Why Do We Use Deadly Force?

*Podcast Alert: In episode 4 of The Concealed Carry Podcast we go into more depth on this topic. Listen here.

shoot to stop threatsThere are some topics that can't be covered enough, and this is one of them. In my concealed carry classes, I point out the importance of understanding the reason WHY we use deadly force, not just HOW to use deadly force. I find that the mental component of training to shoot the target is often neglected in favor of the physical aspect, like the mechanics of shooting. Both are critical. Leaving out a huge part of the formula sets people up for failure.

Why We Don't Shoot To Kill:

If you think that defending your life with a firearm means you shoot to kill, you are unequivocally wrong. Here is why–

First, when do we use deadly force? It is quite simple; we use deadly force as a last resort to protect ourselves or others from death or serious bodily harm.

Next, what is our goal? Also straightforward: to stop the threat. The phrase “TO STOP THE THREAT,” should be one that is not only ingrained in your vocabulary but one that you truly understand.

Stopping the threat does not mean we must kill the attacker. If you have a premeditated desire to kill the threat, it's murder. Stopping the threat means, we use force (deadly force included) to stop the attacker from continuing to be a threat. Once the threat is over, we are no longer legally or morally justified to use force and kill the human.

Shooting To Kill, is a philosophy that is fundamentally wrong.

It's Just Semantics, Deadly Force Is likely to Kill the Attacker:

Words matter, especially when they are used to piece together the facts of an incident. In court, your words, are used to paint a picture of your character and your motivations, whether you like it or not. You can use all the expletives you want, but this fact doesn't change.

We all concede that using deadly force could result in the death of the person we choose to use it against. But an understanding of handgun ballistics will reveal that gunshot wounds from handguns are not 100% fatal. So again, concluding that because you shoot an attacker with a handgun, you intend to kill them is wrong.

So why do we target large areas of the body that contain vital organs? Doesn't this prove we are shooting to kill? Again, no and it requires you understand WHY we use deadly force. TO STOP THE THREAT. There are a few reasons we target large areas of the body:

  • During high-stress incidents, such as those typically associated with deadly force shootings, the greatest probability of hitting a target is to specifically aim for large areas of the body. We do this to reduce the probability of missing the threat and hitting an unintended target (for example, someone who happens to be standing behind the target).
  • The way a human body reacts to a gunshot is not at all like what is depicted in movies. Bodies do not fly back or immediately drop. Instead the threat can continue to advance and pose a risk even after absorbing several shots. So if we intend to stop the attacker as quickly as possible, targeting areas of bone support or vital organs is preferable. Not doing so could leave the attacker more time to harm or kill.

Yes, we target large areas of the human body. This does not equate to an intent to kill.

Now, there are certainly times when a shot that has a higher probability to cause death is necessary. Think of your hostage situations, or when the attacker is wearing body armor and targeting other areas has no result. But even when targeting these areas, the rationale is that other methods would not be successful in stopping the threat in sufficient time. These are atypical situations and require justification as to why shooting the brain-stem was reasonable.

I'll Just Unload on The Attacker Until I'm Out of Ammo:

This is a problematic philosophy which shows the lack of understanding of the dynamics of a deadly force encounter.

While there are certainly times when shooting until the gun is empty is necessary, blindly unloading every round not only places you at a tactical disadvantage, if another threat appears, but doesn't account for the fact that you must reassess to determine if your shots are having any affect, or if deadly force is still appropriate.

For example, 1 shot may be fired or 3, 10,12, etc. shots may be fired. The point is not the number of shots, but that once the threat was stopped, we stopped using deadly force. If one shot stops the threat and the subject survives, outstanding. If the subject does not survive, that is a possible outcome, and both are out of our control.

Stopping the threat may require 0 shots or 150 shots. But simply unloading until you run dry is not necessarily the best course of action.

The reality is when someone chooses to inflict death or serious bodily harm against another, s/he is choosing to place his/her life at risk. They accept that someone may use deadly force against him/her in return. As law abiding citizens carrying a firearm for protection, we are not the ones determining when we will be obliged to use deadly force. It is the criminal who makes that decision.

