If you kill someone in self-defense, are you guilty of homicide?

Well, yes, technically speaking, but we’ll get into that more in a minute.

You know as well as I do that lawyers get paid by the page, so any discussion of the legal issues surrounding a self-defense incident could break the internet. We just don’t have that many words available here.

With that said, there are a few issues that are almost universally misunderstood. Let’s address them here, with a goal of introducing the issues. If you choose to carry a gun for self-defense, it’s entirely up to you to understand the applicable laws. No matter how many pages of law our legislators manage to regurgitate. Every state codifies things like castle doctrine and stand your ground differently, so be sure you understand your local laws.

The short answer is the question I posed at the start of this article is “both.” When you kill someone in a self-defense situation, you commit homicide. Unlike “normal” legal situations, this situation is a little bit backward. Killing someone in self-defense is not legal. It’s illegal. However, a successful affirmative defense against the “homicide” charge makes the act excusable. It’s a fine distinction. The act of self-defense homicide is technically illegal but deemed excusable due to the circumstances.

Think of it this way. If 007 was visiting our fine country and ran a red light while preventing Goldfinger from setting off a nuclear explosion at Fort Knox, the act of running the red light would still have been illegal. The extenuating circumstances simply excuse consequences of his unlawful behavior. There is no law, to my knowledge, that positively states that it is legal to run a red light, provided the driver is under time duress to prevent a nuclear explosion that would contaminate the country’s gold reserves for tens of thousands of years.

Getting back to the self-defense homicide situation, the “perpetrator” (armed citizen) must mount an affirmative defense to the homicide charge in hopes of obtaining a ruling of justifiable homicide. Of course, to illustrate the point, we’re speaking in legal technicalities. It’s certainly possible that a district attorney wouldn’t pursue a homicide charge anyway. Just be aware that a no-charge decision simply means that the evidence implies a likely outcome of justifiable homicide, so why bother with the legal pleasantries?

This is one of the reasons why armed citizen legal defense organizations seek attorneys experienced with the nuances of self-defense and justifiable homicide rather than run-of-the-mill criminal defense attorneys. In a standard criminal defense scenario, you want an attorney who denies guilt or tries to prove that it wasn’t his or her client’s fault. In an affirmative defense scenario, the argument is something like “Yes, my client committed homicide, but it was a justifiable homicide because the recently deceased criminal was trying to harm him.”

Make sense?

Self-defense

Since we’re saying self-defense is technically homicide, we ought to spend a second defining what self-defense is. While people complain about castle doctrine and stand your ground laws allowing folks to go around killing each other, the majority of justifications for self-defense homicide fall right back to the concept of self-defense.

Self-defense applies when you are in immediate and unavoidable danger of grave bodily harm or death. That’s the underlying concept, and factors including whether the aggressor is armed or not really don’t matter, provided that the aggressor has the ability to inflict harm on you. Just because a 250-pound attacker is using fists only against a 125-pound victim doesn’t mean the victim can’t respond with lethal force. The disparity of force placed that victim in danger of serious harm or death.

Internet commandos get all uppity about how they would do this or that if someone came after them. Just remember, self-defense only applies as long are you are in immediate danger of grave bodily harm. The nanosecond that the danger passes, you can no longer claim self-defense. The simple example? If someone starts beating the tar out of you until you pull your gun, then they start to run away, you are no longer acting in self-defense. Put the gun away and call 911. Pride and revenge have no place in the use of a firearm for self-defense.

Castle doctrine

As with self-defense, the concept of castle doctrine provides no “permission” to inflict harm on an intruder. Rather, it removes the obligation for the victim to retreat. In some places (I’m talking to you, United Kingdom) while there is still no duty to retreat from your own home, that practice is certainly encouraged by the pattern of court rulings. There, if an aggressor breaks into your home, and you whack him with an iron kettle, you might find yourself under prosecution for harming the home invader. That’s strange, as our current concept of castle doctrine is a direct descendant of English Common Law, which states that “an Englishman’s home is his castle.”

While states codify castle doctrine differently, the simple explanation is that you may receive immunity from criminal or civil prosecution for actions taken while defending your home and protecting yourself and your family from the risk of bodily harm. The concept does nothing that allows homeowners to start shooting trespassers. In all cases I am aware of, the concept of risk of grave bodily harm was still present. Also, the concept of castle doctrine is not always limited to the home per se, but can be extended to the place of business, vehicles, and hotel rooms depending on local law.

Stand your ground

The media gets all hysterical about stand your ground laws. Like most things that people don’t fully understand, there’s nothing to see here folks. The concept of stand your ground is not new. It certainly does not grant any legal authority to go around hurting or killing people.

Stand your ground is similar to the concept of castle doctrine. It simply clarifies that, if you’re legally in a place you’re allowed to be, you have no obligation to retreat in the face of a threat. To oversimplify, you can think of stand your ground as an extension of the castle doctrine concept to any legal location.

The best way to explain the concept is to consider the opposite concept, duty to retreat. Yes, in some places, it is your legal obligation to run or escape in the face of attack. If you don’t, you can be prosecuted for using force against your attacker. Suppose you were attacked by some freak of steroidal nature who charged you with a knife. After the fact, in a calm courtroom setting, all sorts of Monday morning quarterbacks could pontificate about how you should have just run away. Sure.

The important thing to know about stand your ground is that a clear proof of self-defense necessity must be present. If you’re not acting in self-defense, the stand your ground concept provides immunity from nothing. If you did act in justifiable self-defense, stand your ground provides immunity from prosecution for not just running away.

Takeaways

This is just an academic introduction to some of the key issues. Remember, I am not a lawyer, this is not legal advice, and it’s up to you to know the laws of your specific state. It’s also up to you to understand when you can, and when you cannot, use deadly force in self-defense.

Tom McHale is the author of the Insanely Practical Guides book series that guides new and experienced shooters alike in a fun, approachable, and practical way. His books are available in print and eBook format on Amazon.

Image by Tom McHale

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3 thoughts on “A Quick Primer on Self-defense in the United States

  1. Thank you Tom! Could you explain the 4 pillar law? I do not understand it. Is it having to do with 4 things that justify deadly force against an attacker? I believe it is law in states connected to the great lakes area. I always look forward to reading your input, and I gain wisdom from your writings. Also what is your take on the UN “small arms treaty”? I’m dead set against it. Again, thank you for the great work!

    Eric.

  2. We have fifty states, the D.C., Puerto Rico and Guam (plus assorted other small islands)and the 800pound gorilla. They each have their own criminal code and while those 54 political entities generally march together, there are enough differences that makes writing an article trying to explain the fine points of self-defense law that correctly states the law in each of those 54+ political entities an impossible task unless the writing is something approaching the federal description of cabbage. Your article was a good try, but scope of the topic limits how apropos your article may be. I really hope that everyone who reads this article pays extremely close attention to the last paragraph and the disclaimers it contains.

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