Legal Issues

When can you Use Deadly Force?

Attacker grabbing young boy

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.

You witness a kidnapping in the local park. Is it okay to use deadly force?
You witness a kidnapping in the local park. Is it ok to 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.

Take a self-defense pistol class and practice as much as possible with your gun.
Take a self-defense pistol class and practice as much as possible with your gun.

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:

  • Alaska
  • Arkansas
  • Connecticut
  • Delaware
  • District of Columbia
  • Hawaii
  • Iowa
  • Maine
  • Maryland
  • Minnesota
  • Nebraska
  • New Hampshire
  • New Jersey
  • New York
  • North Dakota
  • Ohio
  • Pennsylvania
  • Rhode Island
  • South Carolina
  • Wyoming

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.

The guy following you demands you give him your purse. Is it ok to use deadly force?
The guy following you demands you give him your purse. Is it ok to use deadly force?

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.

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Comments (46)

  1. Look protecting my family comes first whether the laws like it or not!!!! Now a police officer doesn’t think he shoots and that’s it!!!????just because he or she has a badge???even when they are not in danger they kill the suspect.Yes l believe an officer should defend their life and others when necessary.Some suspects wave a gun and the officer will shoot and kill the suspect instantly and the suspect only waved a toy gun,of course the officer thought is was real,l put this way every snake l see l considered poison l will shoot someone waving a gun at my family or me,a cop will shoot right??he or she is protecting their lives and others as well so???So l so l will too,you can add my comments for the records.

  2. I have a question about Wisconsin conceal carry here it is if a guy says he’s going to kick your ass is a guy able to use the gun to protect him/herself?????

  3. Jim, you are a decent person and I admire you for your comment. It helps me to know there are clear-thinking people like you,. You , sir, are a man of reason and courage . Thank you. My son was killed by an acquaintance, when my son was entering the doorway of his -ex-girlfriend. The young woman finally did go to detectives and tell that she’d escalated fear in the young man, that the young man had specifically called a police dept to ask his right if “someone might come in and argue with him, might lead to fistfight”, The det, the Asst. DA investigated at our insistence and said “We know it wasn’t self defense, but there’s no way to fight the castle doctrine” They didn’t close the case, but there will never be arrest. It’s well-known in this town that my son’s death was not an example of proper, decent use of the Castle Doctrine. I thank the detective and Asst. DA for their respect for the memory of my son who was a good man, loved by hundreds of people, a decent man.

  4. You people are cowards,if someone wants my TV. or money they can have it. You don’t have to shoot first, I have 20 yrs. military experance and a weapon in my house. Last year someone entered my house while me and my wife were sleeping, it turned out to be my neighbors kid that was drunk and entered the wrong house. WWJD

  5. the law changes from state because in va my mother died and my brother and sister came to my house and treated me to sign my part over to them when i didnt sign the tried to fight me and my two children 13 and 15 kept threaten us i told them to leave but they wouldnt go so i swung a ax at them never say anything to them and when the cops came they was going to take me to jail cause i tried to defend me and my kid

  6. Well, in a life or death situation like many of you have encountered, if I have a cw I would use it as long as the judge and jury would look at my case and I’m not found guilty for self-defense. I believe that using your cw is not scary it’s the fear of getting shot, stabbed or even worse- killed by the attacker. The best solution is to avoid a heated argument or just get away from the scenario and avoid having to use your firearm. But if worse comes to then use it.

