Will you be the next Harold Fish?

If you think that law-abiding people like you can’t go to jail for using a gun in self defense, consider the tragic story of Harold Fish.

Fish was a 57-year-old retired high school teacher in Arizona with a wife, seven children, a clean record, and a license to carry a concealed weapon.

While on an all-day hike on Pine Canyon Trail, Fish crossed paths with a stranger. Here’s how he described it in an interview with NBC correspondent John Larson:

Harold FishFish: I looked out and I could see the top of a car.

At the head of the trail, he says he saw a man camped by his car with two dogs.

Fish: His head picks up, the dogs alert. And I just raised my hand, you know, just to let him know that I’m just a hiker going through here.

Larson: So you wave at him?

Fish: Yeah. I raised my hand. I just you know, like, “I’m here. I’m a guy—I’m friendly.” So I get to about right in here, and when I look up, here come these dogs running very quickly, fangs showing, barking, running right at me.

Larson: Just these 30 yards, right here?

Fish: Yeah, just coming right here and at that point I’m yelling at him, “Hey control your dogs!”

But, Fish says, the man didn’t try to stop the dogs. Fish always carries a pistol with him when he hikes, he says to protect him from wild animals. He says he pulled out a 10 mm gun he had with him that day—and fired a warning shot into the ground.

Fish: One dog went off to the left and stopped right over there by the tree there. The other one went off into the brush there.

The dogs were out of the way, but Fish says the man began charging down the hill at full speed.

Fish: I yell at him, “I didn’t shoot your dogs” or “I didn’t hurt your dogs.” And he’s yelling back at me as he’s coming, he says, in a kind of strange voice “I’m going to hurt you. I’m going to kill you,” and he’s swinging, kind of punching at me. I’m yelling at him. “I didn’t shoot your dogs. No. Don’t. Get back. Leave me alone. No!”

Fish says he feared for his life.

Fish: One minute I’m just walking through the woods, oblivious to him or anything else. And the next minute I’ve got two dogs barking and snarling, trying to bite me, and an angry man following right after them, yelling that he’s going to get me, going to kill me, swinging his fists.

Larson: And you’re convinced this guy actually was going to kill you?

Fish: Yeah.

Fish fired three shots. The man fell to the ground.

Harold Fish rendered aid, called for medical help, and fully cooperated with police. The lead sheriff’s detective on the case told the media he thought Fish had acted in self-defense. But many in the area called for Harold Fish to be prosecuted … including the Coconino County attorney’s office.

The retired teacher was convicted of second-degree murder and spent more than three years in prison and about $700,000 in legal fees before the Arizona Court of Appeals reversed his conviction.

He had his freedom, but could not pay the monstrous legal bills. He took out a second mortgage on his home, as did his relatives, including his retired father.

On Sept. 8, 2012, Harold Fish died, leaving his wife and children in deep debt.

Denial destroys lives

In the book, On Combat, Lt. Col. Dave Grossman talks about denial and how it can endanger you in a life-or-death situation. He says:

Denial kills you twice. It kills you once, at your moment of truth when you are not physically prepared: You didn’t bring your gun; you didn’t train. Your only defense was wishful thinking. Hope is not a strategy. Denial kills you a second time because even if you do physically survive, you are psychologically shattered by fear, helplessness, horror and shame at your moment of truth.

If you are reading this, you have probably overcome this sort of denial and own or carry a gun for self defense. However, denial still poses a risk if you have not prepared for what can happen next. Like Harold Fish, you may be prepared for the physical part of survival but caught unprepared to survive an attack by the legal system.

Even if think you’re the “good guy,” you can find yourself in legal trouble if you use a firearm for self defense. Denial of this fact can devastate you and your family and haunt you for the rest of you life.

Your life can change in an instant. If it can happen to a law-abiding person like Harold Fish, it can happen to any of us.

Today, preparation for self defense needs to extend beyond owning a firearm. It must include how to survive the legal and financial aftermath. If you are unprepared, you may very well be the next Harold Fish.