You may have been told that state law varies significantly when it comes to guns. That is partially true. Gun law, the law that impacts gun possession does vary enormously from state to state. Things like magazine capacity, possession on school grounds, duty to notify law enforcement, vehicle possession, etc., are all examples of gun laws that are very different state to state.
However, when it comes to the laws that determine when you can use force to defend yourself or others from a threat, those laws are amazingly similar as they all are based on old English common law.
An in-depth study and research on the topic (resources and sources at the end of this article) help one understand that regardless of the state you are in there are only 4 or 5 legal “elements of self-defense.” Meaning, that regardless of the state you are in, you are legally justified in using force in your defense when 4 things (which we refer to as “elements”) are true. In a handful of states, there is a 5th element.
So to be clear and to answer the question, “When Can You Shoot Someone” the answer is this: You can shoot someone when all four of the core elements of self-defense law below are true and depending on the state the fifth element may also be required.
The Five Elements of Self-Defense Law
I first became familiar with the concept and paradigm of the five elements from Attorney, author, and instructor Andrew Branca. Andrew is the author of The Law of Self-Defense and is highly recognized as the foremost expert on self-defense law nationwide. More information about Andrew and his resources are at the end of this article.
What follows is an overview of each of the five elements. And, while for the purpose of this article we are boiling them down to the simplest form of the idea, there is potential for complexity which is why we encourage a more thorough education on this topic beyond these basics.
You must be the innocent party in the encounter. You can't start the fight. If you start the fight or if you provoked the attack then you don't have the legal right to self-defense.
Your use of defensive force must be proportional to the threat. If you are defending against a threat of low physical harm (IE a punch in the face that is not likely to cause serious injury or death) then you do not have the legal right to use deadly force in defense of that threat.
You may legally only use deadly force such as a gun to defend against a threat of serious bodily injury or death.
You may only defend against a threat that is immediate. You may not defend against a past threat that is no longer active or against a potential future threat that is not immediate.
What you perceive, think, and do must be reasonable based on what a reasonable person of your circumstances would have thought, felt, or believed as it relates to each of the elements of self-defense.
Avoidance (The 5th Element)
Only true on a small number of states, and even within those states only true outside the home; you must make any reasonable attempt to safely retreat from the threat before using force in defense of that threat.
Answers to the Most Common Questions
Question: Relating to “Proportionality” what if I'm smaller, older, pregnant, on blood thinners, have a pacemaker, or otherwise am more vulnerable to serious injury or death?
Answer: The law doesn't list weapons and say you can't use a gun against a punch or a knife smaller than 3 inches. That would be arbitrary and limiting. The law says you can use proportionate force. If you would be likely seriously injured or die if you get punched in the head then you can use deadly force against that punch in the head but obviously you will have to justify/proof that to the legal system.
Question: What about Stand Your Ground Laws?
Answer: The Stand Your Ground legal doctrine is generally misunderstood and falsely referenced by the media and often law enforcement. Simply put, a state that has Stand Your Ground laws or precedents is a state that doesn't have the “Avoidance” element. The majority of states fall into this category (37 states at the time of this writing). Stand Your Ground is the opposite of Duty to Retreat and simply means you don't have to attempt a safe retreat even if one is available to you.
Question: What about Castle Doctrine? When I'm in my home I don't have to worry about any of that right?
Answer: Castle Doctrine is a legal concept that means that even though you may have a legal duty to retreat (see Avoidance above) you don't have that duty in your home. So, for the 13 states that are NOT Stand Your Ground States (See question above) that do require Avoidance; all 13 of them have a castle doctrine that waives that duty inside your home. Two major takeaways here. First, there isn't a state in the USA that requires you to retreat from a threat if you are in your home. Second, Castle Doctrine doesn't mean you can shoot someone in your home no matter what. It doesn't in fact change the 4 core elements and requirements for self-defense at all. It ONLY removes the requirement/element of Avoidance when in the home.
Question: But who can I defend? Only myself? Family? Others?
Answer: There isn't a law in any state of this country that makes any distinction relative to self-defense and whom you may defend. Meaning, you have the same rights to defend any HUMAN from any threat as you do to defend yourself from any threat.
Question: What about my stuff? Can't I defend my car or pet?
Answer: With very few and very limited exceptions beyond the scope of this article; the law ONLY allows for the use of deadly force in defense of humans. Thus, you may be able to shoot a carjacker if you or another human is in immediate danger during the course of that crime but NOT in order to defend the car itself from being stolen.
Question: In circumstances in which I may not be lawful in shooting my gun can I just wave it or vaguely refer to it or threaten to use it?
Answer: No. Making a threat to use a gun in circumstances in which it isn't lawful to use the gun is illegal.
Yes, The Devil May Be In The Details
The above is a rough and simplified summary of when you can legally shoot at people. A more thorough education is a good idea in order to understand the various nuances and unusual circumstances that may take what would otherwise seem like a black and white question and make it gray.
For that reason, I provide the following resources that you may want to consider to deepen your knowledge of this subject.