  7. as in Florida before 2005 …under democratic administrations , if you were HAD to retreat…and if you used any means to defend yourself or anyone else and you survived the attacked automatically would be arrested..and YOU HAD TO PROVE SELF DEFENSE….this is what brought about STAND YOUR GROUND in 2005…under a republican administration… again we are under ‘attack’ by democrats to again make you ‘retreat’ and prove your SELF-DEFENSE…evil NEVER gives up the chance to control good….SELF – DEFENSE when attacked is a creator given right and responsibility…if you choose not to use it..that should be your choice alone ..not forced on anyone else with the power of ‘law’……imho

  8. I was driving to my ortho shop to pick up a new leg brace(I’m 100% disabled) when a black Eldorado passed me on the shoulder of an on ramp getting on the highway. After he got clear of my car, he pulled back on the ramp and “locked em up”. I was doing about 45 mph and picking up more speed;but I was able to avoid hitting him cause I just went around him without braking.That p****d him totally off. I get to my exit and got stopped for a traffic light; just to look over and see him in the left lane. He sees me and comes out of his car with a tire iron. When he got about 10 ft from me,I pulled my snubbie out and pointed right at his man parts. He immediately stopped and says” your gonna shoot me?” I said “yep,maybe twice”. He called me a few names,got back in his Cady,and drove off when the light changed. My wife asked me if I would have shot him,and replied “yep,maybe twice.

  9. OK. I live in Missouri and the other night I did not have my ccw on me at the time but here is the scenario. I followed a friend from a bar to make sure she got home safe. When we arrived, her ex boyfriend was in her house where he was not supposed to be and 90% chance he’s under the influence of meth, he walks towards me stops says to me “I have something for you.” He returns to the house and gets a ball bat then comes at me with the bat; he made one swing at me which I dodged. He then took a second swing which I blocked with my arm but took a good hit to my wrist, I did nothing to provoke this attack all I did was get out of my vehicle to make sure my friend was gona be ok. I left the situation but the thought of if I had my ccw on me at the time he was swinging the bat at me and hit me like he did and I would of put a hot one through him would I had justified the use of deadly force? Every thing seems to fit. I was in direct threat of bodily injury and he was under the influence of meth with a weapon that could with one swing killed or impaired me. It’s a scary subject to wonder if I had my ccw and pulled the trigger, how would the judge and jury see this. Also in that thought does any person who uses deadly force, that is let’s say in my scenario, automatically incarcerated and treated as a guilty person until proven innocent kinda deal. I have a son and am a single parent. The thing I worry most about is in the scenario I have to use deadly force to protect me or him in a situation is that him seeing me in jail or me not being there for him while going through the process of justifying my actions.

  10. If a punk gets irate at a gas station claiming I “took” a place at the pump that he was going to back into and I simply saythat I’m sorry and did notknow that, then what am Isupposed to do if he threatens me and takes up a boxing stance with clenched fists
    three feet from my face? He is agile, irate and about 30-40. I am relaxed and just getting ready to fill my gas tank. I am wearing soft shoes but have a knife and concealed carry tiny Ruger.

  11. My mother was almost killed by a burglar with a flashlight. She could have died from the injury easily. What I look at is very simply, Could I be killed or seriously injured. Most laws read..If YOU feel you are in danger of either of these. It doesn’t say if someone else feels you’re in danger. If YOU think you are then you are. That doesn’t mean you can shoot someone 50 feet away from you with a knife. But if they are running at you and don’t stop, you have the right to defend your self…period. So don’t let them make you a victim, stop the attack.

  12. Yeah, well Mr Crusader, it’s been a fourth of a year now, and where are we? Hell we can’t even find guns or ammo on the store shelves, and the whole situation looks bleak. Call or e-mail your state Senator, and tell them how you feel about what’s happening in New Jersey and Colorado now, and ask them how they feel about it. They’ll be conveining after recess in a week or two to vote into law all the frivilous anti gun bills. Bloomberg, Hickenlooper and Obama are taking the country to Hell. In the very first sentence of this thread, our founding fathers stood and upheld unarguable rights to our Second Ammendment and freedom to deffend ourselves. Where, along the way did it become arguable?

    1. This country has been taking away your constitutionally guaranteed rights for a while now. In reality the 2nd amendment is more about the people’s right to defend itself against, and overthrow if necessary, a tyrannical government. Yet no one seems to talk about, or even remember that fact. It is unconstitutional for our government to require you to get a license to operate a vehicle. I could go on and on.

