The Cornered Cat

Wandering around the web the other day, I came across yet another “scenario” posting on a firearms discussion board. You know the type, the one where someone wants to know how other people would react in a given set of hypothetical circumstances. This one focused on intervening to save the life of a stranger — say a store clerk or a bank teller — by using a firearm to stop an apparent robbery.

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The Basic Standard

You may legally use deadly force only when there is an immediate and otherwise unavoidable danger of death or grave bodily harm to the innocent.

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If you’ve read very many other articles here on Cornered Cat, you already know that the purpose of the concealed-carry firearm is to save innocent life when there are no other alternatives. You’ve probably seen the article in the Legal section here that discusses the elements of Ability, Opportunity, and Jeopardy, or the one that tackles common legal myths related to self-defense. So you already know that using a firearm is a serious thing, and that its use is reserved for when human life is threatened. But what if the life that is threatened is not your own, but someone else’s? Can you, should you, would you act to intervene in that situation?

The legal answer to that question is relatively straightforward in most jurisdictions: 1 as a general rule, it is acceptable to use force in defense of others in circumstances where the person whom you act to save would legally be able to defend himself or herself using that same level of force if he or she were physically able to do so. Put another way (and using a very old legal concept), a bystander could legally “stand in the shoes” of the person at risk, using the same level of force that that person would be justified in using. If that person would be legally justified in using deadly force to protect himself or herself, then you also would be legally justified in using deadly force on that person’s behalf. But that’s a mighty big IF, and here’s why: you as the actor would only be justified in using lethal force (or any other level of force) IF the person you were defending was actually justified in using it. If it later turns out that the person you defended knew something you didn’t — if, for instance, they’d actually been the aggressor and started the altercation; or if they knew that their life wasn’t actually in danger because they were just play-acting for a hidden camera; or if they knew they were fighting with an off-duty cop or a legitimate bail bondsman — then your intervention would not be legal even though you acted in good faith and with the best of intentions. That’s a fairly significant issue!

When you pull and use a gun, you are gambling literally everything you have on getting it right during the event and being legally justified afterward. You are gambling your physical life. You are betting your job, your home, and every penny you have in the bank. At risk is your marriage, your ability to share a bed with the person you love, and your ability to watch your children grow up in person instead of from jail. You place on the table every friendship you’ve ever made, every dollar you’ve ever earned or will earn, and your family’s future happiness. You are risking sleep disturbances, flashbacks, nightmares, impotence, anorexia, alcoholism, drug reliance, and a long and bitter lifetime of regret if you get it wrong. That is the gamble you take when you use a firearm against another human being.

To take a gamble that big, it’s a good idea to be overwhelmingly certain there’s no other way out.

Is the life of a stranger worth a gamble that size? Depending on your personal morals, maybe he is. But never ever ever in an ambiguous situation, especially when you didn’t see the prelude and don’t know the players.

Occasionally, you will encounter a person who has a visceral, angry reaction to being told that directly and physically intervening during an apparent criminal event is a gamble, and that it might be a bad idea to take that gamble. These people scoff at the idea of being overly concerned about legalities. Sometimes they imply that if you are not as willing to rush in as they themselves are, you therefore must believe that your personal bank account is worth more than the life of an innocent human being. This visceral reaction is understandable and even laudable, because we all know that the only thing it takes for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing. 2 When Kitty Genovese died in New York City in 1964, we are reminded, at least a dozen and possibly as many as 40 people heard her pleas for help and did nothing. Do we want to live in that type of society? No, we do not. Heaven save us from people who “do nothing” when others are in danger! These honorable people are absolutely correct when they assert that as civilized, competent, compassionate humans, we must be prepared to act to save the life of another. We must not do nothing.

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“Friendly fire” — shooting the wrong person — is a devastating tragedy which can happen whenever someone goofs up during a rapidly-developing, stressful, chaos-filled, confusion-driven event. Horrendous when committed by responding officers, it is just as devastating when committed by a well-meaning armed citizen.

Heartbreaking mistakes happen on both sides of that blue line, but they are far more likely to happen when the person who fires the gun did not see the beginning of the event and does not know the people involved.

