If you are reading this article, then you are probably an individual who carries a concealed handgun, at least occasionally. You, the reader, may be a beginner who has recently entered the fold of armed citizens, or a seasoned practitioner of the armed lifestyle. Regardless of your level of experience, there is an overriding set of knowledge that is of absolute importance and many armed citizens ignore it to their detriment: knowledge of self-defense law.
This is an aspect of the overall world of armed self-defense that is rife with misconception, misunderstanding, and general ignorance on the part of many. The problem with this common ignorance of the legalities that govern the use of force is that well-intentioned people can end up in prison following a potentially justified deadly encounter, but they just handled poorly.
If you spend any amount of time on firearms forums or websites, you will quickly spot the glaring misconceptions on this topic. How many times have you read advice to drag the body in off of the front porch to be sure the scene appears to be one of legitimate home defense? How many times have you heard or read advice to be sure that the perpetrator is dead because dead men can’t sue you?
Taking such advice from the ignorant will land you in a world of hurt very quickly. Modern forensics can undoubtedly ascertain whether or not you moved a body after it was dead. Self-defense law permits you to use the force necessary to neutralize a deadly threat and if death occurs then it may be deemed justifiable homicide. However, executing an incapacitated but still alive perpetrator will quickly become the sort of homicide that will not be found justifiable. These are only a couple of examples.
Not Knowing is No Excuse
There is the oft-quoted adage that ignorance of the law is no excuse. This holds true regarding self-defense. If you use force to defend yourself or someone else and you act outside of the boundaries of the law, you will certainly be prosecuted to a greater or lesser extent. Arming yourself and seeking out training so that you can use your firearm is only part of the preparations necessary for self-defense. Using your weapon to defend yourself only to spend the rest of your life in prison afterward is not the optimal outcome.
If you know nothing about self-defense law, the particulars of which can vary from state to state, you have a good chance of ending up in significant legal trouble even if you do need to defend yourself legitimately. In all fifty states, it is lawful to use deadly force if it is the only reasonable option in your self-defense or the defensive of another innocent party, but there are many details in the law, the ignorance of which can be catastrophic.
For those of you that will now say that you would rather be judged by twelve than carried by six, I would suggest that defending yourself within the parameters of the law and not being prosecuted, to begin with, is far better.
Even if you go to trial and are ultimately found innocent, how much will that cost you? It may cost you hundreds of thousands of dollars. It may cost you your career, your family life, and your future. Is it not better to know the law and avoid prosecution if possible, or to at least have a rock-solid claim of legitimate self-defense should you need to go through a criminal trial?
The reality is this: all uses of force carry a risk in the aftermath of criminal prosecution and possible conviction, just as all deadly force encounters carry a physical risk, to begin with. However, just as training with your firearm and your hands stack the odds in your favor during the fight, training in the knowledge of self-defense law stacks the odds in your favor in the aftermath. There have been many well-intentioned self-defenders who have paid a hefty price due to ignorance of the law. Don’t be among that unfortunate club.
Two Recommended Self-Defense Books
There are a number of excellent resources available to you so that you can educate yourself on both the universal and state-specific concepts of self-defense law. Depending on your state’s requirements for obtaining a concealed carry permit you may or may not be exposed to at least some understanding of the legalities involved. Regardless, elevate your knowledge of the law well beyond what you receive in a carry permit course. There are a number of people within the self-defense industry that offer courses on self-defense law, and certainly these are worth a look.
There are two excellent published resources on this topic that I believe all concealed carriers should read: the first is The Law of Self Defense: The Indispensable Guide for the Armed Citizen by attorney Andrew Branca. There are actually very few defense attorneys that specialize in self-defense law, and Andrew Branca is one of them. He serves as a primary resource on all things related to self-defense law.
A second book that is also excellent is Deadly Force: Understanding your Right to Self Defense, by well-known gun writer Massad Ayoob. I have read both, and I urge you to do so as well. If you only read one of these, then the first referenced book by Andrew Branca would be my suggestion as it is rather all-encompassing but still a fairly easy read. Both of these authors also offer classes in which they teach on this subject in great detail but much can be gained by reading these books.
The reality remains that the right of the individual to defend one’s self is part of our American legal fabric but the law also stipulates that lethal force is an option of only last resort. If you can avoid a fight and retreat from a bad situation, it is always in your best interest to do so, even in states that have stand your ground laws.
Generally, if you have no reasonable avenue of retreat and you face a lethal threat that is imminent, you can resort to using the force necessary to neutralize that threat. There are many small details in the law, however, that can pose legal trouble for the defender, and some of these vary from one state to another. If you carry a gun, or any other weapon for that matter, you owe it to yourself, your loved ones, and the society that you walk amongst, to know the laws of self-defense. It is your responsibility as an armed citizen.