Agree or Not, This is Reality:

None of this precludes you from using deadly force that results in the death of the attacker. If after reading this, you think that, you missed the lesson, and it's important you get it. The reason is that not only will your actions prior to and during the deadly force incident be scrutinized, but those statements that you shot the threat to kill him/her. If you have made these statements verbally or on social media, stand by for a very difficult defense, especially during the ensuing civil case that is sure to follow.

Sure it is your 1st Amendment right, no one is arguing that. But you also have to live with the ramifications of your choices. Criminal and civil defense attorneys cost a lot of money. Don't believe me, call one and ask how much they will charge to defend you. While you're at it, ask them if they think it would complicate your defense that you told the police you shot the attacker to kill him, and that your facebook page is littered with posts saying its your right to kill anyone who attacks you. If saying ‘I'll kill anyone who attacks me' somehow reaffirms your freedom, standby to observe the freedom that someone has to present your words in court against you painting you as a violent person.

The less time you spend in a courtroom, the better for you sanity and wallet.

Additionally, if you understand and live with this reason of our intent of using deadly force, you are much more likely to be on the right side of the law and morals when it comes to your application of force. As always, stay safe and stay alert.

About Matthew Maruster

I follow my Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ who is the eternal co-equal Son of God. I currently live in Columbus, Ohio with my wife and daughter. I served in the Marine Corps Infantry. I was a Staff Sergeant and served as a Platoon Sergeant during combat in Iraq. After I was a police officer at a municipal agency in San Diego County. I have a Bachelors's Degree in Criminal Justice from National University. MJ Maruster Defense.


  1. 2004done on November 23, 2015 at 9:15 pm

    I couldn’t have said it better. Thank you Matthew.

    • Matthew on November 24, 2015 at 10:16 am

      You are very welcome. Thank you so much for your input.

  2. David Svec on January 11, 2018 at 9:43 am

    If you have to draw your weapon your life better be in danger of being hurt or even killed. It is for this reason you always shoot to kill. Wounding your assailant leaves you open for a lawsuit. The dead tell no tales. The advice given in the other article is flawed in many ways. Readers need to do more research.

    • Jacob Paulsen on January 11, 2018 at 9:49 am

      I disagree with you David in many ways. For one the dead do tell tales… they do sue. Ask any estate attorney… or OJ Simpson. Dead people do sue. Perhaps, more importantly, there are ethical implications. Do you think its more important to take a life so you can avoid a lawsuit? Perhaps you have no issue with that but I think there is a moral dilemma there. Then you have the legal implications. Shooting with the intent to kill is illegal. Manslaughter at best. I hope you never have to defend yourself and end up in court where the prosecutor shares your above comment in the courtroom as evidence of your intent to kill someone. The main takeaway should be that we all need to shoot to stop the threat to our lives. Sometimes that will mean our attacker will die and we have to be willing and prepared for that reality but we also have to be willing and able to stop shooting when the threat is stopped.

      • Patrick on January 11, 2018 at 11:50 am

        Jacob you are absolutely correct. The idea that wounding an assailant leaves you open to a lawsuit but killing the assailant doesn’t is a myth that just won’t go away. The executor or administrator of an estate has the legal authority to sue on behalf of the estate the same way that the living assailant could. I understand there may be a perceived benefit that a dead assailant can’t testify, but the truth will get revealed. And why give the other attorney your own words to be used against you.

    • Matthew Maruster on January 11, 2018 at 11:24 am

      Hi Dave, I respect your opinion, but I couldn’t disagree more. In fact, the myth that ‘dead men tell no tales’ and others is the exact reason that I had to write this. If I did not present the core principles of shooting to stop the threat vs having a predetermined motive to kill someone clear, then hopefully a more articulate attorney or writer can explain it to you. It is very important legally, and as stated in the article and by Jacob, more importantly morally important. We don’t have the absolute right to kill someone who may present a threat to us. If we are justified in using force and that person dies from the force, as long as it was reasonable legally and morally we would be okay. But no one is going to find it reasonable legally, to kill someone simply because at one point the posed a threat to you. Also, you don’t have to be religious to accept that taking a human life should always be the last option, and avoided at all costs.

