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Shoot or Don’t Shoot–Moral Implications of the Split-Second Decision to Take a Life, by Jeff R.

It doesn’t have to be TEOTWAWKI [1] for a person to be faced with the choice of shoot or don’t shoot. Everyday in the United States a police officer somewhere makes that choice (sometimes they choose “don’t shoot”). All too often, average Joe or Jane Citizen must make that choice. Hopefully dear reader, that day will never come for you, but if it does, here are a few things to help you not hesitate when necessity requires that you pull the trigger, and to help you live with the consequences.

Decide now that you will shoot another person if it becomes necessary. Pondering the morality, worrying about the legal ramifications, hoping you’re making the right decision–these are all tasks that should be resolved now, before the time comes to shoot. There is no way around the cold, hard fact that launching a copper-jacketed ball of lead into another person’s torso will cause serious bodily injury or death. Not to be harsh, but that is the whole point of the exercise. Resolve these issues now:

What are the legal justifications where I live for taking a human life? More importantly, what reasons are not legally justified?

Self-defense, defense of others, and defense of property are generally accepted to be valid reasons for using deadly force (use caution in some jurisdictions with the defense of property). In Texas, most law enforcement agencies won’t blink when a citizen kills an intruder or an attacker. The Texas Penal Code even has an affirmative defense for the use of deadly force to prevent the consequences of theft after nightfall. Know the laws concerning the use of deadly force where you live. Don’t just know about them–know them. If you are unclear about the meaning of the laws, ask your district attorney’s office–or better yet–your state’s Attorney General’s office. Often the AG of a state will have already published opinions on these issues. Asking a police officer may seem like a good idea, but they have different justifications for using deadly force, and citing one officer’s opinion is not likely to dissuade prosecution. For example, a police officer can appeal to the court decision of Tennessee vs. Garner after shooting a fleeing felon, but you probably will not be able to use that justification with success.

Another benefit of consulting the district attorney’s office with your questions about deadly force is that it is the district attorney’s office that decides who gets prosecuted and who does not. A shooting that occurs with reasonable legal justification that is further supported by the legal opinions of the district attorney’s office would be an unlikely candidate for prosecution (YMMV). Here again, know you local laws well. Familiarity with temperament of local law enforcement and the district attorney’s office concerning the use of deadly force by a private citizen is also helpful. The observations and opinions of individual law enforcement officers is a good place to get this information.

If you are involved in a shooting and it appears there may be an official inquiry, forget flashy, emotional phrases that uninformed people throw around, such as “shoot-to-kill,” “shoot-to-wound,” or “shoot-to” anything. Facts, not flash, will win the day. You didn’t shoot to do anything other than to stop the action and end the danger to yourself and your family. The old shoot-to-kill question is a trap that has been used on police officers in court; “if you shot to kill, why could you not shoot-to-wound?” Anybody familiar with defense shooting knows that close quarters shootings involve little more than shoving the gun at the target and firing. Likewise, nobody involved in a shooting has the luxury of time to ponder nonsense questions like the above.

What are the reasons I personally believe are justification for taking a human life?

Your own life and limb, and that of your family are givens–at least they should be. I doubt any reader of this blog has an issue with that. Deadly force to prevent theft–even though it may be legal–will likely present a moral dilemma. I would not kill to prevent the theft of my car stereo. In my mind, that is not a reasonable use of force. Somebody trying to steal supplies vital to my family’s survival is another issue. Now a simple theft has become a potential threat to my family, and deadly force becomes a reasonable option. Know your personal boundaries in the use of deadly force as well as you know the laws that govern its use.

What are my religious convictions or personal concerns about killing?

I can only speak to this issue as it relates to Christians, although any moral person must wrestle with these questions and come to their own conclusions. When the time comes to shoot, understand that:

1. Your target made the choice that has placed them in your gun sights.

They understood the dangers and ramifications of their scheme before they did it. They are expecting you‚Äë‚Äëtheir potential victim–to be too weak, frightened, or morally conflicted to resist with violence. Disappoint their expectations.

2. By killing them, you are not sending them to Hell.

They have made their life choices that have brought them to this moment. God is the judge–he will decide their eternal fate. You are simply deciding that your fate and the fate of your family are not to die at this person’s hand. Contrast your concern for this person with this biblical admonition to the head of the household: “But if any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel.” (I Timothy 5:8). “Provide,” as it is used here, means more than just bringing home the bacon. It encompasses all facets of provision–food, shelter, and safety. It means literally, “to take thought for; to care for.” One of your Christian duties to your family is security.

3. Killing is not always murder.

God of the Old Testament who issued the commandment “Thou shalt not murder” also instructed the Israelites to kill many times during their conquest of the Promise Land. Many righteous people of the Old Testament drew blood. As odd as this may sound, righteousness and killing are not mutually exclusive. And while one may choose to debate its meaning, I interpret Jesus’ instructions to the disciples in Luke 22 to sell their cloaks and purchase swords as divine justification for the deadly force option in self-defense.

4. Having to kill is a traumatic experience.

Should you have to make the choice to shoot, be prepared for the emotional turmoil that will inevitably follow. If it isn’t TEOTWAWKI [2], seek out counseling if necessary to work through the trauma. Whether it is TEOTWAWKI or not, remember that at the time you made your decision to shoot it was a clear-cut issue, and you acted decisively. Second-guessing yourself will only add to the turmoil. Reflect on the positives–you saved your life and the lives of your family or other innocents. Defense of the weak or defenseless is a noble thing. Don’t beat yourself up. By preparing for the worst ahead of time, you can find peace after making one of the hardest decisions a human being can be forced to make.

About the Author: Jeff R. has bachelor’s degree in Pastoral Ministry, and has served as a youth pastor/associate pastor at churches in two states. He has also served for several years as a law enforcement officer and is now emplyoed by a major metropolitan police department in Texas.