Ronald Andring, Sr. is a veteran of a 30+ year career in law enforcement and corrections, serving with the Washington State Patrol, the Walla Walla Police Department, and the Washington Department of Corrections until his retirement in 2005.
While I am not a lawyer I have attended several seminars presented by lawyers, judges and practitioners on this topic. I am also retired from a 30+ year career in law enforcement and corrections, so have faced these questions several times in both my career and personal life. This article is much too short to offer legal advice on these questions beyond broad principles founded in law and court decisions. Choosing to shoot means using “deadly force” against a person(s) posing a serious threat of great bodily harm or death if not stopped. It is considered deadly because the possible, and probable, outcome is the death of the person(s) posing the threat.
Can I Shoot?
The answer to the question “Can I shoot?” has always been a lawyerly “It depends”. It depends on the laws in your particular jurisdiction. It depends on the specific circumstances leading up to that decision to shoot or not shoot. It depends to what degree the circumstances present the probability the attacker is likely to cause great bodily harm or death if not stopped. It depends on whether a reasonable person, under similar circumstances, would make the same decision. While the law clearly supports shooting an intruder who kicked in your door, it just as clearly prohibits shooting someone just because they took a short cut through your property. The law generally does not support intentionally “shooting to wound” because that indicates the circumstances did not rise to the legal threshold. Firing warning shots is also problematic as they tend to erode a claim of “an imminent threat”. Many situations lie between these extremes, and often require a split second decision about whether or not the circumstances rise to the threshold of a clear threat of great bodily harm or death if they are permitted to continue.
The old adage “If you shoot someone, drag them inside your house” is also frowned upon in the law. The same with putting a weapon in the hand of the attacker after a shooting. Doing this not only casts doubts on your justification for using deadly force, but modern forensics will quickly expose your attempt to deceive. Judges and juries have historically been unsympathetic to defendants who engaged in this sort of evidence tampering after a shooting. Similarly, the law does not support the use of deadly force by someone who provoked or exacerbated the situation prior to a shooting. This is known as the “clean hands doctrine”, and does not allow for a claim of self-defense for someone who initiated or deliberately inflamed a confrontation. You are always better off using every available option, given the circumstances, to disengage yourself from a possible shooting situation.
When faced with a threatening situation, you will have to quickly assess a large number of factors. Are you alone? Are others either available to help, or be additional victims? Are you able to safely retreat or otherwise extract yourself from the danger? Is the person armed with a weapon (a knife, club, gun or other object)? Is there more than one attacker? Is their a secure barrier between you and the attacker(s), and if there is, is it likely to be breached? Is there a sufficiently large disparity between the abilities of the attacker and his/her intended victim? And finally was the chosen force used proportional to the threat? In the clear light of day following a use of deadly force all of these questions, and many more, will be asked as if you had all the time in the world to thoughtfully consider them prior to your decision to shoot.
There are several sources for becoming familiar with the types of circumstances that justify a decision to deadly force. A great in depth discussion of these issues can be found in “Deadly Force: Understanding Your Right To Self-Defense” and “Concealed Carry” both by Massad Ayoob. These books are well researched and founded in a long career in both law enforcement and as a firearms writer. Seminars presented by competent presenters such as attorneys, law enforcement officials, judges, or knowledgeable academics will help you understand the parameters of your right to defend yourself. The National Rifle Association regularly publishes an “Armed Citizen” recap of actual defensive shootings. There are also several online sources of information. My best advice is obtain as much information as possible from as many sources as possible so you can formulate your own answer, because in the end, it is you who will be judged by the decision you make.
Will I Shoot?
This is the tougher of the questions in my experience. Over the years I have faced this choice several times in both my career and personal life. Thankfully I have not had to take the life of another human being. I have come very close, and understand the gravity of a decision to shoot.
Making that decision is as personal a decision as you will ever have to make. Some people have admitted they never thought they could do it, but when it came right down to it, they somehow found the courage to pull the trigger. At the other end of the spectrum are people I have heard brag they would shoot without hesitation. Most of us, I believe, fall somewhere between those two extremes.
In high school I became aware of how difficult a decision this is. A classmate of mine had to make that choice one night when his abusive alcoholic father was kicking in the door to their home while threatening to kill his family. Gathering his mother and siblings in a back bedroom, he retrieved his father’s shotgun, and agonized as he waited for the police to arrive. However, before police responded he was forced to shoot his father.
A few years later, while working for an ambulance service, we received a call to a shooting. An abusive husband followed his battered wife to her parent’s home. Her father called the police, retrieved his shotgun, and like my classmate, prayed the police would arrive in time. Once again the police were late, and he shot his son-in-law as he tried to break down the door.
In both cases the shootings were ruled justified even though neither of these attackers were armed. Yet the fallout from these events led both families to eventually leave town in an effort to escape the emotional trauma. The truth is, even though the circumstances may justify the use of deadly force, it changes people forever.
As an avid student of combat history I have read many accounts and sought out veterans who have been in combat. Many veterans report at their first firefight they fired several wild rounds before making the decision to actually target the enemy. These accounts are confirmed by Defense Department research into the first combat experiences of its troops. While we naturally tend to avoid injuring or killing others, combat situations eventually move us toward a “kill or be killed” mentality.
Police officers, soldiers, and corrections professionals have examined their willingness to shoot. There are countless stories of these individuals running toward danger and being ready to shoot if necessary. Videos of these responses abound on the internet. One of my favorites is the 72 year old combat veteran who, when confronted by armed robbers at an internet cafe he was at with his wife, did not hesitate to spring into action. He sat up ready to attack, grasped his pistol, and as soon as the robbers turned their backs to him, jumped up, pistol blazing, chasing the robbers from the cafe. Both robbers were shot as they fled in fear.
Similarly, when a deranged former airman began shooting the congregation of the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, without hesitation Stephen Willeford grabbed his AR-15 rifle and rushed toward the church. An NRA Life Member and shooting instructor, Willeford quickly identified the shooter and returned fire. As the shooter fled, Willeford and a neighbor gave pursuit, eventually cornering the shooter before police arrived. When asked why he responded as he did, Willeford said, “Those people are my friends. Those people have known my family. I didn’t take time to put shoes on even.”
Father’s Day 2018 a convicted felon went on a rampage of carjacking and shooting random people. Volunteer firefighter, paramedic and pastor David George was in the Tumwater, Washington Walmart when the gunman entered the store and began shooting. A trained and experienced concealed carrier, George responded to the gunman as he ran out of the store and shot another driver as he attempted another carjacking. Joined by another licensed concealed carrier, George shot the gunman ending his rampage. When asked why he decided to shoot the gunman, Pastor George responded, "to protect my family and others from the gunman and his display of obvious deadly intent. This is in accordance with both my training as an emergency responder and calling as a pastor, husband, father and grandfather."
These are but a few of the many examples of ordinary citizens making a decision to defend their families and neighbors. Through their training and personal reflection they made the decision to respond to deadly attacks without hesitation. Only you can know if you will shoot, possibly not until you are actually confronted by that decision. Whatever you decide is what is right for you. Not everyone is willing to risk potential criminal or civil liability that can come from choosing to shoot, and not everyone is willing to assume that risk for non-family members. Some may criticize such a choice, but in my opinion, any such criticism is unjustified. Choosing to take a life in self-defense is a weighty decision with consequences that can follow you the rest of your life. My best advice is to learn as much as you can about when you are legally justified to shoot, and reflect on how far you may be willing to go should you be confronted by a situation that may require you to use deadly force. There is no “right decision”. There is only what is “right” for you.