Moral and Ethical Decisions on the Use of Deadly Force

You have to decide ahead of time when you are going to react with deadly force. There are legal constraints the dictate when you should use your weapon, but it is the moral and ethical decisions that will actually determine when you do.

These are my reflections on the lecture I heard at Front Sight. If you carry a firearm, this article describes the things you must think about today.

Morals vs Ethics vs Legal

I’m going to post on the universal legal justification for the use of deadly force in the near future. (It will include a discussion of the title of Linoge’s recent post about the Seattle Mall shooting.) Legality isn’t the final arbitrator of when you uses your weapon, your own moral code and forethought is. We can think of examples of when the law would allow us to shoot, but we wouldn’t. We can also think of times the law might not be on our side, but we’d still shoot because we felt it the right thing to do.

Two quick examples. In Texas you can use deadly force if you are the victim of a number of crimes at night that you can’t during the day. I believe the thinking behind this difference is you can’t be as sure the crimes aren’t more serious at night like you can during the day. One of these crimes is vandalism. Logically this means if some kids are night toilet papering your house some night, you are legally justified in taking your shotgun and blowing them away. But morally and ethically this is wrong and you wouldn’t do this.

During the lecture the instructor discussed a call he got as a police officer. They arrive and there is a man dressed only in pants standing the front yard with blood on him holding a 22 rifle. On the front porch is the body of another naked man. When the cops roll up the man with the rifle throws the gun down and yells “I did it. I killed him. Arrest me I don’t care.”

They cuff him and put him in the car and start asking questions. There is a long story, but the naked guy crawled through the shooters daughter’s window. The father heard the noise and got up pulled on his pants, went to the daughter’s room and rescued her. Naked man followed further into the house. Father got his gun and shot naked guy, but the guy scuffled with him – thus the blood – and then started to leave the house. The father let him, but followed him outside. The bad guy doubled back and got back into the house where the man’s family was. The father saw the man through the front window approaching his family in the living room, so he shot him again through the window into the house. The bad guy came out the front door as the man was trying to enter and attempted to attack him again. He backed into the front yard and shot the guy again, finally stopping and killing him. Then the cops rolled up.

The man’s reaction as the police arrived was because he believed that since he had shot the guy outside his house, the law was against him. He thought the law dictated you can only shoot criminals inside your house. But it didn’t matter to the father because he’d done what had to be done to protect his family and himself, even if the law wasn’t on his side.

In the end the guy was wrong about the law, even in California. He wasn’t even arrested once the cops got the story, but he was acting based on his own morals even if it conflicted with the law. Even if it meant he went to jail.

Morals are the things that are right and wrong. Ethics are the community standards of what is right and wrong. Ethics are only law when they are made into laws.

A What If Scenario for You

You need to think about when you will be willing to use deadly force now. When the situation happens you won’t have time to decide. You will decide based on some unknown criteria and possibly shoot when you shouldn’t , or more likely not shoot when you should.

You are in a parking lot having just put your baby in there car seat. A couple of cars away there is a disheveled man in a trenchcoat muttering to himself. He starts looking under cars and mumbling to himself and moving toward you. What do you do? How close to do you let him get before you react? How do you react?

One of the things that came out quickly with this and other scenarios was as mostly middle class Americans we by default thought up the reasons the person’s actions were justified. Well he lost something. He doesn’t have any bad intent. I’m sure not justified in pulling my gun and shooting him.

But this guy could be a thief looking for a quick robbery to get his next crack fix. What will you do?

If you stand around and think about what you should do, he will close on you. And if he has a knife you’ll look like this – if you are lucky. And what about that baby when he steals the car?

I’m not saying you should pull your weapon and cap everyone who approaches you. What I’m saying is you need to draw a line in the sand. You need to know what you will do when he does X. And when he does Y, you will draw your weapon and most likely shoot him.

Here’s a possible answer. When he gets about 30 feet from you you will raise your hand to him and yell strongly “Stop”. If he doesn’t stop and continues to approach you, you will present your weapon to ready and warn him again. If he continues toward you or presents a weapon himself, you will fire two shots to the thoracic cavity.

If it is not worth killing or dying for, it is not worth fighting for.

That situation exemplifies how these things aren’t easy. That’s why you have to decide before hand. One thing specifically added to that situation was you couldn’t flee. You’ve got the baby in the car. If it was just you, you could just back away and maybe even run back into the store and call the cops.

So when are you willing to fight? One of the principles they gave us is If it is not worth killing or dying for, it is not worth fighting for.

Let’s make a bet. You pull out a $100 bill. If I win the bet, you give me the $100. If you win the bet, you get to keep it. That’s what a gun fight is. If you win, you get to keep what you’ve got. Everyone loses.

If you’ve been practicing the combat mindset, you have time to see what is coming. Even then you don’t have time to work through all the possibilities. So have a good idea what you are willing to shoot someone over.

Another Front Sight principle, if you have time to think about if you should, then you probably shouldn’t. If you are agonizing over if this guy is a threat, he isn’t. Yet. Do something to make it clear whether he is or not. Tell him – forcefully – to stop or to stay back. If somebody yells stop at you, you are going to stop. Right? You’re a reasonable person. Even a reasonable criminal is going to stop because there are easier marks. An unreasonable criminal isn’t going to stop. They need the crack and they will kill you to get your money. If they don’t stop, or more likely escalate, then you know they are a threat and now is the time to act.

Action beats reaction every time. So take control of the situation and force them to react and give away their intent.

No matter how fast you are if you take time to think you are going to be too slow.

When you started reading this article, would you have thought to tell someone to stop if they were approaching you? I wouldn’t have. I would have thought about it and thought of all the reasons it was OK for them to act that way. Then they would have been on me. I would have had to react to them, and it doesn’t matter how fast I can present from the holster, they will win.

Crimes happen fast. Most people say a lethal encounter is generally over in 2.5 seconds. I’m not positive when the timer starts on that 2.5, but I bet that is from when one guy produces a weapon. And it is only a lethal encounter when someone shoots. So if they produce a weapon and just rob you, it isn’t a lethal encounter. But this is the time we train for. At Front Sight we trained and were tested to be able to draw from concealment and put two shots in the thoracic cavity in under 1.5 seconds. But that doesn’t matter if you are reacting to them. Or if you are agonizing over what you have to do. You’ll burn your precious seconds and when you decide to draw you’ll already be the victim.

You need to think about it NOW.

You could get up from the computer and go to the store today and have this happen to you. How likely is that? Not very. How probable is it? Statistically not very. Statistically it is something close to having a car accident. Are you prepared for a car accident? Would you say you don’t need to prepare for that possibility?

If you pull your weapon, you have to call the police.

If you have to pull your gun, you have to call the cops. Its just a fact. There are two reasons for this. First if you pulled your weapon there is some kind of serious threat around the cops need to know about even if the guy ran away. There is a serious threat, right? Otherwise you wouldn’t have pulled your weapon.

Second someone else may call the cops and you don’t want to look like you were hiding. And you want your story to be the first one they hear. Not some bystander or even the criminal you pulled on.

Conclusion and Reference

The material in this post is from my notes and the handouts from the Moral and Ethical Decisions on the Use of Deadly Force lecture during the Front Sight 4 Day Defensive Handgun course. There is a lot of my thoughts in here, but I wouldn’t even be thinking them if it weren’t for the course. They offer good stuff focused on real world possibilities. They aren’t training you to go be a solider in Iraq, or to defeat a biker gang. They are teaching you how to think and act in our urban world today. I highly recommend you go take the course if you can. I know it is expensive – though the first one is pretty cheap – and there are travel expenses, but think of it as insurance.

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