      This country has gotten very far away from what the founding fathers originally put in place and on the scale between liberty and tyranny, we tip ever more in favor of tyranny. We do it so people can feel safer from those they would deem untrustworthy with a gun or a vehicle, but that’s not what this country was founded on. The government has no duty to make you safe except in the form of a standing army or militia, and not by limiting the power and rights of its own people. Our inalienable rights are infringed upon and the worst part is people don’t even understand the difference between that, and a laws we agree upon as part of the social contract anymore. Benjamin franklin said it best when he wrote “They who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety”

  13. GunOwnersOfAmerica is an even purer organization to support than NRA… I recommend both. NRA for its numbers and influence, and GoA for its purity.

  14. Well, with the focus and point of this thread in mind, it behoves you to take an approved Concealed Handgun License Course, and study and be aware of applicable laws of your area. They do vary by State, but the important thing is to be aware, be forwarned, and remember that pulling the trigger does have conciquences beyond your immediate safety/survival. It’s not prudent, intelligent, or even manly to say that anyone who comes in your door is gonna wind up blown away. We’ve got enough against us already. When the shooting at Sandy Hook was less than 4 hours old, I had a feeling and began alerting all my friends that something was about to happen, I could just feel it. Of course, they all said I was jumping to conclusions, that nothing was gonna happen, and now, look how the guns and ammo are flying off the shelves. I did manage to buy an AK before the election, but I reallycan’t afford to buy an AR-15 platform gun now. I really don’t need one, I have a Remington 788 in .223, which is excellent. But the fact that people in charge, people on TV talking B.S. about guns they obviously don’t even know anything about, people who likely will influence others who are ignorant about guns, the different types, and intended purposes…………that should enrage those of us who enjoy owning and shooting our guns for any logical,legitimate, and legal purpose. For 30 years, I was a serious hunter, yet I never considered joining the NRA, but watching “Meet The Press” last Sunday, when Wayne Lapierre spoke, he said everything I would have, except armed gaurds wouldn’t cover enough areas at once. Every adult school employee in the building or on the campus WOULD! If any of you fine folks who take the time out of your lives to read and post on these threads have not already done so, please consider the cost of joining the NRA to help preserve our rights and heritage as we know it. I’m no paid spokesman, on the contrary, I just spent $70.00
    For three years worth, that could’ve been spent toward guns or ammo. Please, just consider it. What more can we do to protect and prolong our freedom and right? Happy New Year guys ‘n gals!

  15. – Number of executed persons in USA is double as high than in Africa with its lots bigger population. In Europe, Brazil and Russia executions are not done.

    What a load. Russia and China don’t report their executions like we do. In Russia they die of brain hemorrhages usually induced by a 9mm bullet to the rear of the brain. In Germany they put murderers in prison for a few years and release them. In Brazil the prisons usually take care of the murders so they don’t have to execute them.

  16. after whats going on in the world today if you come on up to me and my family to do harm in public or in the comfort of my home then that your chance because nine times out of ten Iam carrying a weapon and I will use just cause.

  17. I own guns like to shoot and hunt. Been reading alot of should of’s, would of’s, and could of’s, point blank you come inside my house without my families permission you are trespassing and considered a threat to my family and property. Protecting my family comes first then my property and if I have to take down a bad guy, as a last resort, then so be it. Jail or no Jail time protecting my families life comes first. I will feel a little bad for the poor bastard I took down. My conscious will be cleared afterward knowing what I did was the right thing to do. I’m glad I live in a no nonsense state like Texas.

