When talking about guns for self-protection, one question that is asked time and time again is “When can I shoot, and when can’t I?” The question is a deep one, one that can’t be answered entirely in anything as short as this article, so it is one that we will come back to again and again.

Some people think that question implies that the asker is unreasonably nervous, insecure about using a gun, or indicating an unwillingness to shoot in self-defense. But I disagree. When people ask that question, I think it shows that they understand and respect the fact that being armed is not something to be done casually. They are indicating that they want to use a gun properly, which means developing the critical judgment that must accompany the responsible ownership of a defensive firearm.

It would do no good to answer that question with a long list of criteria; nobody can remember a long checklist, or take the time under the stress of an attack to determine whether all 17 items are satisfied. It would do no good to answer the question with a detailed legal description, because laws change so much from place to place and from time to time.

If you are like me, you need a simple rule, one that is easy to understand, applies virtually everywhere, “feels right” morally and ethically, and is so clearly within the bounds of laws everywhere that you feel safe applying it. Here is that rule:

You are justified in using lethal force against another human being if, and only if, there is immediate and unavoidable danger of death or grave bodily harm to an innocent person.

To understand this fully, let’s unpack it phrase by phrase, and see how it applies to specific situations.

Immediate danger. The danger has to be right here, right now. Not a danger that has already past. If you shoot someone after he has already committed and completed a crime, that is revenge, “taking the law into your own hands,” or vigilantism (which is both immoral and illegal), not justifiable self-defense. The danger can’t be one that is far in the future, either. If someone threatens that he will kill you tomorrow, you are not justified in shooting him today! But if someone tries to drag you into a van, you don’t have to wait until he actually starts to rape you to defend yourself.

Unavoidable danger. This one is tricky. As far as I know, no state requires that you retreat in your own home if attacked. But it might be prudent to do so if it is possible without endangering yourself or anyone else. Every self defense instructor I’ve ever know, regardless of whether they teach awareness, chemical sprays, defensive tactics, martial arts,, or firearms, says that avoiding, or running away from, a confrontation is by far the best thing to do, if possible. Some men have a lot of trouble with this concept, having been raised on the macho premise that they must never back down or run away. Most women have no trouble at all with this concept, much preferring to run away from an assault than to stay and fight, even if they are armed and know they could “win” a confrontation.

Danger of death. That seems clear enough, but still requires some thought. Is a rapist putting you in danger of death, even though he says he won’t hurt you? Yes. Given the facts about AIDS, and the fact that rapists have a higher incidence of sexually transmitted diseases than the general population, there’s a good chance that one of the consequences of rape could be death.

Danger of grave bodily harm. A slap on the face, though painful and definitely an assault, is probably not grave bodily harm, but a punch from the fist of a strong man is a different matter. Broken bones and stab wounds definitely qualify. So does rape. And remember that they don’t have to be actually inflicted, the fact that you are in immediate and unavoidable danger of them is sufficient. Does this mean that you can shoot someone, explain later that “he said he was going to punch me”, and expect that the police will treat it as self-defense? No, life isn’t that simple.

Notice that nothing is said in this rule about danger to property. That’s because it is not justified to shoot someone to protect mere “stuff”. Although some possible exceptions to this rule might make an interesting column, the emotional, legal, and financial consequences of shooting someone are so extreme that it is hard to reconcile them with protecting your purse, or a TV set, or even the family silver. My first firearms license said on the back that it was issued for “protection of life and propery”, but I didn’t believe it then, and I believe it even less now. Protection of life, yes. Property, no.

To an innocent person. This part is a little complicated. To be completely justified in using your gun against someone else, you need to be “innocent”. If you knowingly provoke a drunk, unstable person into a rage and he attacks you, you may find that some member of the jury who will eventually consider your manslaughter case says to himself, “She shouldn’t have provoked him”. There’s a lot of gray area here for the lawyers and the press to frolic in. Since it will be in somebody’s best interest to try to make you look bad after the fact, the only way to protect yourself is to be squeaky clean, and develop habits that maintain your innocence. Don’t ever threaten to kill other people, even in jest. Don’t drink if you are carrying. Don’t ever think or say that having a gun makes it possible for you to go into dangerous areas that you would avoid if you weren’t armed (that can be twisted into the perception that you deliberately went into a danger zone because you wanted the opportunity to use your gun).

There’s another tricky part to this “innocent” business. Suppose you are walking in an unfamiliar area at night, and come across a scruffy-looking man holding a fairly well-dressed man at gunpoint in a parking lot. Should you whip out your gun and shoot the scruff? Before you do, consider the fact that he might be an undercover police officer arresting a drug dealer. The fact is, you don’t know, in most situations where strangers are involved, whether the person apparently being threatened is innocent or not. In such cases, it is generally better to find some other way of dealing with the situation, such as getting out of there and calling the police, who are better trained, equipped, and experienced in telling the good guys from the bad ones.

The point is that if you are like the women I’ve talked to who have been through terrifying situations, you will know in your heart, when you are in the middle of one, whether you can reasonably try to get away, whether the threats you are hearing are bluff or truth, whether you are in terrible danger or not. You must make the judgment as to whether you are in immediate and unavoidable danger of death or grave bodily harm, and act accordingly.

If you have never been attacked, it is natural to wonder how you would react, and whether you would be able to judge the situation properly. But when reality happens to you, you are very likely to find that you have no trouble at all knowing that you are in immediate and unavoidable danger. What you do then will depend on how you have trained yourself (mentally as well as physically) to react.

Next month we will look at some specific situations, and evaluate them against the criterion of “immediate and unavoidable danger of death or grave bodily harm”. Some situations are clear cut, many have shades of gray. One thing to ask yourself when analyzing a “what if” scenario is what additional information you would need in order to feel comfortable with a “shoot” or “don’t shoot” decision. The more you think about these things in advance, the more confident you will become in your ability to make a good decision under stress.

This article was reprinted from Women&Guns May 1994, Copyright © 1994, Lyn Bates