One of the chapters in my upcoming book deals with the legalities of shooting someone in self defense, and in it I make the point that there are perhaps situations where you could, legally, shoot someone - but might not need to do so. I think it's an important distinction.
Many of my students ask when they're allowed to use deadly force, and while knowing the legalities of what you can and can't do is vital** I believe it's also important to focus on the idea of need. Our self defense laws are set up to allow us to use lethal force when the circumstances are so dire (the likelihood of our own death or crippling injury) that it's necessary. In other words, when we really need to use lethal force is usually when the law allow us to do so. There may be situations, however, when we're legally allowed to shoot but we really don't need to.
Focusing solely on the criteria under which you're allowed to shoot someone, I think, is misguided; from a training standpoint I believe that it's important to focus on recognizing those situations where you need to, when there is no other course of action that you can take in complete safety which will ensure your survival in that instant. Those are the situations where the law is most likely going to be on your side.
Here's a short video from the Personal Defense Network which talks about this concept, and the difference between "can" and "need".
-=[ Grant ]=-
** - the best place to get that kind of legal training is still MAG-20 from Massad Ayoob. Joining the Armed Citizen's Legal Defense Network is also a great way to learn about the legalities of self defense, through their video series on the topic. It's sent free to all registered members and is updated regularly.
I’ve avoided discussing this until the trial was finished, as I knew that we’d not gotten all the facts in the matter. Today we at least know that the jury saw no reason to convict him of a crime, and at this point he is a free man. That may change, as the federal government is making noises about a civil rights indictment, but so far it’s just saber rattling.
There are three aspects of the case which interest me, because they have a direct impact on the legally armed citizen. The first concerns the myth of the “clean shoot”; second, the realities of political-motivated prosecutions; and finally, how our legitimate and legal activities might contribute to such an incident.
I’ve written many times about the idea of the “clean shoot”, and each time I’ve said that there is no such thing. This case is yet another example. Many internet forums promote the idea that if the shoot is “clean”, nothing else matters. According to this myth the gun you use, the ammunition in it, your demeanor, your previous actions and comments don’t matter. All that matters is if the shoot is a “good” one.
As I’ve also said, it’s not up to you, me or the keyboard commando hiding behind a pseudonym in the forum who gets to decide that. Ultimately someone else will, and that person is likely to be a judge or, collectively, a jury. How they decide whether it is justifiable may hinge on their perceptions of your personality - and they may be antagonistic to you or your exercise of your right of self defense.
Everything related to a shooting is fair game in the courtroom, whether you think it should be or not. Again, there is no such thing as a clean shoot until it’s judged that way by someone else, and everything related to it will impact that judgement. The prosecution did everything they could to implicate all of Zimmerman’s pre-incident activity, to try to prove that he was an inherently evil individual who was simply frothing at the mouth to kill someone. If you watched any of the trial, you saw those prosecutorial antics — and they should give you serious pause.
Carry extra-hot handloads with competition-light triggers and put Punisher emblems on your gun’s grips if you want, but I certainly wouldn’t want to try to explain those in the kind of courtroom Zimmerman faced! At best they’re unnecessary distractions, and at worst they might just push a juror over the edge to vote ‘guilty’.
I can hear the refrain already: “they can use anything against you, so why worry about it?” My position is the opposite: why give them additional ammunition that you don’t need to, especially when it might be the one little thing which cements your presumed guilt? A trial is never just about objective, unemotional facts; you’re dealing with the perceptions, preconceptions, prejudices, and personalities of other people. How they view things is likely to be very different than how you do.
This will be especially true if, like Zimmerman, you face a politically motivated prosecution. It doesn’t happen only with nationally reported cases, either! If your local DA is wrangling for a higher office, he or she might bring cases to trial in an effort to curry favor with the voters. (They may also bring certain cases in an attempt to silence certain segments of the public. It happens.)
This case should be a sobering lesson to all of us. Even if you do everything right, even if your response was as clean as the driven snow, you can still become a victim of political pressure. We’ve learned from the former police chief in Zimmerman’s town that when he refused to arrest Zimmerman (due to lack of evidence), he came under intense pressure from the powers-that-be. He was ultimately fired for refusing to subordinate justice to public opinion. The case was taken from the local DA and given to the state’s “special prosecutor” because of the political pressure to get a conviction. Lots of people in high places wanted a conviction at any cost, regardless of Zimmerman’s guilt or innocence, and they nearly got their wish.
