Musings on Self-Defense

By Chuck Hawks

Self-defense, in this case, means self-defense with a firearm. And that is a subject worth some serious thought before a person has to confront a life and death situation. There are moral, legal, and practical issues to be considered.

I have tried to do this, but let me state up front that I have never had to use a firearm in defense of my life, and I hope that I never need to do so. All gun owners should give self-defense some serious thought since, should it ever be necessary, their firearm may represent the means to stop a real threat to their life or someone else's life.

Some gun owners have decided in advance that no situation ever justifies using deadly force against another human being. I respect that. Others have decided that the use of deadly force is justified only in wartime, and against an enemy soldier. Fine. Others, perhaps the majority, have decided that the use of deadly force is justified to save their life or the lives of their family, friends, and other innocent persons. That is basically my position. Others advise (jokingly, I hope) to "shoot 'em all and let God sort it out." Whatever your position, know it in advance. The heat of a deadly crisis is not a moment conducive to dispassionate reflection.

I live in the state of Oregon, which is more reasonable than most in terms of the laws relating to self-defense. Oregon also has a far better concealed carry law than most states. So an Oregonian has more latitude in terms of legally justified self-defense than the residents of many states. You must consider the legal system of the state in which you reside when formulating your "rules of engagement" for self-defense. If necessary move yourself, your family, and your tax dollars to a state that respects your inalienable rights.

Moral issues

  • Davie Crocket's motto was "Be sure you're right, then go ahead." That is pretty simplistic, but in a self-defense situation, you need to be morally certain that you are right before you use deadly force.
  • Positively identify your target. You must not risk shooting a family member, friend, or other innocent person. If you are a heavy sleeper who wakes up in a daze you absolutely must clear your head before you reach for a gun. One suggestion is to store your home defense firearm in a place that requires you to get out of bed or perform some coherent act to acquire it. Once you are alert and armed you still need to visually identify the person as "friend or foe."
  • You could make a pretty good case that crime victims have a moral responsibility to kill anyone threatening their life, if they can, in order to save other innocent people from becoming future victims. This is a justifiable moral, but not legal, position.
  • In most U.S. jurisdictions you are legally permitted to use deadly force to save your life. I would argue that you are also morally obligated to use deadly force if necessary to save the life of another person from a predatory felon, even if your life is not in immediate danger. For example, if I were in a retail store or bank during a robbery, I would take no action (even though armed) unless one of the robbers was about to execute a patron or clerk. At that point I would suggest that any armed citizen is morally obligated to intervene if he or she can do so effectively.

Legal issues

An important part of the legal question seems to be the victim's state of mind. In many places shooting in self-defense is only legally justified if the good guy believes that his life was in jeopardy. In other words, that it was a kill or be killed situation.

Unfortunately, at present the U.S. legal system (run by judges who are, for the most part, ex-lawyers) is predisposed to favor the "rights" of the criminal over the rights of the victim. Sadly, the sensible argument that once a bad guy opens the door to violence he has no complaint if more violence than he expected walks through is unlikely to be accepted in a modern American court of law.

