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

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.