Last month we began to explore the question of when it is (and isn’t) proper to use lethal force in a defensive way. Not being a lawyer, I can’t make legal pronouncements about what is and isn’t the law in every part of the country. Not being a omniscient, I can’t presume to say that there is only one way to analyze any situation in terms of the advisability of using lethal force.

But, being a reasonable, responsible adult, I do know two things:

1. When under the stress of an attack, there will be no time to start thinking about what the rules for applying lethal force should be, nor will it be possible to employ a complex decision procedure when being faced with imminent death. So…

2. I need a simple, reasonable, legal, easy to remember, easy to apply rule for use in situations almost too horrific to contemplate, much less survive.

The rule is this: 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.

That’s easy to say, but is it easy to apply? Let’s consider some examples.

We promised to 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.

Don’t cheat! Make up your own mind for each situation about what you would do, and why before looking at the discussions at the end.

Situation 1.

You wake up to the sound of your dog growling. You grab your Smith & Wesson 19, slip in a speed loader full of 125 gr Cor-Bon .357 ammo, and check the back window. Two fellows are breaking into your car, which is parked on the street. They will surely get away with the car before the police can be summoned. One of the thugs appears to be armed with something like a crowbar. You hold the gun out of sight as you holler at them to get out of there. The one with the crowbar turns toward you and starts shouting obscenities. Should you shoot?

Situation 2.

You are walking through an unfamiliar part of town at night, with your Glock 19 in your favorite Guardian Leather holster bag. You are about to enter a convenience store to pick up a bottle of water, when you notice through the window that the clerk, a woman, is being held at gunpoint by a man whose back is to you! What should you do? Should you shoot?

Situation 3.

After a business meeting that ran into the late evening, you walk to your car in a parking garage. Your right hand is on your little Seecamp (loaded with .32 Winchester Silvertips) in your coat pocket. A man approaches you and manages to get close enough to grab your left arm. You scream, but apparently nobody is around to hear. You struggle unsuccessfully. He twists your arm painfully, and orders you to unlock your car, and get in. He promises not to hurt you if you do as he says. What should you do?

Now, let’s discuss the options for dealing with those scenarios.

Discussion of Situation 1.

This was an easy one. No way it is justified to shoot to protect your car. Sure, you sometimes hear gun owners who loudly proclaim they would shoot any so-and-so who dared to mess with their wheels, but talk is cheap, and shooting someone is incredibly expensive. You can buy several cars with what you’ll save in legal fees defending yourself in court.

But our rule didn’t say anything about making a shoot or don’t shoot decision based on a financial analysis of the likely outcome. The fundamental issue here is a moral one – how will you feel afterward if you know, in your heart, that at the moment you pulled the trigger you were valuing your car more than that person’s life? Do you want to spend the rest of your life explaining to lawyers and jurors and to yourself why you shot a person who was too far away to hurt you, and who wasn’t attacking you or anyone else?

Discussion of situation 2

Getting involved in situations where you are defending someone who is a stranger to you means getting onto very, very thin ice. Sure, it looks like you could be a heroine by intervening in this awful situation, but do you really know who is innocent here?

Let’s suppose that you pull out that Glock and shoot the gunman in the back of the head, killing him before he has a chance to shoot the clerk. And let’s suppose it turns out that the “gunman” was the store owner, who was using a toy gun to role playing a robbery with a new employee so she would know what to do if one actually occurred. Do you want to explain to that man’s family why you shot him?

You don’t know who is truly innocent in most public situations, so don’t be eager to intervene with people you don’t know. This is particularly true if there is another good option, such as running to a nearby phone to call 911.

Discussion of Situation 3.

He’s not armed, and he says he won’t hurt you. Does that mean you shouldn’t bring that little Seecamp into the situation? Being forced into a vehicle by a stranger is one of the most dangerous things that can happen to you.

As J.J. Bittenbinder (a cop who lectures civilians on safety precautions) says, you have a much better chance of defending yourself at the primary crime scene, where you are right now, than at the secondary crime scene, where he will take you. If he has a secondary scene in mind, it is because he wants to do something there that he doesn’t want to do at the primary scene, and you can bet it isn’t going to be pleasant for you.

He may be unarmed, but if he is stronger than you, that disparity of force is part of the threat to you. The danger to you is immediate – he is already assaulting you, and threatening you with more bodily harm. You are entirely justified in equalizing the situation with your gun.


Do those discussions feel right to you? Does the rule “feel right” morally and ethically? It does to me, and to most of the people I know who have thought seriously and deeply about having defensive guns around.

Of course, real life is seldom as clear cut as invented scenarios. If you have other scenarios you would like to see discussed in this column, please send them to me in care of this magazine.

Remember, if you have a defensive firearm, you automatically have something else, too: a responsibility to use it properly, which includes knowing when, and when not, to use it.

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