Quick Primer on Self-defense in the U.S.

Quick Primer on Self-defense in the U.S.

Self-defense in the U.S.

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?

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.