When you have a prosecutor who wants to climb the political ladder combined with national political pressure and a frenzied public, an unmeritorious prosecution is bound to occur. Anyone can become a scapegoat if the sociopolitical stars are aligned in just the right way, and small imperfections in the case can become the fissures under which justice crumbles.
Should this keep you from carrying or owning a firearm for protection? Certainly not, but it should cause you to pause and consider your habits and training. Aside from knowing how to defend yourself (using tools or hands), you also need to know how to navigate the legal system should you find yourself having to use lethal force.
I strongly urge everyone to do two things: first, take MAG-20 from Massad Ayoob. That class is truly the gold standard for judicious use of lethal force, and had Zimmerman taken that class I’m confident he would have handled the incident very differently. It wouldn’t have forestalled the political prosecution, mind you, but it would have left them with even less evidence than they actually had. MAG-20 is one of the very few classes that I think you should consider as being mandatory.
The second thing is to back that education up with a membership in the Armed Citizens Legal Defense Network. This organization serves to both educate and protect the rights of the person who is forced to use a gun in self defense. Check out their benefits, and then hit the “join” button.
Finally, there has been a lot of discussion about Zimmerman’s culpability in the incident. This discussion invariably revolves around how he could have prevented the shooting, and usually concludes that had Zimmerman not gotten out of his car to keep tabs on Martin he wouldn’t have been attacked and forced to shoot.
I acknowledge that the statement is likely true, but it would also be true to say he could have avoided the entire incident — and all plausible variations — by not getting out of bed that morning. Silly? Yes, but I hope it makes something clear: sometimes even the most innocuous things lead to horrendous results.
Was it reasonable for Zimmerman to have gotten out of his car to get an address and continue his surveillance of a suspicious person? Given participation in his neighborhood watch program, his course of action was likely completely reasonable: watch and report, which is apparently what he was doing.
Did he expose himself to danger? In retrospect, yes. Was that foreseeable? I’m not as sure.
Let’s say I live in a two-story house (I don’t, but I did grow up in one.) If I hear a noise downstairs, I have two choices: investigate, or barricade, arm and call the police. If I chose the latter course of action it wouldn’t be long before the police refused to answer my calls. Why? Because suspicious things happen constantly, and the vast, overwhelming amount of the time they turn out to be nothing. It’s a very small numbers of incidents where something dangerous occurs.
Fact is, if I were in that position I’d more than likely do downstairs and find out what the noise is. The majority of time it’s going to be one of the kids in the refrigerator, or the cat knocking something over, or the wind blowing an open screen door shut, or something else just as common and just as harmless. In fact, I might go my whole life doing that and never finding anything sinister.
In the case of someone on a neighborhood watch committee, I suspect the same thing is true: the majority of the times they observe someone, it turns out to be nothing sinister. (I realize that this varies from place to place, and perhaps in that neighborhood violence was more common.) Getting out of a car, in an effort to keep an eye on someone, is likely (according to what I know about such watch programs) a completely reasonable course of action.
I acknowledge that staying in his car would have prevented the incident, but I’m not so presumptuous as to say that’s always the best course of action. It’s not just because of the waste of scarce police resources, either. In the macro sense, we see what happens when people hide behind their locked doors and wait for someone else to do something: dilapidated, crime infested neighborhoods (sometimes entire towns.) The people who live in such places need to be invested in their own security, need to take ownership of it, if they are to keep their neighborhoods fit places to live. Relying exclusively on a police presence that may never appear (ask anyone who lives in an unincorporated area, or in Detroit) means that the criminal element ultimately has free reign to commit its crimes.
If one lives in a community with good police response, it’s very easy to say that he should have simply waited in his car for the good guys to arrive. I don’t know what his community is like in that regard, and so I’m unwilling to make a blanket statement about what he should have done without knowing a lot more about what he and his fellow citizens were facing.
I have, admittedly, a slightly different perspective on this than many others in the training business. A county in my own state recently made news (on which I’ve commented) because their Sheriffs Office no longer has the money to do regular patrols. Those people don’t have the luxury of waiting in their cars until the boys (and girls) in blue arrive to take charge of the scene. If there’s a suspicious person, those residents are forced to deal with the situation themselves. The alternative is to let their county be overrun with crime. They need the tools (training and knowledge) to know how to deal with the situations they face and any potential aftermath.
That, I think, is really where Zimmerman failed. He didn’t have the skills or the knowledge to competently handle what he was doing, the incident itself, or what followed. To me, this is the most important lesson: if you’re going to carry a gun, get educated. Now would be a very good time!
