves in their bedrooms and let them ransack the house rather than shoot them. Why did hard-as-nails instructors that were experts with guns say that? Because they have a very good understanding of the ramifications that may come from killing another human being, even if you are 100% in the right. Threats to your freedom. Media smear campaigns. Civil lawsuits. You could miss that burglar and the shot could go through the wall and it could kill your neighbor’s kid sleeping across the street. It goes on and on – and that’s even if you do the right thing. If you can avoid killing another person by retreating, even if you aren’t legally required to do that, I’d strongly recommend you do exactly that.
3) Are you the aggressor? The person who is defending themselves is going to get the benefit of the doubt. If you attack someone, things get out of hand and you end up shooting them, there’s a good chance you’re going to jail. Don’t be the aggressor and don’t escalate the situation. The more confusion there is about who the aggressor is or whether it’s a mutual conflict, the less likely you are to be viewed as the “good guy” who reluctantly did what he had to do in a court of law.
4) Where is it taking place? In the United States, you’re almost always going to get a tremendous amount of latitude in court if you have to shoot a stranger INSIDE your home. That’s so much the case that I once had a cop tell me that if you shoot a burglar on your porch, drag his corpse back inside before you call the police (I’m not recommending that, I am just telling you what he said). If I am visiting YOUR HOUSE and I shoot you, that’s going to raise questions about my motives. If you shoot someone during a bar fight, the assumption is going to be that it was a mutual thing, you were losing and you shot the guy. If you knowingly walk into a situation that could get sketchy and end up killing someone, even if it’s a righteous shoot, people are going to wonder about your motives. Did you actually go there looking to kill someone?
What this all comes down to is that if you have to kill someone, you always want to be viewed as the person who was minding his own business, had life-threatening danger thrust upon him, tried to avoid it, and reluctantly killed the other person because it was his only choice. The easiest way to give that impression is to actually have it be true. Let that be an accurate description of what happened to you.
Up on the big screen, people like Dirty Harry and John McClane are celebrated as macho heroes for blowing the bad guys away. Back in the real world, people lie. The media lies. The prosecutors may go after you for political reasons. The people that try to KILL YOU can turn around and sue YOU for damages and you may have to spend years of your life and tens of thousands of dollars defending yourself in court even if you win.
One of the examples our instructors at Front Site gave us was a scenario very much like this that I’ve embellished a bit.
You’re at a walk-up ATM. You’re all alone. Suddenly, a big black kid in a hoodie shows up. He says he has a gun in his pocket, and he wants you to give him all of your money or he’s going to shoot you. You can see the gun barrel poking into the side of his hoodie pocket pointing at you. You turn and put two in his chest. He’s dead.
Did that shoot pass all of our tests above? Yes, it did. Would I shoot someone in that situation? Yes, I would.
But, when the police arrived, they didn’t find a gun. He was just using his finger. Also, it turns out he was 15 years old. The next day, the papers read, “White man shoots 15-year-old black teenager.” The article features all sorts of quotes from his relatives claiming he was a “good kid” and was going to college. His relatives claimed he was just going to get money out of the ATM, and you shot him because you’re racist. Next thing you know, you’re trending on Twitter and some guy you talked to for 20 minutes at a college party once is claiming he knows you well and you’re racist. There’s huge pressure on the DA to charge you with murder. Then the robber’s mother is getting lawyers offering to sue you in civil court for free. No one is offering to pay your legal bills. In fact, people are looking at you kind of funny at work and your boss is getting hundreds of emails demanding that they fire you for being a “racist murderer” while your home address shows up everywhere online.
Now, again, would I have shot the guy in that situation? Absolutely, because it’s better to be judged by 12 than carried by 6. However, this is real life, not a video game or a movie and there can be tremendous consequences any time you point a gun at another person and pull the trigger, even if you’re right. When you fire a gun at another person, they may die, and your life may never be the same again. There is a time and a place to take on that awesome responsibility, but it should be treated with the gravitas it deserves.
I heard a story on a podcast once about a teenager who was invited to a party and got the address wrong. So he just walked into this house thinking it was the site of the party. Apparently the front door was unlocked. The man who actually lived there thought he was a burglar and came out with a gun. The kid ran out to his truck and drove away, with the home owner running after him shooting. Fortunately no one was injured. It certainly could have ended very tragically, with either the teenager dead, or maybe the teenager managing to injure or kill the homeowner while trying to defend himself.
The homeowner was charged with a crime. As I understood it, primarily for chasing after the kid after he left the house. Because even if the kid had been a burglar, once he ran out of the house, he was no longer a threat and so shooting at his retreating truck was not self defense.
I own several guns and I have a concealed carry license. But if someone walks in the front door of your house when it's unlocked, you should be very slow about shooting. Maybe he just has the wrong address. Maybe he's blind and thought he was going to his friend's house next door. Maybe he's mentally ill and confused. Etc.
Real life is messy. If you're too slow to shoot, you could end up dead. If you're too quick to shoot, you could end up killing an innocent person.
Perhaps your Front Site instructors didn't have a "Castle Doctrine" law in their state, like we have in WI? If someone breaks into your house in WI, you are protected from an over-zealous, politically motivated city/county prosecutor by the State. Because the law allows all of our police departments the ability to control the use of their resources, they do not have the legal obligation to come when you call them for help, even when someone is in the process of attacking you. So our state has codified the obvious, common sense conclusion that it is your job to defend yourself, and your property, so long as it is in your house. We finally got rid of a Demoncat governor for long enough to get concealed carry gun laws passed as well. I would never live in a city or state that does not recognize this most basic of God-given rights, as what good are the rest of our laws if you have to risk letting someone kill you, or your family, in your own home? I understand it's far murkier in other situations where it depends on the "reasonable man" standard.