Is it legal to shoot someone in the back?

You’ve seen it a hundred times.

Two men walk to the center of a dusty street, guns slung low on their leg. They stand about 20 paces apart, staring each other down with a steely gaze. Their fingers twitch in anticipation. Then it happens.

The bad guy goes for his gun. He draws and fires with an evil smile on his face.

But wait! The good guy isn’t hurt. He’s faster on the draw and a better shot. The bad guy missed and he’s the one who’s shot. Slowly and dramatically, he falls to the ground.

The good guy, with a look of humility and remorse, holsters his gun, gets on his horse, and rides off into the sunset.

Watch this clip from Silverado. The only difference here is that the Sheriff is the bad guy.

Yes, you’ve seen this a hundred times. But only in the movies. In real life, it never happens this way. People don’t square off facing each other to shoot it out fair and square.

Actual shootings are fast, violent, and chaotic. A lot of shots miss. And when people do get shot, it could be anywhere on the body, including the back. In the movies, shooting someone in the back is a hanging offense … because, we’re told, good guys never, ever shoot people in the back.

But in a life-or-death situation, shooting someone in the back is pretty common. Cops do it. And ordinary citizens do it too.

There are two questions here: Is it legal to shoot someone in the back? Is the location of a shot cause for legal concern?

The first question is easy to answer. Assuming you otherwise have a right to defend yourself or others, it really doesn’t matter where you shoot someone. The law doesn’t specify that you must only shoot center mass in the front like you do at the shooting range when you’re shredding paper targets.

The second question is more tricky. It’s not a legal question. It’s a matter of perception.

The assumption is that if you say you were defending yourself and the body on the floor has holes in the front, the facts appear to line up. People can visualize the attacker moving toward you, forcing you to shoot the bad guy in the chest.

But when the body on the floor has holes in the back, people get a different picture in their head. The assumption is that the person was moving away from you, maybe running away. How can someone be running away from you and still present a clear and present danger? Why would you shoot someone trying to run away?

Hollywood may be partly responsible for the misunderstanding. But ordinary people are already naive about the level of violence involved in a real-life attack. Very few people have ever been involved in a serious physical altercation where someone is trying to hurt them.

The only experience most people have are old-fashioned schoolyard fights where there’s a little boxing or wrestling before a teacher or parent breaks it up.

And it doesn’t help when the media writes about an old lady defending herself on the street with a hat pin or a self defense instructor advises you to put your car keys between your fingers, as if that’s all it takes to prevent someone from killing you.

Greg Ellifritz wrote an interesting article recently about how people get shot in the back. He’s writing this from a cop’s point of view, but the same facts apply for civilian self defense.

The bottom line is that real-life violence is dynamic. People move quickly and the events unfold so fast, it’s hard for the brain to keep up. So, for example, if you’re being attacked and draw your gun to shoot in self defense, there’s no guarantee where the bullets will end up. You might start to shoot when the attacker is coming toward you and end up shooting the bad guy in the back as he turns away before you can physically stop shooting.

The legal concern is about whether others understand this, including police, prosecutors, judges, witnesses, and even your lawyer.

If others don’t have proper education or experience about the dynamics of self defense, and unfortunately that is often the case, then you could face legal peril despite doing nothing wrong. Even if you’re not fully prosecuted, you could be put through an emotional, legal, and financial wringer trying to convince people that shooting someone in the back isn’t necessarily wrong.

Perhaps even more important, you should educate yourself about real-world violence. It’s not unusual for people who have legally and justifiably shot someone to feel so bad about it that they convince themselves that they did something wrong, which can lead you to say things to authorities that could get you in serious legal trouble.