  18. In some cases (and areas / states) the answer to 24, you can confront him and use only force needed to stop him i.e. verbal, pepper spray, ball bat, etc. You can only shoot /kill him in self-defense / imminent danger /fear for your life. You did not say what state you live in, under the Castle Doctrine Law in some states you “might” get by with shooting him… but don’t count on it. Even under the Castle Doctrine, you will be judged by a jury, in most cases I’ve seen the jury looks at it as you could have prevented killing him by not going out and or waiting on the police. I am in No way suggesting this… but in the old days all dead men happen to have a knife in their hands!

  19. My question regarding deadly force has been; I am in my home and a large young male is in my driveway attempting to break into my car. I am not physically capable of stopping him. Other than calling the police what can I do to protect my property?

  20. Laws of legal death sentence and right to use deadly force makes me stop to thing usa as fully civilized country yet. Though I can understand killing in case someone is going kill you, or your mate etc..

    China, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Somalia, Sudan, Taiwan, Vietnam, Bangladesh, North Korea and United states. That’s the list of countries with high number of executed persons in 2011. Number of executed persons in usa is double as high than in whole Africa with it’s lots bigger population. In europe, brazil and russia executions are not done.

  21. 2 things i was taught growing up, if you have a gun and you brandish/display (in layman’s terms “pull it out”) in any situation, only do so if you are 100,000,000 percent ready and willing to use it, and number 2 but most important “its better to be judged by 12 than to be carried by 6”

  22. The best way to win a firefight is to have no firefight. There’s the aftermath of a firefight. bloodshed, by-standers’ family members’ and your mental state, possible criminal charges as the author wrote and civil court. Just because it legal, doesn’t mean it the best method or the best time for the firefight. Most of the time, a safe retreat is the best solution, IF it can be done safely. I agree with most of comment 19.

    BTW: pre-1980’s has lots more criminal activity for robberies and B&E’s. Less “for no reason” crimes as theater and shootings. Many schools allow kids to carry rifles to school. The rifle was to be left with the principal and picked up after school to go hunting on the way home.

  23. All excellent points and posts folks. I was a serious hunter for nearly 30 years, then became disabled. I’ve now got nearly 15 years worth of dust on my guns , always hated cleaning ’em. I never cared about auto loaders cause of lack of accuracy, and handloading issues, so consequintly never saw the point of military/assault type rifles or even handguns, but nowadays it’s a very different world than even 15 years ago, when I was younger, not disabled with the obligatory blue windshield tag, limping away from my truck with drugs/money etc. Yeah, things in the world are such today that my wife and I both recently took the conceal/carry course. As old as I am, and as experienced a hunter/handloader, I learned new things (mostly legal) from attending the course. You really have to know the law thoroughly well in advance, because that’s key to what happens AFTER you pull the trigger. You don’t want ANY kind of handload in that gun if you have to shoot someone, cause that’s more fuel for the DA or possibly a civil attourney later. Any kind of factory ammo for carry purposes. Showing proof that the shooting couldn’t be avoided, not provoking a confrontation, all that sort of thing. I find it completely obsurd that every time soneone takes a weapon where they’re not supposed to, past all the signs, and slaughters innocent unsuspecting legal upstanding citizens, we hear how we need MORE restrictive gun laws. What a world. To Jim B.; thank you sir, for your service.

  24. Did anyone see that 71 year old man, shooting those would be robbers he shot at them like 7 or 8 times, Robbers be warned it’s 1000’s, and 1000’s of people every week getting their CHL license, so if you go into a restaurant let’s say 1 in 20, your taking a big chance someone is carrying a gun that has a CHL, that will use deadly force to protect the citizens or his family in that restaurant or café or job etc. I still think it’s bull crap states say you have to flee your own home if you can get away what the f@#$, I’m not going no darn where, you not going to run me out of my house period.


