Be Sure You Understand Deadly Force and the Law

If you own or carry a firearm, you need to know what the law says about using deadly force. You don’t have to be a lawyer, but you must at the very least understand the basics. The better you understand how the law views deadly force, the better you are able to act within the law and avoid legal complications.

Here is the accepted legal standard for justifiable deadly force:

Deadly force is justified only to prevent the imminent danger of death or great bodily harm.

This is a simple and direct definition, but to be sure you understand it, let’s take a closer look.

What is Deadly Force?
According to the Merriam Webster dictionary, the word “deadly” means “causing or able to cause death.” Synonyms include lethal, fatal, and mortal. However, in legal terms, the definition is more inclusive.

According to Black’s Law Dictionary, deadly force is the force likely or intended to cause death or great harm.

In other words, deadly force doesn’t exist only when a death actually occurs, it also exists when death or great bodily harm is likely or intended. Therefore, deadly weapons can include guns, knives, cars, rocks, hammers, fists, or nearly any object that can cause death or great bodily harm.

For gun owners, the important thing to understand is that a gun is always considered a deadly weapon. And any use of a gun in a self defense situation can be considered deadly force, whether you pull the trigger and shoot someone center mass, fire a warning shot into the ground, or merely brandish the weapon. Once a gun is involved, deadly force is involved.

In addition, deadly force can only be used when you are faced with deadly force, meaning force which can put you in danger of death or great bodily harm.

What is Great Bodily Harm?
Notice that our definition of justifiable use of deadly force refers not just to a situation where you are in danger of dying, but also a situation where you are in danger of suffering “great bodily harm.” Some states define this in the law more clearly than others.

In layman’s terms, “great bodily harm” is a type of injury that is life-threatening or which causes permanent disfigurement or results in permanent disability. This may include being shot with a gun, stabbed with a knife, beaten with a baseball bat, or run over by a car.

It is impossible to list every possible object or force that could result in death or great bodily harm. And even if you provide examples, such as a hammer, which can clearly be used to beat someone to the point of disfigurement, disability, or death, this doesn’t mean a hammer is always considered deadly. Obviously, the specific circumstances must be considered.

What is “Imminent” Danger?
Let’s take another look at our definition for the justifiable use of deadly force:

Deadly force is justified only to prevent the imminent danger of death or great bodily harm.

We’ve defined deadly force and great bodily harm. But the tricky part of this sentence is the word “imminent.” Again, from Black’s Law Dictionary, imminent danger means, “immediate danger, such as must be instantly met, such as cannot be guarded against by calling for assistance from others or the protection of law.”

So at its simplest, this means that the danger is happening now. You have to deal with it immediately and you can’t avoid it. Of course, this can raise additional questions. What if a man is waving a knife? Is the danger imminent? If the man is across the street, maybe no. If the man is young and you are old, maybe yes. Self defense in the real world can be confusing in the details.

To help clarify this, many legal experts rely on a test that includes 3 elements: Ability, Opportunity, and Jeopardy.

Ability – Did your attacker have the ability to cause death or great bodily harm? This usually means, did the attacker have a deadly weapon, such as a gun or knife. Use of deadly force against an unarmed attacker may also be justified, such as when you are faced with multiple attackers or a single attacker who is capable of causing you serious harm because of size, strength, or some other factor. However, as in the famous Trayvon Martin case, this can lead to a claim of “disparity of force” and make your defense more difficult.

Opportunity – Was your attacker close enough to carry out the attack? If the attacker was unarmed, he would have to be within arm’s length. If he had a weapon, he would have to be close enough to use the weapon against you. How close is close enough? It depends on the weapon, the circumstances, and what the jury or judge thinks about it. Opportunity also means the attack must be here and now. Thinking that someone may harm you at a future date or at another place is not a legally acceptable justification for using deadly force.

Jeopardy – Did the attacker intend to cause you harm? Was your life in jeopardy? Someone can have a gun and be standing right in front of you, such as a concealed weapons license holder, but have no intention of causing harm. On the other hand, someone can have a golf club 20 feet away from you and demonstrate the intent to cause harm through verbal threats or by moving toward you swinging the club. In the first, there is probably no jeopardy. In the second, there probably is. What it boils down to is this: Do you genuinely believe you are in immediate danger and is using deadly force the only means of ending the threat? Assuming you don’t initiate the conflict, you don’t have a duty to retreat, and you honestly believe you are in danger, your use of deadly force may be justified.

As you can see, even though this is more specific than “imminent,” it still leaves room for differing opinions. This leads us to another simpler but related concept.

The “Reasonable Man” Standard
If someone comes at you firing a gun and screaming, “I’m going to kill you,” it’s clear that you’re faced with the threat of death or great bodily harm and are almost certainly justified in using deadly force to stop the threat. However, if someone is walking toward you with a hammer, are you justified in using deadly force? While we could apply the Ability-Opportunity-Jeopardy test, ultimately the answer is, it depends on whether your actions are considered “reasonable.”

While specific laws vary, it is generally accepted in every state in the U.S. that you have a right to defend yourself with deadly force. Whether you exercise this right legally is based on the “reasonable man” standard – would a reasonable person in the same situation be likely to use deadly force?

What is reasonable may depend on who you ask. One jury may think it’s reasonable to shoot a guy swinging a baseball bat and another may not. So to some extent, you’re at the mercy of the norms of your community. If they think they would act the same way you did, your actions are reasonable. If they think you went too far, your actions are not reasonable.

This is ultimately an unsatisfying state of affairs, but this is why using a firearm for self defense carries legal risk.

This is an excerpt from our Free Report, 7 Proven Strategies to Survive the Legal Aftermath of Armed Self Defense. Click here to request a copy.