  • If you carry a concealed firearm, make every possible effort to avoid a confrontation or fight of any kind. Sure, you have the means at hand to win the argument if things get nasty, but you may not win the legal battle that follows the gun battle. Apologize, run, do whatever it takes to avoid using deadly force if at all possible.
  • Don't resort to deadly force unless you are afraid for your life, or must do so to save the life of another innocent person. You need to ascertain that the bad guy is, in fact, a lethal threat before opening fire.
  • Once a fight for life starts, shoot to kill. If you are not ready, willing and able to use deadly force, don't pick up a firearm in the first place. Shooting to wound rather than to kill is evidence that you were not truly afraid for your life, and can get you into big legal trouble. Trying to shoot the weapon out of a felon's hand is, additionally, evidence of very poor judgment.
  • The best legal advice seems to be to use factory loaded ammunition for all self-defense applications. This eliminates the possibility of a prosecutor later claiming in court that you purposely handloaded special "kill" loads with greater than normal power and maiming capability. You don't what to be painted as someone just itching to pop a cap at another person.
  • Do not modify your self-defense firearm or deactivate any safety features. This can be construed by an unscrupulous prosecutor as irresponsible behavior and indicative of a general lack of concern for the safety of others.
  • In a home defense situation, make every effort to drop an attacker inside of your residence. Don't shoot a home invader in the yard or on the porch unless he or she is already firing at you. Wait until they come through the door, making it patiently obvious that you had good reason to fear for your life.
  • Never shoot an attacker or home invader who is running away. The law generally frowns on bullet holes in the back of a dead felon. I know it makes no sense to let a potential killer escape, and it certainly doesn't matter to the dead felon which way he was facing, but there you are. If you must shoot, try to do it when the bad guy is facing you.
  • Use ammunition that is not a danger to your neighbors. You have no right to endanger innocent bystanders regardless of the severity of the threat to your life. The rancher in a remote location has more latitude here than the average homeowner, and the homeowner has more latitude than the apartment or condo dweller. Pre-fragmented ammunition, such as Glaser Safety Slugs, may be the best alternative for the latter. (I live in a mobile home, and that is what I use.) Over penetration is a serious threat in most urban environments, and you will be held responsible for "collateral damage" no matter how justified your original claim to self-defense.
  • Afterward, don't make a statement to the police until your lawyer is present. You might, perfectly innocently, say something that lands you in trouble no matter how justified the shooting. Immediately request a lawyer. Politely but firmly state only that you fired in self-defense and in fear of your life, and that you intend to assist the police investigation as soon as your lawyer allows you to make a coherent statement.

Practical matters

Here is some advice that I have taken to heart over the years.

  • If you know someone is in your residence, call the police (if possible), take cover, and let them come to you. If a gunfight develops, you will have a tactical advantage.
  • As a practical matter, you can't call the police and fort up in your bedroom every time the house creaks or you hear a "strange noise" in the middle of the night. A couple of such incidents and the police will decide that you are a "Chicken Little" and stop responding. So you are probably going to have to do what the experts advise you not to do and check it out yourself. Ergo, choose a self-defense firearm that is handy for the purpose and easy to retain should you be forced to grapple with your attacker at close quarters. For most people in most home defense situations, that pretty much precludes a long gun (rifle or shotgun), no matter how effective they might be after the whistle blows and the target is in sight. A handgun with a barrel no longer than 6 inches is the most common solution to the problem, and a 4" barrel gives an intruder less leverage in a struggle. Best of all from the standpoint of weapon retention is a revolver with a 2" barrel, but the super-short barrel makes it more difficult for you to deliver accurate, aimed fire.
  • Take cover first, and then return fire if necessary. Don't stand out in the open and shoot it out with a bad guy if there is cover available. At the very least, present the smallest target possible by crouching or going prone, as a soldier would in a fire-fight.
  • Only hits count in a gunfight. You can't miss fast enough to win, so pick a firearm that makes it as easy as possible to deliver solid hits. For most shooters, that precludes pocket automatics and snubby revolvers for home defense. A service type revolver or autoloader is usually the best choice.
  • Don't try to draw against a person who is pointing a gun at you. Those are very long odds, indeed. Wait until the bad guy(s) are distracted, or you can cause a momentary distraction. Tactical surprise is one of the keys to victory in any battle.
  • The benefits of using a flashlight are mixed. You can use it to identify your target, which is absolutely necessary, but it also tells your opponent(s) exactly where you are. If there are multiple adversaries you can expect to immediately draw fire from all of them if you turn on a flashlight. Personally, I'd rather turn on the room lights than a flashlight.
  • Night sights are very desirable in the dark. The common tritium variety that glows in the dark still require you to align the front and rear sight plus the target, but they are always "on" and are not battery dependent. Laser sights project a dot onto the target and are much easier to use in a stressful situation, but are dependent on good batteries. Red dot (scope type) optical sights are great, but are surprisingly hard to acquire in the dark because a slight misalignment of the pistol relative to the eye makes the red dot disappear; they are also battery dependent.
  • In informal tests, I have found a silver gun (nickel or stainless steel finish) easier to acquire and point in dim light. I think that a gun with a silver finish is a good choice for a self-defense pistol.

The above is by no means, nor is it intended to be, a complete treatise on the subject of self defense. It is just intended to be a starting point; some things to consider as you formulate you own doctrine for dealing with this important and challenging issue.

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Copyright 2004, 2013 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.