The Cornered Cat

Before you read this article, please READ MY DISCLAIMER at the bottom of the page.

Please do not just take my word, or anyone else’s word, about any of these legal issues. I AM NOT A LAWYER and THIS ARTICLE IS NOT LEGAL ADVICE. You should look up your own state laws and do your own research about how those laws apply to you. If you do not understand anything, ask a qualified expert in your own state law to explain the statutes to you. This stuff is way too serious to simply trust the word of some chick on the ‘net. LOOK IT UP YOURSELF.

The Myths:

The Myth

If you shoot someone on the porch of your home, you should drag the body back inside.

The Reality

No. No. No. Moving the body, or rearranging any other physical evidence about what happened, is called “tampering with a crime scene.” And it is itself a very serious crime.

Tampering with evidence isn’t just a criminal act. It is also an act which is very likely to be discovered. The science of forensics has advanced to the point where the investigators will definitely know that you have done something to the scene, and will probably know exactly what it was that you did. And the investigators will (very reasonably) assume that the reason you did it is because you outright murdered someone and were trying to hide evidence which shows that the shooting was a murder instead of an act of self-defense.

If you are ever involved in a shooting, it is vitally important that you do not lie to the police. Even one little lie, if caught, can destroy your credibility in court. Without that credibility, you will have a much harder time staying out of jail even if your actions were completely within the law.

The Myths

I live in _______, and in this state we can shoot an intruder who comes into our home, no questions asked.

I live in ________, and in this state we can shoot a burglar if he’s on our property after dark, no questions asked.

I live in ________, and in this state we can stand our ground and shoot anyone who accosts us in public, no questions asked.

The Reality:

State laws which give the benefit of the doubt to the defender are a wonderful thing, but such laws do not mean that no questions will be asked. They aren’t a Get Out Of Jail Free card, either. If you shoot someone, you will still need to explain to the legal system what exactly happened, and why you did what you did.

Castle Doctrine laws may allow a homeowner to assume that one of the three necessary elements of Ability, Opportunity, and Jeopardy were present, but in most cases, the shooter will still need to show the presence of the other two elements. The shooter must still be able to articulate how exactly how her life was in danger at the moment she pulled the trigger.

Stand Your Ground laws are even less helpful. They erase previous laws which required you to retreat if possible when attacked in public, but that is all such laws do. They do not erase the need to demonstrate how your life was in danger at the moment you pulled the trigger. All three of the self-defense elements — A,O, and J — must still be present in nearly all cases.

Killing a person is a very serious matter. Even a completely justified shoot can result in years of disturbed sleep patterns, flashbacks, health issues, and other physical and emotional manifestations of stress. It can cost you every penny you own, your home, and your marriage. Pulling the trigger is simply not worth it unless you will lose your life if you don’t.

The Myth

Since I don’t want to kill anyone, I could just shoot an attacker in the arm or leg instead of shooting him in the torso or head. That wouldn’t be using deadly force since I wouldn’t want to kill him.

The Reality:

It is important that you understand that shooting someone is using deadly force, no matter which part of his body you aim at and no matter whether you intend to kill him or not.

Here is a legal definition of deadly force from the law books in Washington state, where I live:

“Deadly force” means the intentional application of force through the use of firearms or any other means reasonably likely to cause death or serious physical injury. 1

Shooting an attacker in self-defense is an intentional use of force. Shooting someone often causes serious physical injury, no matter where the bullet lands. Even if the shot only hits an arm or a leg, the attacker could easily die from shock or blood loss. That is why shooting someone in the arm or leg is, legally speaking, every bit as serious as if you deliberately shot them right through the heart.

Legally, there is no such thing as shooting someone without using deadly force.

The Myth

No, really. I don’t want to kill anyone. I’m not talking about legal definitions. I mean, I don’t want to kill him.

The Reality

The law is written the way it is because shooting someone, even if you aim at his arm or leg, is very likely to kill him or to cripple him for the rest of his life. If you cannot handle the thought of killing someone to save your own life, you should not use a gun to defend yourself.

The Myth

But I could just aim at his arm or leg anyway, couldn’t I?