  26. You must prove imminent danger by asking these 3 questions: 1 Does he have the means ie a weapon or there is a large enough disparity in size and strength. 2 does he have the intent? ie has he demonstrated or made vocal his threat to inflict great bodily harm on you or death, 3 does he have the ability, ie he can’t stab you from across the street. If he has a firearm that changes the equation. The general rule for an attacker with a knife is no less than 20 feet away… That means that if the attacker is less than 20 feet away the chances of him getting to you and inflicting harm Is imminent… Draw you weapon before he gets within that 20 foot radius. Use your head!!!! Think about scenarios ahead of time, practice every aspect of your weapon, ie: carrying position, drawing the weapon, firing the weapon, clearing different kinds of jams or malfunctions, reloading, decide whether you will carry a back-up gun or an extra magazine or two etc. etc. basically get very familiar with your gun, or guns of choice. You have to remember that your mind is your most valuable weapon, keep it sharp and your aim true!

  27. One should only use deadly force as a Last” resort . If someone pulls a weapon of some type on a person or family member , That would a direct deadly threat” to one`s self being or there family member . Then and most likely only then, will a Grand Jury aquit you of killing someone with a gun or what ever you are using . You Will” face a Grand Jury for killing someone , It does matter , and you had better be prepaired to PROVE , Without a dougt” , that the perp. was a Deadly Threat to You or that Family member . If one can`t PROVE” , the fact`s , to that Grand Jury” , that you were Justifiable in your actions” , You will more that likely go to jail for a long time , in any State . Proving a Perp. was waving a gun or a knife or a hammer , or what ever at someone would prob. be enough , in a Grand Jury`s EYES” , to aquit you for killing that perp. If you being Truly afraid of the family member or yourself dieing from the actions of that perp. …. In that case , You Call it and see how it all come`s out . You May Win , or Lose” all the way around.

  28. I am a proud female CWP carrier. I was told by a friend who is a deputy that I should not ever pull my weapon unless I am totally and completely ready to use it. I pray that I never have to find myself in the position where I am am forced to use my pistol. However, if that moment comes, I will pull it and use it to my best ability to protect myself, my family, and my home. Let me also state, as an afterthought, my gun is not pink nor is it pretty and “girly”…it’s deadly!

  29. I am ex-military and ex-law officer, so I have had many hours of training with many different types of weapons. I seriously hope that I never have to shoot anyone. It should be the choice of last resort. Most law abiding citizens who are properly trained, and carry concealed responsibly, will never encounter a deadly force situation. But for the few of us who do, we need to know how to use our weapons and more importantly, when. Proper planning and preparation prevents p___ poor performance.

  30. The following states have a duty to retreat law unless you are in your home: I see they listed the state of Pennsylvania, which is wrong. We do not have the duty to retreat.

  31. I believe the information you listed above is incorrect in regard to Pennsylvania. In August of 2011 we passed an update to our Castle Doctrine:

    House Bill HB40, and the Senate companion bill, permits law-abiding citizens to use force, including deadly force, against an attacker in their home and any place outside of their home where they have a legal right to be. It would also protect individuals from civil lawsuits by the attacker or the attacker’s family when force is used.

  32. I saw an article similar to those that said we are asking the wrong question, it shouldn’t be when can I…but when must “I” use deadly force. Just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should. It really becomes a matter of must I use deadly force to protect me and mine.

  33. I would never shot anyone unless it was necessary, I wouldn’t just go up to someone that I thought was being kidnapped and start shoting the kidnappiers I would call the police, and try and hold them there some kind of way, now if I was at a restaurant and someone started shooting inside of the restaurant thats justiable and I would use deadly force, and tell everyone to get down, and confront the robber in a safe position gun drawn behind the table for my safety just in case he tries and shoot at me, I would be protected he would not be. And I’m a great shot.

  34. Good Afternoon everyone, I’m just going to tell you the truth, if any criminal Tries and rob and steal anything from me in person aka right in front of me, I’m going to use deadly force period, only if you have a weapon no matter what that weapon is. I’m from Texas and we don’t play that, if your bode enough to walk up to my car or me, and say give me your money or your car keys, your bold enough to get shot. I’m sorry but I’m being honest.

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