-=[ Grant ]=-
Wednesday, June 12, 2013 Filed in: Self defense
The folks at the Truth About Guns have a nice profile piece up on a friend of mine, and it's one you should read.
I've known Gila for about 20 years, and I can truthfully say that she's one of the best instructors - of either gender - I've ever run across. She's patient, thorough, clear and confident. She's one of those people who command respect because of her competence, not the volume of her voice or the coarseness of her language. We could use more like her.
While she may not be well known to the general shooting public, she’s incredibly well known to the movers and shakers in the business. It's fun to walk around SHOT Show with her because she constantly runs into famous people who stop her to talk, as opposed to the other way around. She's one of my "go to" people when I need specific kinds of information, and I've been pleased to shoot photographs for two of her books.
(Her second book, "Personal Defense For Women", is on my short list of the best personal defense books available. Anytime you run across a woman who expresses interest in her own self defense, Gila's book is the first one you should recommend. I'd say that even if I didn't know her - it's just that good.)
Please go read the article so you, too, can know one of the true professionals in the shooting industry.
-=[ Grant ]=-
Monday, June 03, 2013 Filed in: Legal Issues, Self defense
While I was in Connecticut the last few days, I read two stories of stupid people using guns: one in my own state of Oregon, where a fellow had his gun confiscated because he fired a warning shot at a suspected burglar; and another in my neighboring state of Washington where someone shot and killed a thief who was taking his car.
In both cases the shooters were quite obviously uneducated as to the responsibilities that go with their right to keep and bear arms. Together they show us that we are sometimes our own worst enemy.
Neither incident met the classic definition of when it is legally permissible to use lethal force: when you are faced with imminent and otherwise unavoidable danger of death or grave bodily injury due to the actions of another. In Oregon, the shooter heard someone trying to break in his back door and fired a warning shot to scare the presumed thief away. In Washington, the shooter left his car idling in his driveway with the keys in the ignition when the thief jumped in to steal it - then shot at the fleeing vehicle, killing the thief.
In neither case, if the information we have now is correct, did the situation warrant firing a shot or even presenting a firearm. Warning shots are always a stupid idea, and shooting at someone who is running away with your possessions is almost always against the law. Lethal force is to be reserved for those cases where your life is in immediate danger, not in cases like this.
What is more disturbing is the way certain segments of the (presumably) law-abiding firearms community reacted to each of the cases. In the Oregon incident much was made about the fact that the shooter was a military vet and that it was somehow wrong to confiscate a veteran's rifle over a 'mere' warning shot. The sad fact is that he broke the law; he recklessly endangered the people around him, and he used a weapon illegally by discharging it when it wasn't necessary to do so. The charges he's facing are legitimate, because he abrogated his responsibilities as a gun owner.
In the Washington case the shooter has far fewer defenders, largely because the person who was stealing his car died of his wounds. Still, there are those who decry the fact that the shooter is being charged with First Degree Manslaughter for protecting his property. Again, a little education would have gone a long way: shooting at a fleeing felon, except in a few very rare and very specific instances, is not lawful behavior. This instance was a mere property crime, and doesn't even begin to approach the legal standards regarding fleeing felons.
These cases illustrate why I believe that your legal education is as important as your shooting education. For years I've recommended that everyone who has a gun for self protection take Massad Ayoob's two-day class in the judicious use of lethal force (MAG-20/Classroom.) Ayoob's class is the closest thing we have a to a gold standard in the shooting world, recommended by a wide variety of shooting authorities who may never agree on anything else. If you haven't taken that class, make the investment. Had these two uneducated gun owners taken that class, I doubt that either would be facing the serious repercussions of their thoughtless actions.
Another way to provide for your own legal education is to join the Armed Citizens Legal Defense Network. Aside from their financial and legal support in the aftermath of a self-defense shooting, membership comes with a seven-hour DVD course on the legalities of self defense. The DVDs are from recognized experts in the field, and have been vetted by attorneys who specialize in self defense cases. Highly recommended.
It's painful to see one of our own suffer for his poor judgement, but as responsible gun owners we can neither support nor defend their reckless actions. They can and should be used as object lessons for the rest of us: with rights come responsibilities, and being ignorant of the law will get you into trouble. Take Ayoob's class; join the ACLDN. Learn what you can and cannot do with your gun before something like either of these cases happens to you.
-=[ Grant ]=-
It's rather fashionable in the self defense world to carry a knife as a backup to a firearm. At any 'tactical' event you'll find people carrying a 'fighting' blade along with a 'backup' blade, and some practitioners advocate the knife as a primary tool for self defense.
