By: Tyler Hillis

Most law-abiding gun owners purchase a firearm for the purpose of defending and protecting themselves and their loved ones in dangerous situations. As a gun owner, it is crucial to know the laws regarding using a firearm as a method of self-defense and how to handle these situations to ensure you don’t face life-changing legal repercussions for protecting yourself or your family.

In this article, we will discuss the laws around using a firearm in self-defense, when it is permissible to shoot in self-defense, and when you cannot use self-defense as a reason to discharge a firearm.

Self-defense is a necessary act to protect yourself and your family from life-threatening danger. Whether you were defending yourself against an intruder in your home or against another individual causing you harm, this intervention is important. When shooting in self-defense causes harm or death to a perpetrator, you could face legal repercussions if the situation was not handled correctly or if it is found that the perpetrator was harmed unnecessarily, regardless of the state you live in.

This means you are not legally justified to shoot someone who made a violent threat or threw the first punch. Most state laws require that you take reasonable actions to defend yourself before resorting to discharging your firearm. These actions could include acting reasonably, retreating if possible, and only using the least amount of force that is necessary to defend yourself. Here are a few legal factors that can determine if a self-defense shooting is necessary and lawful:

Imminent Danger

To shoot in self-defense, you must be in immediate, life-threatening danger. You cannot shoot in self-defense based on plans or threats of future violence. Offensive words or threats do not justify the use of self-defense.

Additionally, you cannot use self-defense to justify retaliation once an assault has taken place. If the assault that took place has ended, and there are no signs of immediate danger anymore, self-defense is not a justifiable defense for firearm use.

Reasonable Force

Reasonable force, or ‘acting reasonably’, is using an amount of force to defend yourself that is reasonable to the act you would be defending yourself from. This means only using the amount of force that would be necessary to remove the threat. If someone pushed or shoved you for example, shooting the individual would not be reasonable means of removing the threat and would not count as self-defense. In situations where the aggressor is using a deadly weapon that could cause imminent harm or death, the use of deadly force may be reasonable.

Duty To Retreat Laws vs ‘Stand Your Ground’ Laws

Depending on your state, it may be necessary to retreat from the threat if possible before using lethal force towards a perpetrator. Other states have “Stand Your Ground” laws in place that do not require a person to flee or give them a duty to retreat before using lethal force as a method of self-defense.

Many states that impose “duty to retreat” laws have exceptions to the duty to retreat, depending on where the incident occurs. For example, you may have the duty to retreat in public places, but this duty is not mandatory while occupying your own home, vehicle, or workplace. These laws vary by state, so it is wise to be knowledgeable about the specific variations of the self-defense laws in the state you live, or any states you will be traveling to. You can view a complete guide that displays each state and their specific laws here.

What To Do If You’re Involved In A Self-Defense Shooting

Being involved in a self-defense situation where you need to use your firearm can be scary and overwhelming.  It’s important to know that everything that happens during, and after, the self-defense incident will be gathered and used as evidence in a legal case. Here are some steps to take and what you can expect if you ever need to shoot in self-defense:

1. Ensure Your Safety

Make sure the threat is mitigated and that you are not in danger anymore. Scan your surroundings for other possible threats from other individuals around you and ensure the perpetrator does not have access to other dangerous weapons. It is important to STAY at the scene of the incident. Leaving the scene of the crime can be seen as admittance of guilt by law enforcement, even if you are innocent.

2. Holster Your Weapon

It is important that once you’re safe, you holster your weapon immediately. Law enforcement agents who are responding to a call regarding a shooting will have a high level of concern for their safety. By holstering your gun, and even putting your hands in the air, you are clearly indicating that you are not a threat to them and mitigating any confusion.

3. Call 911

Once you are certain you are not in danger, immediately call 911. Briefly explain the situation and that you were a victim and needed to defend yourself. It is very important to keep the details to a minimum, as misinformation you may accidently give under a time of high stress can be used against you. Recordings of these calls are usually used in court cases. Make sure you explain that you are willing to cooperate, but never give a statement without the presence of a lawyer.

4. Request Medical Services

If you or your attacker have been injured or shot during the altercation, request an ambulance and other emergency medical services for anyone involved, even if you are unsure of their status. By requesting medical services, even for the perpetrator, you are showing that you do have care and compassion for human life.

5. Do Not Move Or Touch Anything

It is important not to touch or move anything at the scene of the incident. Moving or altering the scene in any way will be considered tampering with a crime scene and is punishable by law. You are not legally required to provide aid to your attacker.

6. Cooperate.

Even if you were the victim, you will most likely be handcuffed and sat in the back of the police vehicle. You also may be taken down to the station for questioning. Remain as calm and possible and cooperate with law enforcement. You can express your willingness to cooperate and politely inform law enforcement officials that you will not give a statement without your lawyer present. You will likely need to hand over your firearm to law enforcement as it will be used as evidence.

7. Call A Lawyer

We strongly recommend all gun-owners have an experienced firearm lawyer or attorney on speed dial. You can find these lawyers by asking other firearm owners for recommendations of lawyers they trust. The type of lawyer you will need for this type of case is a criminal defense lawyer.

Even if you are not a criminal, criminal defense lawyers have extensive knowledge of firearm self-defense laws and will ensure your rights are upheld and will strongly advocate for your innocence. Only speak to your lawyer regarding details about the case in private. What you discuss with your lawyer is protected under attorney-client privilege. Give your lawyer as many details as possible so they can help you provide a statement that isn’t incriminating. Your lawyer will be your biggest help in proving your innocence.

While we hope you’re never involved in these situations, it’s important to know ahead of time what steps to take. Ultimately, this information can help to ensure your safety and prove your innocence. Please be mindful that the information provided in this article does not, and is not intended to, constitute legal advice. This information is for general informational purposes only. Be sure to contact a local lawyer if you have specific questions about the self-defense laws in your state or if you are involved in a self-defense situation.

Tyler Hillis is an experienced legal author who is passionate about educating fellow firearm enthusiasts about different legal issues that many gun owners face. Tyler has written for multiple award-winning law firms and legal publications in the United States. In his free time, Tyler enjoys hiking and enjoying the outdoors.