Our founding fathers took a deliberate and unarguable stand for their God-given rights to self-defense and protection of property. As Americans, we have enjoyed that right since the Continental Congress signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776. The right to defend ourselves includes the legal and justifiable right to use deadly force. Though wording is different in each one, every state has self-defense statutes or case law that defines how and when a person can use deadly force.
By deciding to carry a gun for self-defense, you have taken up a great responsibility to protect yourself, your family, your friends, and other innocents around you. You must now practice and maintain self-control and restraint wherever you go. Situational awareness and staying in a sound judgment when you carry is of the utmost importance. Do not let fights or arguments escalate. You have a responsibility to stay out of a potentially lethal situation. No one wants to have to pull his or her gun unless it is absolutely necessary.
Necessity is part of every states’ laws when you must use deadly force. However, all states differ in their language, but in general, the legal use of deadly force in self-defense the following factors must be present:
- Was it justified?
- Was it necessary?
- Was deadly force reasonable?
- Was death or serious bodily injury imminent?
Therefore, you cannot shoot someone in self-defense if you provoked the attack, you are not in immediate danger, and the attacker must have the ability and chance to hurt you. Many states recognize that deadly force is necessary when someone is committing, or without a doubt about to commit a felony. All states differ on how they define a felony. Some say “forcible felony,” while others specify which felonies, but as a general rule, robbery, burglary, and any other felony that would be punishable with the death sentence is justified reason to use deadly force against another human being.
Of course, the issue is never black and white. Whether you used justifiable deadly force in a situation is up to the law enforcement officer responding to the scene, the lawyers involved, the jury, and the judge all have a say. Some states have laws to protect you against civil court cases for using deadly force. Other states, even though you have proven you were justified, do allow the criminal or the criminal’s family to sue you. Hawaii and New Jersey allow a civil suit against you, even if deadly force was justifiable.
Most states allow you to use deadly force to protect yourself, and other innocents as well. Some states specifically define third parties. For example in Oklahoma, these other innocents are “his or her husband, wife, parent, child, master, mistress, and servant.” Vermont also defines which third parties you may defend, “his or her husband, wife, parent, child, brother, sister, master, mistress, servant, guardian or ward.”
Another big factor in determining if you have the legal right to defend yourself by using deadly force is the ability to retreat. Some states require you to “escape” the situation if you can. If you knowingly had a way out of the situation, the state could possibly charge you with murder. The Castle Doctrine law that many states have adopted means that you have no duty to retreat if you are in your own home and in most cases, at work. Make My Day Law or Stand Your Ground Law is an extension of the Castle Doctrine, which means you have no duty to retreat anywhere you have a right to be.
The following states have a duty to retreat law unless you are in your home:
- District of Columbia
- New Hampshire
- New Jersey
- New York
- North Dakota
- Rhode Island
- South Carolina
Some states have specific written self-defense laws, some have very few or extremely muddled laws, and yet other states have no written laws and have adapted court cases to provide jury instructions and adopted case law for the use of deadly force. Those states are California, Idaho, Illinois, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, West Virginia, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Mexico, Rhode Island, Virginia, Ohio and the District of Columbia. In fact, Ohio is the only state in which you have to prove your justification on using deadly force.
Some states, like Texas, have a more open interpretation to justifiable deadly force. Texas law states, “A person is justified in using force against another when and to the degree the actor reasonably believes the force is immediately necessary to protect the actor against the other’s use or attempted use of unlawful force.” Though every state details either “imminent” or “immediate” death or serious bodily injury, some states require you to provide more reasons other than just an imminent danger to your life or body. California, Colorado, District of Columbia, Idaho, Maryland, Massachusetts, North Carolina, North Dakota, and Rhode Island all state that you cannot use more force than necessary. Meaning if you could have defended yourself any other way than deadly force would not be justified.
New Mexico and South Carolina take this clause even further by stating that if a sound person, like a juror, would have done the exact same thing. South Carolina’s law states, “A reasonably prudent person of ordinary firmness and courage would have entertained the same belief.”
Of course, I am not a lawyer, so I strongly recommend that you look up your own state’s laws regarding self-defense and justifiable deadly force. The book, Self-Defense Laws of All 50 States by Mitch Vilos and Evan Vilos is an excellent resource for this subject matter. In summary, remember that in all states to use deadly force, you must believe that there was an imminent danger to your life or imminent danger of serious bodily harm.
As always, research your laws, take a self-defense pistol course, and practice, practice, practice, practice.