There was a time when I espoused such points of view, but over the years I've changed my mind a bit. The knife is almost always considered deadly force, and brings with it some surprising legal risks and social connotations. This month's edition of the Armed Citizen's Legal Defense Network Journal is all about knives, and explores not just their tactical use but what they look like from the legal side of the table.
There is some eye-opening information in this issue, and if you carry a knife on your person (particularly of the one-hand-opening variety) I strongly encourage you to read the whole Journal. (Download the PDF version and keep it with your self defense reference materials.)
-=[ Grant ]=-
The Armed Citizen's Legal Defense Network (of which you should be a member) has published an interesting look at the Martin/Zimmerman case in their June newsletter. The Florida courts, as their law requires, released all of the evidence related to the case a couple of weeks ago. In his article, Marty Hayes looks at a portion of that released evidence and makes some observations which might be useful to those who carry a firearm for self protection. I recommend you read the article.
One of the more intriguing bits was the condition of the area around the entry wound on Martin's body, leading to some speculation about the exact distance from muzzle to contact. This will, as Marty clearly points out, require ballistic testing of the gun and identical ammo to determine at what distance the test matches the evidence.
Since the court will likely not let the remaining ammunition in the gun be shot (that would be destruction of evidence), they'll need to get exemplar rounds (rounds which match exactly the ammunition used) to make those tests.
I point this out because there is still a vocal subset of people who insist that carrying handloaded ammunition for self defense is a perfectly good thing to do. (I do not know if Zimmerman did or did not; that probably won't be known until the testing progresses.) If Zimmerman did the smart thing and carried factory ammunition, all the defense will need to do is contact the manufacturer and get a box or two of the same ammunition, preferably with the same lot number. The results from firing that ammo in his gun should then match the results from the shooting, which will allow the defense to precisely determine the distance from which Martin was shot.
The testing could help validate Zimmerman's claim of self defense. Given his recent tribulations over bail revocation, he may need all the objective help he can get.
If this were a case where the shooter handloaded his ammunition, regardless of how carefully he kept records, the results of the testing would likely not be allowed into evidence. I won't go into detail as there is copious reading material available on this subject, but the bottom line is that the courts generally don't allow the defendant to manufacture evidence for his/her defense. If someone in a similar situation used reloaded ammunition, he'd be at a double loss: not only would the courts not allow the ammo in the gun to be used to support his claim, they wouldn't allow any other self-manufactured ammo to be used either.
It's not about what's "legal", it's about the rules of evidence - and they work differently than you might expect.
The supporters of handloaded ammo constantly repeat the refrain "if it's a clean shoot, then the ammo won't matter." Is the Zimmerman case a "clean" shoot? At this point I don't think anyone would be stupid enough to say that it was. It may turn out that he was completely justified (or not - we won't know until a jury comes back), but the arbiter of a "clean" shoot ultimately isn't you, or me, or the cops, or the DA - it's the jury. A shoot isn't "clean" until a jury says it is, and the ammunition used is going to be one factor in their determination.
It's something of a Catch-22: in a clean shoot the ammo wouldn't matter, but we don't know if it's a clean shoot until the jury has decided it was, and part of their decision making may involve having the ammo tested, which means the ammo DOES matter. See the problem?
This is why I only carry factory ammunition in my guns. I use my considerable reloading skill and experience to craft practice rounds that duplicate my carry ammunition in bullet weight, velocity, recoil, and point of impact, which I use only for practice or training. When I load the gun for defensive use, I put in ammunition made by someone who can supply a certified duplicate of what I've used should I need to shoot someone. Their word about the composition of the ammo will be accepted by the court, where mine wouldn't. This way I can practice cheaply and still have the backing of a reliable third party in case I need it in court.
This is also why I only carry ammunition from a major manufacturer. I don't carry "boutique" ammunition, the kind made by small speciality manufacturers, because a) those companies tend to go in and out of business with disturbing frequency; b) I don't know if they have the resources or motivation to keep samples of every lot produced in case it's needed by a court; c) I don't know if they have a credible witness who can get on the stand and testify to both the composition and chain of custody of the evidence they've provided. I know Winchester, Federal, Remington, and CCI/Speer can and do, and so I load my guns with their products.
(I also never use ammunition made by a company which is not a member of SAAMI, but that's another article for another day!)
-=[ Grant ]=-
My wife and I trekked up to Firearms Academy of Seattle yesterday to spend a little time talking about revolvers, books, and assorted nonsense. Massad Ayoob and Gail Pepin were there, along with Marty and Gila Hayes, Jennie Van Tuyl, and several dogs. We recorded a rather raucous round-table edition of the ProArms Podcast (wherein I actually say some nice things about Taurus, and try to say some nice things about the Chiappa Rhino but fail miserably.)
