When you write for a firearms blog, often you will receive questions from the public seeking advice on any number of subjects ranging from a potential purchase to a recommendation for a trainer and even legal advice. While I’m happy to help in any way I can, there are some things I’m just not qualified to talk about. The proper legal strategy to go along with your self defense preparations is one of those subjects where I can’t offer anything more than general guidance. Truth is that our criminal justice and civil tort systems are very complex with many moving parts. The specific track your incident takes from police officer to prosecutor to judge to jury can produce a radically different outcome than someone else’s incident even if the specific events were largely the same. This means that even real experts (and I’m not among their number) have a hard time seeing anything in their crystal ball.
Honest folks are keen to have hard and fast rules about when the law allows the use of lethal force because they don’t want to go to jail or end up bankrupted in a civil suit. Everybody wants to avoid criminal or civil liability. That natural instinct serves us well, often keeping us out of trouble. When that natural instinct gets blended with some hubris, it all goes pear shaped pretty darn fast.
Not too long ago I got an email from a friend who said he’d been to a gunstore and the person running the store was nice enough to give him a lecture on self defense law in Virginia. One of the prominent features of this lecture was the 21 foot rule. For those unfamiliar with the 21 foot rule, it is the product of the Tueller Drill, an exercise where a police officer with a holstered handgun tried to draw and fire on an attacker 21 feet away armed with a knife. Through repeated trials it was determined that the “average” man could cover that 21 feet in about 1.5 seconds, which was hovering right around a well-trained person’s draw speed from a police holster. The man armed with the knife could close that distance and inflict lethal damage in about the same amount of time it took the officer to get his/her gun into play. In reality the situation is more grim than that, as you experience a delay recognizing the threat and then making a decision to respond to it…so in real life the guy that’s 21 feet away is going to get to most folks before they’ve gotten their gun out if they don’t take some sort of evasive action while drawing.
That’s the real 21 foot rule. Our helpful gunstore legal expert had at some point confused the phrase “21 foot rule” with Virginia law, and had interpreted those words to mean that if you so much as touch a gun while a threat is more than 21 feet away, you’ve committed a violent felony. Instead of checking with a lawyer who had some experience with self defense precedent or perhaps chatting with police UOF experts or looking through Virginia code or Supreme Court decisions for the supposed law…or, hell, even bothering to google it…he began passing off his “You’re a felon if you draw!” interpretation of the 21 foot rule to people who showed up in his store.
I don’t have the words for how much this pisses me off. Well, I do, but an article comprised entirely of swear words and casting aspersions upon that man and the lineage that produced him wouldn’t be productive. Why, you may ask, does it make me so angry? Because it puts people’s lives at risk. Everybody likes to wring their hands and fret about the possibility that somebody will get a permit to carry concealed (or a badge) and will be eager to go out and start killing bad guys like Charles Bronson having a bad day. The real world tells us that people have precisely the opposite problem, meaning that even when presented with circumstances that clearly justify the use (or even the threat) of lethal force the law-abiding often hesitate to use it.
I say that and invariably some will be thinking “Well, shouldn’t we be reluctant to use lethal force?” Not when it is the appropriate level of force. People get confused about this and start thinking that we’re talking about wanting to kill somebody. Being proactive in self defense and willing to draw and fire the instant you believe that your life is in danger is not the same thing as getting off on the idea of shooting somebody. In fact, appropriate levels of aggression in self defense often turn out to be safer for everyone involved…including the bad guy. Tom Givens has a magnificent track record of preparing students for the reality of self defense, so I’ll use an incident from his life that he shared on Pistol-Forum.com:
“Our building is quite large, but 25 feet away is a small, unoccupied building. I came out of my building a couple of years ago and there was an adult male, 20’s, standing by the door of the small vacant building, up on its porch by the door, at 10pm. There is no legitimate business he could have there at that hour. His hands were empty, so I simply told him to come down on to the parking lot, to speak with him and order him off the property. Instead, he bent down and picked up a 3” diameter, six foot long steel pipe and indicated a willingness to use it to rearrange my head. He was treated to a demonstration of the concealed presentation. At that point he dropped the pipe and we finished our conversation. Had he advanced on me with that pipe I would have shot him down, but I did not have to. Presenting to the ready was enough force to end the situation.
I get similar reports from students frequently. If you look like you know what you’re doing, and you look like you will use the gun if you have to, you will often not have to.”
Contrast Mr. Givens’ actions here with the advice offered by the aforementioned gunstore lawyer. The man with the pipe was well beyond what our gunstore lawyer considered legal self defense range, and yet Mr. Givens pulled a gun on him and didn’t go to jail or get sued. In fact, Mr. Givens believes that showing no hesitation to draw a gun and to use it convinced the dude with the pipe that he’d made a terrible mistake in threatening to bash Mr. Givens’ skull in. Further, Mr. Givens can relate scores of incidents where his students used a similarly proactive approach to getting their gun involved that actually prevented bloodshed.
It’s not just about being wrong on the law. There’s absolutely no statue in Virginia that limits use of lethal force to 21 feet and in, nor is there any accumulated jurisprudence that says anything even remotely like that. Nevertheless, there are God only knows how many people out there who listened to this jackass and who now are worried about being a felon if they draw on somebody more than 21 feet away. These people will probably not exhibit Mr. Givens’ resolve, and may hesitate to draw. Worse, they may let the guy with the pipe close distance on them while showing fear. Worse yet, they may not go for the gun until after the guy is trying to take their head off with the pipe. A particularly stupid bit of gunstore lawyer manure can lead directly to some innocent person getting their brain bashed in.
The nice lady who cuts my hair was mentioning to me the other day that she attended a concealed carry class. I asked her what she thought of it, and her conclusion was that actually having ready access to a gun was too much liability. Turns out that her “instructor” had given her lots of tips, like suggesting that if a dude kicks in her front door and comes in the house with a weapon, she can’t take any aggressive action because he might just be there to steal the TV or something.
A woman who is sometimes alone at night in her house with just her young children is being told by an “instructor” that she has to let an armed home invader do whatever the hell he wants because he might only be after some valuables. You can’t point a gun at him or shoot him until he actually succeeds in attacking you!
Spreading incorrect information about self defense law is not helping people. It is not protecting them. It is not serving their interests in the slightest. It is guaranteeing that people who face the compelling need to use significant force in a hurry will be unsure about doing so, and will increase the chances of them being injured or killed by a criminal aggressor.
If you have not so much as bothered to google statutes and case law relevant to self defense in your jurisdiction, then I insist that you do the entire planet a service and shut the ***CENSORED*** up. I don’t care if you run a gunstore, or have your own “training” outfit, or even if you talked to a cop one time and he told you to blahblahblahblah. If you haven’t done the homework, shut the ***CENSORED*** up. You may not care if running your ignorant suck gets good people killed, but a lot of us do. Instead of spending your time annoying people at the gunstore or spreading ignorance on a forum, perhaps go look at the decisions your state’s Supreme Court has put out relevant to self defense claims and educate yourself. Maybe take a class from someone who actually has passed the bar and has some experience handling self defense cases. Maybe buy a book from someone who has experience using lethal force on the streets and preparing others to use lethal force without landing them in prison. Do something productive instead of making honest people scared of using a reasonable level of force to defend themselves. If you aren’t willing to educate yourself, then kindly shut the ***CENSORED*** up.
Do you know a gunstore lawyer? Do you interact with one even occasionally? Then join me in inviting them to shut the ***CENSORED*** up.