The Reality

Criminal attacks usually happen very quickly and are often brutally unexpected. Under the stress of an attack, your body will go into fight-or-flight mode and will dump a massive amount of adrenalin into your bloodstream. This is good, because adrenalin will give you the phsyical strength and stamina to run away (if you are able to escape) or to fight back fiercely (if you cannot run away). But the adrenalin rush will also cause your hands and entire body to shake, your vision to tunnel in on the threat, and your brain to nearly stop registering input from your ears. These are all very predictable physical responses to being attacked.

Criminals aren’t like cardboard targets at the range: they don’t stand still, they don’t move in predictable patterns, and they don’t play fair. They move quickly and erratically and do unexpected things.

What this means is that getting a good, solid hit under stress may not be as easy as it sounds. Nationwide, law enforcement officers who get involved in shootings have a hit ratio of only around 20%. That means that 80% of their bullets do not hit the attackers! There are a lot of reasons for this, but the important thing to remember here is that you will need every advantage you can get. For the best chance of hitting the attacker at all, you will want to aim for the very middle of the largest part of the attacker’s body that you can see.

The Myth

I think I could hit him in the arm or leg. I practice a lot.

The Reality

Even if you do hit the attacker in the arm or leg, marginal hits are much less likely to stop the attack quickly enough to save your life. If the attacker is drunk or hopped up on drugs, he may not even notice he’s been shot until blood loss shuts his body down, which can often take five minutes or more. A lot of very bad, and very permanent, things can happen during those five minutes.

Defending yourself with a handgun isn’t like the movies. Your attacker won’t be blown backwards when he is hit. He may not realize he’s been shot even if the hit is a solid one. Even if he takes a bullet right through his heart, it may take 30 seconds or more for his brain and body to stop working. Thirty seconds may not sound like much, but it is enough time for him to shoot an entire magazine of ammuntion at you, enough time for him to fatally stab you, enough time for him to club you into brain-damaged unconsciousness.

The truth is, if you are attacked by a determined criminal, you will very likely need every advantage you can get. For your best chance of survival, you should aim at the largest part of his body you can see and you should keep fighting until you know that the attacker is no longer a threat.

The Myth

Learning about the law will just slow me down if I need to defend myself.

The Reality

Not knowing the law can slow you down. And it can result in physical, emotional, or legal tragedy.

Awhile back, a concealed-carry permit holder in Washington state was in the Tacoma Mall when an irate gunman entered the building. The gunman began shooting people, and the permit holder briefly drew his own pistol and aimed it at the gunman.

But then the permit holder had second thoughts about shooting the attacker from cover: the attacker appeared to be very young, and the permit holder wasn’t sure he could get a clear shot. Most importantly, he did not know if it would be legal to shoot the underage criminal, and also hesitated because he was afraid of getting arrested for brandishing if he pointed his firearm at the attacker while commanding him to stop what he was doing.

So the man reholstered his own firearm, then stood up in the open and commanded the gunman to drop his weapon. The attacker turned and fired at him multiple times. Tragically, the permit holder was crippled for life by the attacker’s bullets. Even more tragically, his incredible bravery in confronting the attacker unarmed was legally unnecessary. If he had had a solid understanding of Washington law, he would have known that it was not against the law to hold an attacker at gunpoint in such a situation, and he would have known that he could have legally stopped the attacker without a verbal warning. This brave man paid a very high price for his lack of legal knowledge.

Knowledge is power.

The Myth

I don’t need to think about the law right now. If I ever need to use the gun, I’ll just hire a lawyer afterwards. That’s what lawyers are for.

The Reality:

There are a lot of things you can do beforehand to reduce your legal risk and make your lawyer’s job easier. You want your lawyer’s job to be as easy as possible because he will bill you for every split second he spends on your case, and because even good lawyers have bad days. The easier your lawyer’s job is, the less time you will spend caught inside the twilight netherworld that is the American legal system.

First, you should know the laws in your state and have at least some vague idea of how those laws apply to you. In the internet age, ignorance of the law is really no excuse. Breaking a law you didn’t even know existed is a bad idea.

Second, you should have some formal training from a reputable firearms instructor. This gives you a paper trail to show that you took the responsibility of being an armed citizen very seriously. If you document the training by taking notes during the class and keeping any written materials you are given, this paperwork may become admissible evidence, which will incidentally allow you to educate the jury about use-of-force issues (and an educated jury can save your hide). A good class also gives you access to a network of people who will be on your team if you ever need to defend yourself. Your trainer may be able to testify as a material witness for you, and will very likely have specific recommendations about legal resources in your area. It’s important to note that most criminal-defense lawyers are very inexperienced at defending completely innocent people who lawfully used lethal force, and thus often do not have the basic knowledge of how to mount an effective self-defense case. You will need to find, not just any lawyer, but an appropriate lawyer. Your firearms trainer can very likely help you do that.