      Good luck and God bless.

    • james on January 28, 2018 at 7:42 pm

      I guess you don’t understand the point; you never “shoot to kill” because that’s murder. You shoot to end the threat, which is your right, and that may very likely end up killing the bad guy, but it’s going to be a lot easier to clear your case if your action appear to be in line with your frame of mind; “I was in fear of my life, I did what was necessary to end the threat”.

    • Reese on March 1, 2018 at 8:23 am

      That is definitely not true. Matthew is stating that the words you “Say” and the actions you take “after” the fact weigh a lot in the investigative process. I recommend rereading the article, “Stopping the Threat” and “Shooting to kill” are two very discernible lines. Both achieve the same goal, one makes you a possible hero, and the second makes you a possible felon.

  3. Jack on January 11, 2018 at 9:52 am

    Excellent points made in this article. Everyone that carries should read it twice.

    Social media is a useful communications channel that can and often is very dangerous if not used properly. Think before you post! Never say anything before you have attorney representation other than “You feared for your life.” I also have additional insurance for me to carry concealed.

    I enjoy most of your material.

    Thank you!

    • Matthew Maruster on January 11, 2018 at 11:25 am

      Thank you Jack. I appreciate the feedback. Insurance is definitely something that is becoming more affordable and appealing for concealed carriers. With more competition, the costs should continue to come down. Who knows, maybe ‘the general’ will start offering concealed carry insurance 🙂 God bless!

  4. Robert Hammond on January 11, 2018 at 10:54 am

    I agree with Dave Svec, you shoot to kill if you are feeling threatened or to save anothers life. Wounding a suspect will get you sued by the assailant. The OJ case does not have any application here.

    • Jacob Paulsen on January 11, 2018 at 11:02 am

      Sorry to use the OJ example. I meant it only as a high profile example of a time when a dead person’s estate filed a lawsuit. Dead people do file lawsuits. More importantly, as I said before, is that shooting with the intent to kill is illegal, and immoral. The intent is the key here. Intending to kill someone is bad and illegal. One’s motive should be to stop threats. Using the justification to kill people that if you don’t kill them they might file a lawsuit is, to me, very unfounded. Unfounded for 3 reasons: First, I believe the sanctity of human life to be more important than potential damages paid out in cash. Second, most states have laws that explicitly protect the armed citizen from civil litigation if they are legally justified in their use of force. Third, the age-old horror story of injured criminals winning lawsuits against justified citizens is more of a myth than reality. Can you share an example from the last 15 years of any injured criminal filing a lawsuit and winning it against an armed citizen that was otherwise legally justified? For each of those stories you could find (and you will find it very difficult to find any at all) there is also a story of a dead person’s legal estate filing a lawsuit. Meaning that alive or dead; the odds of your attacker filing a lawsuit are the same and equally remote.

    • Matthew Maruster on January 11, 2018 at 11:29 am

      Robert, using deadly force should not be looked at as basing the outcome on the life or death of the attacker. Our use of force should be based on the reasonableness of our force, and that is tied to the threat posed by the attacker. If the attacker poses a reasonable threat, then deadly force is justified…up to the point where the person no longer poses a threat. This could happen before the person dies, or after. But to continue using deadly force past the point where the person no longer poses a threat, is not going to be seen as reasonable. This is where you fall into a problem legally, and even more importantly morally.

  5. Patrick Alexander on January 11, 2018 at 1:03 pm

    As a brother Marine and both, civilian firearms instructor for over 30 years, I completely agree with your original comments !

    Semper Fi

    • Matthew Maruster on January 11, 2018 at 1:18 pm

      Thanks brother! It means a lot! Glad you’re out there fighting the good fight! Stay safe, God Bless and keep in touch, Semper Fi!!!

  6. José R. Diaz Correa on January 11, 2018 at 1:40 pm

    Matthew and Jacob: I certainly agree with you both. Just because you have used a firearm does not automatically mean deadly intent. I’ve had a CCW permit for the last 41 years, and only had to shoot twice during those years. Never with the intent to kill, but strongly discourage the attackers. Nothing puts God’s fear into an attacker than the boom of a full load 44 Magnum. Both occasions resulted in a frenetic race to get away from me. It certainly agrees with the “speak softly and carry a big stick”. Hopefully I’ll never have to take a human life ever, but my life as well as my family always comes first.