Marty gave us a status report on the Armed Citizen's Legal Defense Network as well as a sneak peek of what's to come. As I pointed out last week, the ACLDN is unique in the field; it's the only place where the armed citizen can get high-level education and legal assistance in the event he or she is involved in a self defense incident. Glad to hear that they're growing and expanding their programs.
Jennie Van Tuyl and her husband Bill own Rivendell Sales, a rather unique gun store. Among other things they specialize in customizing the Remington 20 gauge autoloading shotgun for defensive use, an activity which I wholeheartedly applaud.
I'm a huge fan of the 20 gauge as a defensive tool. No matter how well you shoot a 12 gauge, you'll shoot a 20 gauge better simply because of the huge reduction in felt recoil. The only difference between them is the payload; they both throw their pellets at the same velocity, it's just that the 12 throws a few more. As Mas Ayoob is fond of saying, if you shoot a bad guy the only person who'll be able to tell whether it was a 12 or a 20 is the coroner, and only then by counting the white specks on the x-ray.
(One point I think is often overlooked: many 12 gauge owners use the lower-velocity "tactical" buckshot loads to help tame the recoil of their gun. It's my firm belief that those loads have less effectiveness than a full-power 20 gauge with the same recoil. Any way you slice it, the 20 gauge is the best balance of lethality and shootability that exists in the shotgun world.)
The Remington autoloaders are slim, trim, light shotguns that are a joy to heft after lugging around one of the same guns in 12 gauge. Many years ago my wife and I standardized on the 20 gauge and picked up a Remington 1100 LT-20 Youth Synthetic model. The youth guns had a shorter stock than the regular line, a feature which both of us appreciate. Since there was no one who really worked on the 20 gauges back then, I installed a 20" smoothbore barrel with rifle sights, reamed the forcing cone, and generally spruced it up as a home defense gun. Today the Van Tuyls can handle all that and more, giving you a superb handling, easy shooting shotgun without having to become your own gunsmith.
Check out their site. (I’m jealous of the wood in their stocks.)
Over the weekend Tam exposed us to yet another questionable training organization. Their video actually made me simultaneously cringe and laugh, which when you think about it is really a pretty good trick. pdb also picked up on their shenanigans, giving us his typically humorous critique.
I think, however, that both Tam and pdb wasted a lot of effort actually analyzing the video. They could have simply used my theorem: quality of instruction in a video is inversely proportional to the sound pressure level of the cheesy heavy metal music used on the soundtrack.
Correlation seems to be high.
-=[ Grant ]=-
One consistent theme amongst the less informed is that all you need worry about in a defensive encounter is that it’s a “good shoot.” Nothing else, according to these keyboard commandoes, matters - you can do anything, as long as the shoot is "clean."
The trouble is that neither you, nor they, get to decide what's "clean" and what's not. In my state, a Grand Jury makes the first decision, and if they say it isn't "clean" it then goes to a trial jury to make the final decision. They're the ones who will scrutinize any self defense shooting, and the pseudonymous self-appointed experts from your favorite forum will be conspicuously absent.
You see, what looks "clean" to you may not look "clean" to another person. Even if you explain it in detail they may still not see it your way, especially if it's a jury weighing your explanation against someone else trying to convince them of the opposite. Malicious prosecutions and lying witnesses exist, and they don't make that job any easier.
For those of you who still don't get this concept, I urge you to run over to the Armed Citizen's Legal Defense Network and read this month's Journal. It is devoted to the story of Larry Hickey, who just recently won his freedom after two trials that stemmed from a defensive shooting. His ordeal, recounted in complete detail, serves as a caution to all those who still believe in the myth of the "clean shoot."
Don’t get me wrong - I’m not saying that you necessarily need to indulge in some fearfully exaggerated lawyer-proofing of your defensive preparations, but you do need to understand that you can’t run around like Rambo, either. This article dramatically illustrates the the value of knowing how to interact with the police after you’ve been involved in a shooting, the need to be able to articulate why you did what you did, and how evidence can be ignored, lost, or even turned to your disadvantage.
The article runs twenty-two pages, and I believe it to be invaluable for anyone who carries a gun for self defense - and should be required reading for anyone who pontificates about legal issues on gun forums. The Journal is in PDF form; here's a direct link to that file.
Don’t brush this off - go read the article.
-=[ Grant ]=-