When Is It Legal to Go Lethal? 8 Tips on the Limits of Self-Defense

Image via Shutterstock, a woman aims a gun.

If you are legally carrying a firearm, or if you have one safely stored in your home, you fully intend on using that firearm lethally should the need arise. It is not your intent to wave it around or point it at someone just to threaten them. You are to legally draw that gun only to defend your life or the lives of others. But, what does the law specifically say? What conditions must be met in order to shoot?


The laws vary somewhat from state to state, but I will draw upon my home state’s laws (Ohio) to explain. You can find a summary of Ohio’s conceal and carry laws here. For all other states look at your attorney general’s website. In addition to the following information, I must state plainly that I am not an attorney. If you have any questions at all about your state’s laws, consult a lawyer.

Here are some prerequisites and guidelines in order to use lethal force legally.

1. You must not be the instigator.

This means you did not start the incident. You did not escalate anything. You cannot be brandishing a firearm, hurling challenges, or in general “egging on” a confrontation. You were minding your own business. If you throw the first punch or attack in any way, you are the aggressor.

2. You must be under threat of bodily harm or death.

In order to legally kill someone in self-defence, you must be convinced that you have a reasonable and honest belief that the aggressor intends to inflict severe bodily harm or death upon your person. Just someone saying “mean words” or even threatening to kill you is NOT justification to use lethal force. The aggressor must be doing something more than just saying words you don’t like. You have to have a sincere belief that you are about to be severely injured or killed, and you MUST be able to convince a jury!

If you are a middle-aged female, and a 250 pound, six-foot-tall young man is coming at you in a threatening way, the chances are good that you are in grave danger, and you could probably convince a jury of that. (Also, in Ohio and probably other states, rape meets the criteria of “severe bodily harm” and justifies the use of lethal force. I know that sounds rather obvious, but it still needs to be spelled out.)


Next Page: Why firing a warning shot is a BAD idea.

3. Do NOT fire a warning shot.

If, in those split seconds of making the decision, you draw your gun, do NOT fire a warning shot! Besides wasting a shot, it will work against you in a court of law. If you shoot to kill after firing a warning shot, the prosecuting attorney could then easily convince the jury that the threat was not sufficient in the first place to use lethal force.

Just remember, if you have to pull out the gun, it’s not to mess around. You shoot to kill.

A judge or jury will try to put themselves in your shoes and should weigh carefully the physical status of both victim and perpetrator, age, exchange of words, and everything else that led up to the encounter.

4. You must retreat.

In many states (like Ohio), you have a duty to retreat. This means you must attempt to back away or flee from the attacker to a place of safety if at all possible. A retreat in some states could be just a step or two backward.

You may be too old, too heavy, too infirm to retreat from the danger. Or there is simply no place to go for safety. In those cases you may have to draw your gun and prepare to fire.

However, there are states such as Florida that have a “stand your ground” law that says that you have no duty to retreat if you had a right to be there in the first place. “Stand your ground” pertains primarily to any place outside your home or motor vehicle.


5. Know the limits of the “castle doctrine.”

Some states have the “castle doctrine”.  Just like the name implies, this law is for your home or motor vehicle. This law says that you do not have a duty to retreat if you are legally in a home or a motor vehicle and an intruder is threatening your life.

However, you may use lethal force only if you believe there was no other way to remove the threat. Of course, this law does not hold true if you shoot someone who had a legal right to be in your home in the first place, an argument started, things escalated, and the homeowner pulled out his gun and shot the other person. Things are not always as black and white as we would like.

In addition, you many not use lethal force to defend only your property. So, if I am in my house, and I hear people destroying my car outside, can I shoot them? No. Not at all! (I pay the insurance companies plenty of money to cover such damages.) Call the police. That’s why we have them.

Next Page: When you can — and very much cannot — use lethal force to defend others.

6. You can use lethal force to defend others.

You may use lethal force to defend others if they would have had the right to defend themselves. In other words, if you see some people attacking some little old man or woman, you can legally use lethal force to stop their attack. I would hope that simply drawing my pistol and ordering them to the ground would make them stop and/or run away.


But, if you shoot, you must shoot accurately. You are responsible for every bullet that exits your gun. If one of your bullets hits an innocent person, you are responsible. You had better be a very good shot.

7. Do NOT become a vigilante.

The law discourages vigilantism. Unless you are trained in law enforcement, and part of a department, you are NOT a police officer! You could very well stumble upon a situation and accidentally shoot the innocent person and help out the bad guy! If so, you will be held responsible for your actions.

8. You must be prepared for the police when they come.

Lastly, be prepared when the police arrive. If you have to use lethal force, remember that the police may not know whether you are the good guy or the bad guy when they show up! All they will see is a body (or bodies) on the ground, and you with a smoking gun in your hand.

As the police are arriving, immediately put the gun down, get on your knees and put your hands on your head. If you are in your home, tell the dispatcher where you are in your home, describe yourself, and have the gun down and your hands in plain sight when the police arrive.

When the police show up they will ask you numerous questions. Other than answering a few common sense questions (“What is your name? Where do you live? Where did the perpetrators go?”) you have a right to an attorney, and I would get a hold of one ASAP. (Not a bad idea to have your lawyer’s phone number on your speed dial.) Of course, “anything you say can be held against you in a court of law,” so consult with an attorney at your first opportunity.


It may not be clear to the police who is at fault, and you may have the cuffs put on you. You could even spend several hours (or days) before they get things sorted out.

Now is the time to consult your state’s laws about using lethal force. Not after the incident. Read up. And train.


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