As regular readers know, I’m currently updating a series on the rationale for gun ownership (enter “guns and liberty” into the SMM home page search bar to find them all). In response to the most recent installment—Part 8—reader Roger Lake, obviously a man of discriminating taste, wrote:
Excellent column with tons of info.
I for one, would like you in the future to expand on Duty to Retreat. How did that legal concept emerge and what would be some examples of the law. If you’re 65, does that mean trying to out run an assailant, if so for how far? I would presume someone in a wheelchair wouldn’t have to retreat.
While the current series does, to some degree, address these issues, and I’ve done more over the years, it never hurts to update that information, and thus, this article. Where the use of force is concerned, and particularly deadly force, it is difficult to make absolute pronouncements that will keep one out of legal trouble. I am not an attorney, and even the foremost contemporary professor of such knowledge, attorney Andrew Branca—his definitive book is mandatory reading—makes no claims to absolute knowledge. The laws of the states, and federal government, vary a great deal, and criminal trials are always, in one way or another, a crap shoot. I provide a basic overview of the use of deadly force in Update 8, but only that: a basic overview.
We begin with this: regardless of who you are, regardless of your martial skills—open handed or with weapons—regardless of your good intentions, always, always, always, do everything you reasonably can to avoid fights. Sublimate you ego, walk blocks out of your way, avoid known trouble areas, take a bit of verbal abuse, avoid every potential confrontation and just walk away. Obviously, confrontation is sometimes thrust upon us, and it is not always reasonably possible to avoid it, but we all have the moral, and for the most part legal, obligation, to avoid it.
Notice I keep referring to what is reasonable. The word has common sense and legal applications. If we’re going to do everything we can to avoid a fight, why study a martial art? Why learn the art of the gun? Why study and carry any weapon? Why practice harming others? Doesn’t that mark one as violent, ill intentioned, perhaps even evil? Doesn’t it speak to non-peaceful desires? Don’t people carry guns to compensate for personal weaknesses? Why carry weapons, or develop the knowledge and skill to use one’s body as a weapon, unless one really intends to use those weapons against others?
We do it because we–all of us–should want to survive to die peacefully, of natural causes, in our beds. As George Orwell said:
People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.
We are fortunate to live in a society where the necessity of using physical violence is uncommon. Unless they run in criminal circles, or live in areas effectively ruled by criminals–-Democrat-ruled cities–the lives of most Americans will never be directly endangered by criminal violence. Most Americans will live a lifetime without having to strike another in self-defense. They’ll suffer no broken noses, torn ears, damaged eye sockets, concussions, lacerations, bruises, ruptured organs, sprains or broken bones. However if we understand human nature, if we are willing and able to recognize reality, we must know that such danger is always, in unexpected ways and at unexpected times and places, possible.
The movies have done us all a disservice. Action heroes take and give blows that would kill most people, yet suffer no lasting injury. People are shot in the leg or usually, the shoulder, and recover fully by the next episode. TV cops shoot multiple people every episode, yet are never suspended, investigated, charged, sued or otherwise inconvenienced. It’s never that easy, and every use of force will be judged by people sitting in comfortable chairs in climate controlled offices with the luxury of unlimited time.
Reality is very different. What we see in fiction is fight choreography, not fighting. Every movement, every blow, is planned and carefully rehearsed. The blood, bruising and other injuries aren’t real. Real fighting is brutal, cruel, fast, unimaginably violent and bloody. One or more of those involved end up on the ground struggling for their lives. Single blows can disfigure, cripple or kill. Survivors are often brain damaged. Any gunshot wound anywhere can cripple, deform or kill. People lose limbs, or their function, from gunshot wounds in the shoulder or leg. Sometimes they die; major arteries are there. Knife wounds are particularly ugly, painful and debilitating, which is all the better reason to do everything possible to avoid any confrontation.
Knowing this, let us understand disparity of force. Not every fight is clear cut. Most aren’t. A 105 pound woman might very well get away with things a fit, 30 year old man can’t, and she should. The police will consider all the circumstances of every case to determine if force was legitimate, and in so doing, they’ll ask whether the victim’s response to the attack was reasonable. Would a reasonable person of the same gender, size, physical ability or disability and knowledge have done the same thing? Was their response reasonable, given the same, or similar, circumstances?
I am yet tall, reasonably fit and strong, and my reflexes have not degraded to any obvious degree, but I am no longer 25, or even 45 years old. I wear glasses, I’ve had one stroke, arthritis in a knee is so bad a knee replacement is unquestionably in my future, and my joints protest when I rise in the morning. Any criminal watching me for a few minutes after I get out of bed would not consider me a formidable opponent. I have occasional bouts of gout and the occasional sinus infection. I get older every year, but the kind of people that would attack me, or anyone, are always in their teens and early 20s. That’s important to remember.
In the past, I could do 3-5 minutes of hard sparring and recover quickly. Does 3-5 minutes sound like nothing? If you think that, you have no idea about actual fighting. Even with real sparring, where we agree not to seriously, intentionally damage each other, serious bruises, sprains, the occasional broken finger or toe, concussions, and a few days of pain and peeing blood are common.
