What is Lethal Force and When it it Justified?


According to the Supreme Court of the United States citizens are allowed to have arms for ‘all lawful uses, including self-defense…’

What this means is that a law abiding American citizen has the right to employ deadly force in the appropriate circumstances. This is a serious responsibility- you have, in effect, the right to end someone’s life if that person’s actions demand it.  This can and does go wrong- like the woman that opened fire on fleeing shoplifters, or the fellow who dropped his gun in a restaurant and wounded a bystander when it went off.

In practice though there are relatively few abuses given the sheer number of people in America that possess guns. It’s rare enough that when it does happen it generally makes the national news.

With rights come responsibility. If you are going to own a gun you need to take reasonable precautions to insure that it doesn’t fall into the hands of children or other irresponsible individuals. You also have a responsibility to know your local laws concerning armed self-defense. You have a responsibility to seek appropriate training with your firearm so that you do not represent a danger to yourself or other innocents.  This is not usually mandated by law, and in a perfect world it wouldn’t need to be; people would simply understand the need and act reasonably, responsibly. I’m not holding my breath…

I’m digressing- so what justifies the use of lethal force? First off understand that I am not a lawyer or officer of the court, and I am not qualified to give legal advice. It is your responsibility to consult your local laws and ordinances. That being said-

In most places the use of potentially lethal force is only authorized when it is so important to stop someone from what they are doing that whether or not they die as a result of being ‘stopped’ is a secondary consideration.  What would make stopping someone so important? Generally if they present an immediate threat of death or grave bodily injury to yourself or another innocent person. Let’s break that down-

An imminent or immediate threat means that the person has the capability to follow through on the threat and is in close enough proximity to the object of that threat to carry it out. An unarmed person saying, “I’ll kill you!” does not necessarily constitute an immediate threat of death or grave bodily injury. A person with a potentially lethal weapon in their hand saying it may constitute an immediate threat. I would imagine that in most places an attacker holding a potentially lethal weapon and threatening to use it would justify lethal force in many cases.

Death is pretty self-explanatory, but what constitutes ‘Grave Bodily Injury?’ Again, definitions vary by local law. In the State of Washington forcible rape constitutes ‘grave bodily harm.’ In other places there are different standards, but typically these are injuries that could create permanent and lasting harm and/or be life-threatening.

So how do you ‘stop’ someone with a lethal weapon? Over the decades police have established that shooting them multiple times in the center of their body will do the trick. A question that is often asked is, “Why can’t you shoot them in the arm or leg?” The answer to that is simple. It’s hard.  Most police shootings happen at distances of five to nine feet- and police still miss 45% of the time on average. This is when they aiming at the largest, least moving target, that being the center of the person’s torso.

This isn’t because they aren’t trained; it’s because shooting at a living, breathing, mobile, hostile person that is intent on killing or causing grave bodily harm is a very different thing than shooting at targets on a range. In an actual shooting situation you will also have an adrenaline dump that can wreck your fine motor control. Every time a shot misses that bullet goes somewhere and hit’s something. It’s not the ‘A-Team’ where bullets evaporate if they miss the target.  The something that they hit could too easily be an innocent bystander. Shooting at relatively thin, fast and erratically moving limbs is a very, very bad idea.

One thing that needs to be clearly stated- the use of lethal force is always the last resort. Your weapon is there in the unlikely event that you find yourself living a worse-case scenario. It is not there in service of your ego, pride or honor. It is there to preserve innocent life. If you want to carry a gun for any other reason than you shouldn’t be carrying a gun.

It is your right as a law-abiding American citizen to choose to employ lethal force in defense of your life- but that right carries with it the responsibility of understanding and complying with your local laws regarding armed self-defense, and insuring that you obtain and maintain a level of training such that you are not a danger to yourself or others.

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