When you carry a gun for protection, you need to be prepared to protect yourself twice, the experts say: once from the person who threatens your safety, and later from the legal system as it tries to determine whether you did “the right thing”. I’ll add a third: when you carry a gun for protection, you need to be prepared to protect yourself from well-intentioned but clueless people who say, “Why do you want to take the law into your own hands? The world doesn’t need vigilantes.”

In many parts of the country, the social pressure against gun ownership, particularly gun ownership with the avowed purpose of self-defense, is very strong. More than one woman, wrestling with the decision of “to carry, or not to carry” the gun she has spent so much time to master, has had to face the unthinking, but hurtful, comments made by people who rightously declare that “nobody is above the law”, and “nobody should take the law into their own hands”, and “vigilanteism is not the solution”, and so on.

How can you counter this? Ignoring it isn’t a good tactic, since the people who say those sorts of things influence everyone who hears them, and it is a serious mistake to let people think that gun owners are vigilantes.

The term “vigilante” packs a powerful emotional punch for most Americans. It harkens back to the (real or imagined) time in our country’s past when people banded together to punish suspected evildoers without benefit of what, even in those days, constituted due process (a fair trial by a real judge and properly constituted jury). Needless to say, these over-reacting folk sometimes made mistakes, and innocent people were sometimes killed because of the wrong assumptions of the vigilantes.

Where did the word “vigilante” come from? The linguistic basis is in the word “vigil” which means, in our context, “a watch kept during normal sleeping hours, or the act or a period of observing”. That is, it just means surveillance. Not, in and of itself, a bad thing, is it?

From vigil we get “vigilant” which means “on the alert, watchful”, and “vigilance”, which means “alert watchfulness”. Both of those are obviously good, positive terms. So where does the bad part start to creep in?

Ah, it starts with “vigilance committee”, which my dictionary defines as, “A volunteer group of citizens that without authority assumes powers such as pursuing and punishing those suspected of being criminals or offenders.”

From that, it is a short step to “vigilante”, “One who takes or advocates the taking of law enforcement into one’s own hands, or a member of a vigilance committee.”

OK,. now we are getting somewhere. The key concept is that of someone without authority assuming powers such as pursuing and punishing a criminal.

Those of you who have been reading this Defensive Strategies column for a while know that self-defense experts familiar with the justifiable use of lethal force say that you should use a gun only if you are in immediate an unavoidable danger of death or grave bodily harm. In other words, it is OK to use your gun to prevent or stop a serious criminal attack. But it is not OK to use it to pursue or punish someone for a criminal act.

Let’s take an example. Suppose, despite your precautions, a serial rapist manages to break into your home at night, and rapes you. After he is finished, he starts to leave, and you can finally get to where your defense gun is kept. Can you shoot him? No, not unless he is still a credible danger to you. If he is leaving, you have to let him go! To shoot him then would be acting out of anger and revenge. Understandable, but quite illegal. You can’t use your gun to punish someone for a crime he has already completed.

On the other hand, if you wake up while the would-be rapist is breaking into your home, using your gun to stop his attack on you is justifiable self-defense. Every state, as far as I know, says that a citizen faced with danger of death or a grave bodily crime (and yes, rape qualifies) can protect herself with whatever means it takes to stop the crime.

In other words, it is within the law to stop a crime being committed against you. You, and every other citizen, has the authority to stand up to a criminal and prevent him from harming you. Acting in self-defense is acting within the law; people who do this are not outside the law or acting above the law.

In the midst of a criminal attack, you, the victim, know exactly who the perpetrator is. Society recognizes your right to shoot him, if necessary, based on several facts. One is that because the crime is happening here and now, you can be absolutely certain that you are shooting someone who needs to be shot (unlike the vigilant committees, who sometimes went after the wrong person). Another is the recognition of the social contract that a person who initiates criminal violence against an innocent person must be stopped, if possible . . . by violent means, if necessary. There is no pursuing or punishing here, just saving an innocent life.

Once a crime has been completed, however, there is no crisis requiring self-defense to prevent harm. The crime, and the harm have already occurred. Violent action taken against the criminal at this point becomes revenge, or, at the hands of a savvy prosecutor, murder.

A vigilante is someone who tries to take the place of judge and jury. This can never be justified, because there is always time, later, for a real judge and jury to be involved. Someone who acts in self-defense, on the other hand, is NOT taking the place of judge or jury — she is simply exercising her right to protect herself, in a situation where she cannot possibly wait for anyone else to come along and protect her.

So, when people who have never thought this through imply that you are likely to be a vigilante because you have a gun, one response might be, “A vigilante is someone who pursues or punishes suspected criminals without having any authority to do so. Since every citizen has the authority to act in self-defense, I would use my gun only to stop a crime, so there’s no danger that I would become a vigilante, any more than you are in danger of becoming an arsonist because you have a pack of matches.”

Defending yourself against the verbal slings and arrows of people who have never thought deeply about these issues is all too necessary. Don’t let them get away with slander. Practice defending yourself verbally, just as you practice defending yourself in action if you need to, and you may have the opportunity to hear someone you’ve been discussing these matters with say, “Gee, I never thought about it that way before.” Then you know you have established your reputation as a vigilant person, not a vigilante.

This article was reprinted from Women&Guns magazine, Jul-Aug. 1999, Copyright © 1999, Lyn Bates