  7. Darkwing on January 12, 2018 at 10:31 am

    If I am attacked and I have to draw my weapon, I use the training that I received from Mossad Ayoob, shoot until the threat is stopped. I shoot to live, not to kill

  8. Brian anthony on January 14, 2018 at 9:19 am

    I read and agree entirely. Good article.

    • Matthew Maruster on January 14, 2018 at 9:38 am

      Hi Brian. Thank you for the feedback, I am glad you liked it. God bless.

  9. Mark Adcock on January 15, 2018 at 12:02 am

    As a former Corrections Officer we are taught in Training to only use force necessary to Stop the Threat. We are also taught that our Actions and History will be used against us in Court. We must be able to Defend our actions. Dead men tell no tales is a Myth. How many times have you heard of the family of the Dead Criminal Suing Law Enforcement or the person defending themselves.

  10. J. Gumb on January 17, 2018 at 1:57 pm

    I think there is a lot of semantics here. If I have to draw my weapon in defense of my or my family’s lives, best believe that mother****** is gonna die. But only a moron would tell police or a judge your intent was to murder this person. Being able to articulate to the cops and a judge why you did what you did is just as important as your weapon skill. But it the day comes for you,killing the scumbag is the best option for there will only be one story in court, yours.

    • Mike on January 19, 2018 at 10:05 am

      …and your comments here? I can picture them now: On a very large PowerPoint, projected on a screen for the jury.

  11. Paul G on January 17, 2018 at 8:00 pm

    A very thought provoking piece of writing and should spur anyone that can’t grasp your concept on to training. It takes a good deal of quality, intense and continued training for a person to keep their head straight during an encounter that requires the use of deadly force.

  12. Steve white on January 18, 2018 at 1:24 pm

    Matthew, your article was one of the best I’ve read in the realm of CCW. Speaking to the Why we use a weapon in defense is of the utmost importance. I think you couldn’t have been more clear, that stopping an eminent threat is our only justification. The response from others to “shoot to kill” only proves how important your article is. For those who disagree with this position, you may need to reassess if you are one of the good guys imho.

    • Matthew Maruster on January 24, 2018 at 12:37 pm

      Steve, thank you for the feedback! I am glad the majority of carriers believe this way. It is my goal to help people understand this concept because it is so important morally and legally. Keep helping people understand how to be one of the good guys with a gun. God bless!

  13. Conrad Zvara on January 22, 2018 at 8:43 pm

    Matthew is 100% correct. As a retired police officer, long-time concealed carry instructor, and MAG deadly force instructor who has testified in court for both the prosecutors and good citizen-defendants, I can say from the heart that we do NOT shoot to kill. That is intentional homicide, and believe it or not boys & girls, there’s a law against that. We, the good citizens, shoot to stop our attacker, and the shooting should stop as soon as we perceive the attacker is no longer a threat. Anyone who believes otherwise has no place carrying a gun.

    • Matthew Maruster on January 24, 2018 at 12:32 pm

      Thank you Conrad! I think this topic is just as important as firearm safety. I know that more people would change their mantra if they spent time in the courtroom watching a self-defense trial take place. Above all, if there is any doubt on this, following the moral law and respecting the sanctity of life would make it crystal clear how and when one would use deadly force. Thanks for all your service, God bless and stay safe.

  14. grady on February 16, 2020 at 5:35 pm

    Now i do honestly love all the reviews on this topic ,but if an aggresor not only brandishes his firearm and on several occasions claim he is going to shoot persists on being in an aggressive state not one but several times approaches you, while you are saying to stop the approach do you not have the right to feel threatened how can you stop such claim without using deadly force being the aggresoe is for one bigger than you and sees your persistent in resist ? In this case i do not think non deadly force will work yet only further anger the aggresor.whom i will ince again remind you has shown his gun at least once and referenced towards its use several

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