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In their rush to condemn those who “do nothing,” however, sometimes these honorable folks lose sight of a more important truth: there is a lot of territory between using a firearm to shoot a presumed criminal, and “doing nothing” to save an innocent life. Calling the police isn’t “doing nothing.” Writing down license plate numbers isn’t “doing nothing.” Shepherding others to a safe haven is not “doing nothing.” Watchfully being prepared to act if the situation escalates is not “doing nothing.” Testifying in court and identifying the criminal to the authorities is not “doing nothing.” There are many actions a good and honorable person might take that do not require the use of a firearm, and those actions are not “doing nothing.” Only doing nothing is doing nothing.

Please don’t get me wrong, by the way. Although I hope I have been clear about the potential monetary costs of intervening, the true dilemma here is not about things. Things can always be replaced. The reason the question of intervening in a situation that appears to be life-threatening to another person is such a challenge is because of the awful risk of killing an innocent person if you get it wrong. That is far more serious than losing a few dollars, or even everything you own, in court.

In the case of jumping into a raging river to save someone from drowning or rushing into a burning building to pull someone from the flames, there’s no chance at all of killing an innocent person if you get it wrong (unless, of course, you count yourself and the risk to your own life). By jumping into such situations, you are not going to put the innocent person’s life in any more danger than they are already experiencing. This is quite different from wielding a firearm, where there is a substantial risk of killing an innocent person if you do not fully and completely and totally understand what is going on when you jump into the situation — or if you are physically unable to do the job you set out to do when you intervened.

One of the things I have learned through training and study: the greatest physical danger to an out-of-uniform police officer who intervenes in dangerous criminal events actually comes from other cops when they first arrive on scene. “Friendly fire” is a horrendous oxymoron for the kind of devastating tragedy which can happen when someone goofs up during a rapidly-developing, stressful, chaos-filled, confusion-driven event. Here’s the point: even well-trained professionals sometimes kill the wrong person when they arrive at the scene of a life-or-death struggle. This happens because the responding officers did not see the entire prelude and do not know the players. This danger of performing a mistaken identity shooting is every bit as acute for an armed citizen who intervenes in a stranger’s situation as it is for law enforcement officers arriving at the scene. Heartbreaking mistakes happen on both sides of that blue line, but they are far more likely to happen when the person who fires the gun did not see the beginning of the event and does not know the people involved.

If you see an unambiguous situation develop from scratch; or if you know the people involved so that you know that the apparent intruder is in fact an intruder, and that the apparent aggressor is in fact the aggressor; and if you are overwhelmingly certain of the circumstances, you are probably standing on very firm ground when you act in defense of the innocent. But if there’s any ambiguity at all, you’re far better off getting away and calling the authorities.

On the other hand, even if you did not see how it started but you do see that blood is actively being shed and a murderer is actually killing people — that is, if you did not just spot “someone with a gun” in the middle of the chaos, which by the way is a good description of yourself at that moment too, but if actually see a murderer in the very act of killing people — then there’s no doubt about what’s happening and that’s the time to act decisively if you are physically able to do it. If your own life is not immediately and directly in danger from such a scene, it means that stopping the murderer will likely require a shot from a distance, under great stress, at a small and rapidly-moving target, and because there are innocents around that target you must not miss. Is your training up to that? Are you absolutely sure?

Because we are human, we want simple, concrete answers. We want a yes/no answer, a nice clear binary choice. Unfortunately, real life is sometimes a bit messier than our plans, and this entire question of when to use the firearm to defend another or when to stand down and be a good witness is nowhere near as simple as people want it to be. The more you learn about how these things often work out in real life, the better you will be able to make solidly sensible, reality-based decisions when you need to — and the more likely it becomes that your actions will be successful when you do act.


  1. As always, please note that I am not a lawyer, and that this stuff is far too important for you to simply take the word of some chick on the ‘net. Look up your own state laws, ask questions of local lawyers, and study the statutes for yourself. Do your research. If you own a gun, if you keep a gun at home for self-defense, if you carry a gun in public, you absolutely owe it to yourself to study and internalize the rules in your own jurisdiction.
  2. This quote is usually attributed to Edmund Burke, but according to William Safire, Edmund Burke never said this. It is, nevertheless, a true observation about the world and worth remembering.