Third, you should know what to do when the police get there immediately after a shooting. The most basic rule is simply not to talk too much. Tell the responding officers what the attacker did, point out any evidence or witnesses that might walk away, then ask for a lawyer and shut up. Shutting up might be very hard to do, because the adrenalin will make you want to chatter away, and because the responding officers are trained in getting people to keep talking. But keeping your mouth shut is the most important thing you can do to help your lawyer keep you out of the pokey.

The Myth

I won’t get arrested or be charged with a crime if I shoot someone, because there are a lot of gun owners where I live and the legal/political climate is very friendly to gun ownership and self-defense.

The Reality

Living in a state with a lot of gun owners, and where the laws are friendly toward self-defense, does give you a leg up on dealing with the legal system after a shooting. The police who respond to the shooting are less likely to be overtly hostile, for example. And they might not even arrest you on the spot.

Then again, they might. Because the confused and bloody scene just might leave some reasonable doubt about what actually happened, and because what will be obvious is that you shot someone. Even if the police do not find a reason to clap you into handcuffs on the spot, when the case is presented to the prosecutor’s office for review, anything can happen. Including an arrest, and serious charges up to and including premeditated murder.

Of course, if you live in a state where the political climate is not friendly to firearms or to self-defense, it’s pretty well a given that you will arrested on the scene, and that you will be charged with a serious crime as soon as the prosecutor sees the paperwork.

But even in friendly climates where the prosecutor might be very sensible about self-defense cases, you can expect to deal with the legal system for quite awhile after you shoot. You can expect your firearm to be taken away and kept for evidence until the trials are over, for instance, even if the police are sympathetic. What trials, you ask? Well, chances are that you will face a trial at some point, even if it’s just a Grand Jury in a friendly state looking over the facts and no-billing you. Even if you yourself do not get charged with anything, there’s your attacker’s trial. If your attacker does not die (80% of people shot with a handgun survive), then he will very likely be charged with attacking you. Finally, you must be aware that your attacker or your attacker’s surviving family might decide to sue you in civil court even after the criminal trials are concluded. Expect your life to be on hold, and your firearm to be held in the evidence room, until all of these legal maneuverings are over.

Quite apart from all that, it’s a good bet that you travel sometimes. Who’s to say that the only place you’ll ever need to use a firearm is inside the boundaries of your own “friendly” jurisdiction?

It is better to be emotionally prepared to face the worst, while hoping for the best. If you shoot someone, you can expect to be arrested, expect to spend some time in jail, and expect to be charged with a crime. But also — expect to win when your case goes to court. As complicated and messed up as the legal system is, people who shoot in righteous self-defense are very, very rarely convicted. A realistic understanding of what is likely to happen after you shoot may help you weather the legal and emotional aftermath.

The Myth

My gun is a ______, and just the sight of it will make a criminal run away in fear. I won’t ever have to actually fire it.

The Reality:

Maybe, maybe not. Some criminals do amazingly brazen and determined things under the influence of alcohol, drugs, or stupidity.

While most defensive uses of a firearm do not involve any shots being fired, you cannot assume that your criminal will be smart enough to run away.

It’s also important to understand that criminals do not fear guns. They often own guns themselves, and spend their lives handling weapons of all sorts. The mere sight of a gun is not going to cause the criminal to faint! Some criminals will run away when the intended victim brings the gun out. But it is not the gun itself that makes them run away. A criminal runs when he believes the victim will shoot and kill him if he continues his attack. If the intended victim does not have visible resolve that she will use the gun if she must, the criminal may very well continue his attack even though he has seen the gun.

This makes an odd paradox: people who are willing to shoot in self-defense are least likely to have to do so. But someone who carries a gun just to threaten an attacker is more likely to have an attacker keep coming until she has no choice but to shoot.


  1. Definition found in Washingon state law; see RCW 9A.16.010. Although the exact wording will be different in each state, the meaning of deadly force is not substantially different from this in most states. See, or your own state law, for more information.