In legal terms, self-defense and defense of others are justification defenses you will use if you are ever tried for a defensive shooting. Yes, you read that right. In spite of your license, in spite of your rights under Stand Your Ground or Castle Doctrine laws, you just might find yourself charged with manslaughter, or even murder, after defending yourself from an assailant. Here are some things you ought to know.
You are legally able to counter an attacker with roughly the same amount of force being used against you. To be able to claim self-defense after using deadly force, however, the threat you face has to be:
- Imminent. The threat has to exist in the here and now, not at some point in the future. If Bad Bob tells you that he is going to come back in 20 minutes and stab you to death, you cannot shoot him and claim self-defense. He has to be attacking you right now.
- Credible. You have to be facing a real threat: The 85-pound weakling with a plastic wifflebat is not the kind of threat you get to counter with deadly force. On the other hand, the same 85-pound weakling with a tire iron or a Louisville Slugger is a credible threat. So is the 300-pound unarmed guy attacking you with his fists.
- Deadly Force. In this context, deadly force means a threat death, great bodily harm, or sexual assault. Anything less will not justify the use of deadly force to defend yourself.
All three of these factors have to be present for you to be able to claim self-defense. For example, Bad Bob, who is roughly your size, is quickly approaching you with a baseball bat from a distance of twenty feet, making verbal threats. This is a credible, immediate threat of deadly force against you, and you would likely be able to claim self-defense if you shot Bob. On the other hand, if the same facts are repeated, except that Bad Bob is approaching from two blocks away, you would not be justified in the use of deadly force. Why? Because the threat is not imminent.
Defense of Others
In this case, you are coming to the aid of someone else. The rules for self-defense apply here as well, except that you step into the shoes of the victim you are trying to help. In other words, you can use the same amount of force that they are entitled to use. That means, you can only use deadly force to defend them if they would be allowed to use deadly force to defend themselves.
The problem is that you may not know which person is the victim and which is the assailant. For example, you see a big guy beating up a little guy. Seems cut and dried, right? Not so fast. That big guy could be a cop trying to make an arrest, or the victim of a crime perpetrated by the smaller guy. If you shoot the big guy, you could be aiding and abetting a criminal. You have to use your own judgment, of course, but there could be legal consequences to coming to the aid of the “victim.”
In many jurisdictions, those consequences can be mitigated if you have a special relationship with the person you helped. Family, employment, and academic relationships are the most likely to help you; but if the person you help is a stranger, be sure before you act. In fact, in a case where you don’t know either party, the best thing you can do is pull out your cell phone, instead of your gun, and call the police.