Making Better Decisions Requires Knowledge, and That Goes for Self Defense Law as Well

One of the things I like to do for the readers on my personal blog is to occasionally dissect a defensive shooting incident, to analyze it so that we can learn what worked, what didn’t, and why. Being able to learn from others is, I think, a vital part of getting better at what we do — and of helping others to get better, whether in a class or on the printed page. This is something that pilots do on a regular basis, and it’s something that we in the defensive training community would do well to emulate.

Whenever an airplane crashes in this country, officials from the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) are required by law to investigate. The FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) is always a party to those investigations, but the lead agency — by statute — is the NTSB. They will quite literally piece together an airplane to figure out what went wrong, and more importantly what the aviation world can do to prevent another. Whether it’s caused by hardware failure or pilot error, they learn from it and make changes so that the chances of something similar happening again are reduced. This obsessive approach to flight safety is probably what’s most responsible for airlines being the very safest method of travel.

This is why I like to do those incident analyses, using whatever information I can find in news and police reports to help others understand what happens — good and bad — during a defensive gun use. (Sometimes, it’s even the lack of a defensive gun use!)

There’s something that occasionally stymies my efforts, however: sometimes I can’t share a case because the defender escalates the incident to the point that gunfire is almost inevitable; he (sometimes she) often didn’t really need to shoot until after doing something stupid, or didn’t need to shoot at all but did out of bravado or blind fear. I said this happens occasionally, but lately it seems to be more and more common!

It’s surprising how many people with concealed carry permits (or whatever they’re called in your locale) have no clue about the circumstances under which lethal force is a legally defensible option. For instance, I’ve lost track of the number of people who have responded to a “car prowl” (people breaking into cars at night in order to steal whatever they can find inside) with their firearm and ended up shooting someone — often someone who is simply fleeing after seeing the mad car owner come running out of the house with a gun!

I’m not excusing the auto burglars, and don’t think for a minute that I have a lot of sympathy for any criminal. However, a mere property crime like that doesn’t warrant pointing a gun at someone, let alone killing them. Yet it’s happening in increasing frequency, if the news stories which cross my computer screen are any indication.

There are a lot more examples I could give, but my point is that it’s tough to derive any valid tactical or technique lessons from an incident which shouldn’t or needn’t have happened in the first place!

I know we talk a lot here on PDN about all kinds of technique-driven information, and that’s a field that I (and most of the other contributors here) have been in for years: teaching people how to use their defensive skills, from firearms down to just hands, in order to protect themselves. There’s one thing we don’t talk about very often, however, because it’s actually a lot more difficult to teach and true experts are few and far between: the legalities of self defense.

For the average person, there are really only two credible resources for this kind of information. First, the MAG-20 class from Massad Ayoob; he’s got decades of experience as a subject matter expert and courtroom witness helping others to understand the dynamics of the use of deadly force. He brings all of that knowledge this course; it’s truly “one stop shopping” for information about the legal use of lethal force.

If you can’t make it to his course (and even if you can), read attorney Andrew Branca’s superb book “The Law Of Self Defense”. I’ve been through the MAG-20 class (several times over the years), and there was still a lot in Branca’s book that I didn’t know. A more comprehensive yet readable explanation of the law I’ve yet to find.

Now I’m not saying that you need to know the law to the point that you go through some sort of checklist when you draw your gun: “let’s see, he’s fulfilled Ability, Opportunity, but am I in Jeopardy yet?” What I am saying is that understanding when the use of force is appropriate, and at what level, will keep you from making the kind of mistakes that can trip up those who don’t really know what the law says and how it’s applied — mistakes that might lead you into a lethal force confrontation when it wasn’t really necessary. And, if the cases I see on a weekly basis are any indication, there are a whole lot of folks out there to whom that happens!

Take your legal training as seriously as you do your skills training. We can help you with the latter, but the former you’re going to need to seek out yourself. Make use of the resources I’ve mentioned and review those lessons every once in a while. They can keep you out of handcuffs!

– Grant Cunningham

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One Response to “Making Better Decisions Requires Knowledge, and That Goes for Self Defense Law as Well”

  1. Law of Self Defense
    Law of Self Defense

    Hey, thanks for the kind mention, Grant, it’s much appreciated. Folks might also be interested to know that we do single-day “Law of Self Defense Seminars” all over the country. These are state-specific and look closely at the self-defense relevant statutes, jury instructions, and court decisions for the particular state being covered. I’m in Ohio this weekend, then North Carolina, then Portland, Washington, Florida, etc., etc. Tons of info at the Law of Self Defense web site. –Andrew