In a real fight, the younger, stronger, more inherently violent person, the person—or persons–able to take more damage and recover more quickly, will likely win. Beautiful techniques that work at ¾ speed in the dojo often fail spectacularly in reality.
The implications are obvious. For most women, who are always at a physical disadvantage in a fight with most men, and for many men, particularly older men, hand to hand combat is a sucker’s bet. It’s a sure way to be seriously injured, maimed, crippled or killed. Add weight of numbers, and even the biggest, fittest, most capable men are at a disadvantage.
In any fight, timing and distance are definitive. Teaching European fencing, I quickly disabused students of the notion they could take on multiple attackers. I’d line up three of them against me, and even unschooled beginners took little time to wise up and quickly “kill” me. Skillful use of timing, distance, and superiority in numbers will always win.
This is where disparity of force matters. Criminals tend to be young and fit. They often run in packs. Even when young, even with reasonable martial skills, it would have been foolish for me to fight anyone, particularly someone I did not know. I’d have no idea of their abilities. Would the next blow merely bruise, or would it blind, cripple, even kill? I’ve seen people walk away from accidents that should have killed them with barely a scratch. I’ve also seen people take a single blow that crippled or killed them.
At my age, with Father Time whispering in my ear–no, it’s not Joe Biden; I checked–there is no way I would take on anyone, and absolutely not more than one, hand to hand. Practically, this means that attacked by a younger stronger opponent, I might very well be able to get away with using a handgun. That might be reasonable. Against more than one, my case would be stronger, and more reasonable, yet.
The same applies to women. Virtually any woman is at a deadly disadvantage to a man in an attack. Size, strength and viciousness are absolutely overwhelming. Most people have never been struck in the face. It’s painful, stunning; it paralyzes some. Even a woman skilled in a martial art may be overcome by someone willing to take some damage to force their will upon her. A woman, even more than an elderly man, may reasonably be able to use deadly force, faster, than a young, fit man, because given these facts, it very well might be reasonable.
As Roger Lake asked, the same would be true for someone in a wheelchair, or anyone unable to run, to retreat. With my knee damage, I could run, but not far, and not nearly as fast as I once could. It’s no longer a viable option, nor is trying to take out one or more much younger opponents hand to hand. Therefore, I lawfully carry a concealed handgun, and do everything I can to avoid ever having to use it.
Scenario: A 26 year-old nurse, at 2:30 AM, walks to her car in a dimly lit parking lot after her shift. She’s 5’4”, 120 pounds, and has no martial arts training. She does, however, have a handgun in her purse. As she approaches her car, a male stranger approaches her, and she hears, then sees, another approaching from her side. Both are younger, larger, and stronger. Her escape route is cut off, and they’re too close for her to run in any case. They don’t say anything, but both start moving faster toward her. Fortunately, when she first sensed danger, she grasped her handgun in her purse. As the one in front of her reaches out for her, she draws and shoots him. He drops. As the one to her side grabs her, she managed to put the muzzle into his gut and fires again. He releases her, turns and runs off, but collapses at the nearby emergency room door. The first thug will die. The second will survive.
Is she in trouble? Will she be prosecuted? If she is, will she be acquitted? Keep in mind there are no hard and fast answers. In some parts of the country, one can pretty much count on prosecutors being anti-liberty/gun. In places like that, she’s going to be prosecuted. and once prosecuted, might be convicted of self-defense. But in rational places, a reasonable prosecutor would likely think her actions reasonable. Given the hour, the aggressive approach from two directions by two much larger men, one of who actually grabbed her despite facing a handgun, any woman could reasonably believe she was in imminent danger of serious bodily injury or death, and act in self-defense under the law.
We should also consider “Stand Your Ground” laws. The media and various race baiters have badly misinformed the public about such laws, claiming they give white people cart blanche to murder young Black men. Nonsense. A SYG law merely provides if one is lawfully present when attacked, they have no duty to try to run away. Every law relating to the use of force and self-defense still applies.
Generally speaking, women, children, the elderly, the disabled, those with temporary, but debilitating medical conditions such as people recovering from surgery, will likely find the concept of reasonableness bent in their favor. They may be able to use more force more quickly in a given situation than a hearty and hale young man, which is as it should be. It’s only reasonable.
There is, however, an attendant danger. If one is too old, small, disabled, etc. to go hand to hand, and as a result, legally carries a handgun, they have an absolute obligation to avoid ever having to use it. The police and prosecutors will always wonder if such a person tried to lure a criminal to their death, if they set up an ambush, an opportunity to use their handgun to kill. Be sure there is never any evidence of such sinister plotting.
Anyone choosing to carry a handgun should find a law firm that specializes in defending gun owners. They’re available pretty much everywhere, and for a reasonable annual fee, will provide invaluable services. Knowing the law—buy Branca’s book—in general, and specific to one’s city and state, is also invaluable. Remember, the police have no legal obligation to protect anyone. We are, in every way that matters, on our own.
I know, gentle readers, some are thinking I didn’t provide hard and fast rules that will always protect everyone in every situation. Sorry, but I can’t. No one can. Above all, always do everyone you can to avoid confrontation. If you can’t, do everything you can to be able to convince the police, and a jury, you were the innocent victim of an unprovoked attack. You did everything you could to avoid it, and used reasonable force as a last resort.
Anything less might be unreasonable.