Your bedside clock says 3:40 a.m. You have just awakened to a sound like breaking glass. You pick up the phone to call 911 but the line is dead. It’s dark in the house and you ease out of bed to retrieve your handgun from the closet safe just as you have practiced dozens of times. You wait inside your bedroom door with your ear straining to hear. Someone is down the hall sliding something on the tile. At that instant, the 30-second delay on your security system expires and the alarm begins to peal. Another crash in the living room and you are now standing in the hall – gun drawn. A person you have never seen before senses your presence and turns toward you while reaching for his belt. He is close and coming toward you and has ignored your command to stop. You don’t specifically remember firing but he goes down after two hollow points catch him in the chest. The knife he was reaching for drops to the floor next to him as he falls. Time seems to stand still. Your cell phone rings and you jump – your security company is on the line about the alarm trip. You tell them to call the police. You hang up and call 911 and check his vitals – no pulse or breathing. Now what?
You just shot an armed intruder in self-defense. You have also just stepped into the middle of a legal minefield. This instance is a clear case of self-defense. Will it be seen that way? The widely-held belief that you are innocent until proven guilty cannot be presumed. The new world you have just entered is far from ideal and the burden of proving your innocence will be on you. What happens next? You will be anxious to talk to the first responders who just arrived, probably police and paramedics. You will also have to overcome an overwhelming and immediate desire to begin justifying your actions to anyone who will listen to you. But for now, saying as little as possible will be the best decision of your life. However, you will only restrain yourself if you know why it is so critical. And you know this because it is one of the key parts of your overall preparedness strategy.
And So It Begins…
Who among us hasn’t considered the likelihood that we may be called upon use lethal force in self-defense or to protect innocent life? We pray it never happens but if we are prepared to shoot someone, however justified, then we must be equally prepared to deal with the consequences. I am constantly trying to improve the resources and skills I need to protect my family just like you. Yet a critical part of that preparation includes knowing what will happen and what to do after you shoot. Do you have a clue about the unbelievable complexities that will occur after using deadly force? Do you know what resources exist to help you deal with them? If not, then this article is your wake-up call. It is time to act – now – so that you will be ready in such a situation.
Enter “the system”
I am not a lawyer. I am not a law enforcement officer. But I do have a some key friends in law enforcement and in state and federal courts. Realize that what is written here is not to be construed as legal advice in any way. It is an exhortation to do your homework, make a plan, and assemble a small team – a lawyer and a few key friends – who agree to be available at a moment’s notice as you will be for them.
The daily world my friends inhabit is a legal procedural system that is designed to establish whether a crime was committed and to identify possible suspects with all haste and diligence. These are the people who just showed up at your home in response to your frantic call. And there you stand with a gun and a body at your feet. The police are amazing at empathizing while getting the info from you that they know you are dying to unburden yourself with. All of this will happen before your attorney arrives. Getting as much information from you as soon as possible is their goal and it is a certainty that what you say will be used against you if needed. Talking without counsel will almost invariably hurt you. Even if the shoot is clearly justified, they will still be trying to get all the details from you. They will tell you they are trying to help and need your cooperation in order to clear you. But helping you is not their priority. That’s your lawyer’s job. What are they trying to do? They are gathering information to feed to the system. Realize that your innocence is just one of many outcomes available once the information is gathered and analyzed. The legal system is judged successful when cases are closed and convictions are handed down. That’s their true goal – it’s not to help you get cleared of wrongdoing. They don’t work to answer to you. They may be sympathetic but their job is to feed the system as it is currently designed. Justice may be the stated goal in broad terms but closing the case is the real objective. Getting you justice is your lawyer’s job. Are you getting the idea?
Do Your Research and Plan Ahead
There is good news though. Numerous good books and resources are available to help you and several are listed at the end of this article. My goal is to raise your awareness of this issue to a level where you realize you need to act today. Without a plan you will be at the mercy of events out of your control.
Start by thinking about how all of your past and present decisions and life choices will appear in the harsh light of the legal investigation you may face tomorrow. Which choices? All of them. You will be amazed as I was about the dozens of things you do innocently every day that will be portrayed negatively by an unsympathetic legal system. How your friends and neighbors describe what you say and do will get put on display. Will your personality and the gun-related details of your life make you look like Joe Regular Citizen or a crazed vigilante in the hands of skilled prosecutor? Don’t think it can happen? It’s all about the spin. Here are a few examples:
“You own an excessive number of guns and shoot frequently Mr. Smith…looks like you finally got your chance to use one.”
“Your honor, the bumper stickers and rifle rack on Mr. Smith’s truck demonstrate a strong mistrust of government and establish a vigilante mindset.”
“The range master at your gun club has testified that you always use representations of people as targets instead of a simple bullseye Mr. Smith. I think the jury would like to know why?”
“So you have testified that the man you shot was someone who was known to you and in fact owed you money. Can you explain why he was in your house that afternoon?”
These examples demonstrate how quickly any simple innocent act can be spun negatively and strung together to make you look like the criminal and portray the person who broke into your house and attacked you as the victim. The recommended books and links will be great resources to open your eyes. Use them and start today to assemble a plan. You will want to assemble a small team who can mutually agree to be available should the need arise. Meanwhile, here are some things to get you started.
Key Areas to Consider
When is lethal force legally justified? Case law justifying lethal force throughout the U.S. is generally consistent and of necessity is severely limited. The only time lethal force is justified is when someone reasonably believes that their life or the life of someone else is in immediate jeopardy. The justification only exists while the threat is present (or perceived to be present). In the opening scenario, you pointed your gun at a knife-wielding attacker who was ignoring your commands to stop. But the moment he drops the knife or turns and retreats does he cease to be an immediate threat? If a reasonable man would conclude yes, then the justification for lethal force ceases as well. Someone stealing your stuff? Nope. Breaking into your house? Not unless you truly believed (and can justify by the circumstances over and over later) that you believed your life was in danger.
“I did everything in my power!” You will be asked what you did to address the threat prior to shooting. In escalating order these things include fleeing, a verbal command, physical restraint, use of pepper spray or some other object, and finally your firearm. If any of these things are available you will be asked why you did not or could not use them before resorting to lethal force.
“I was in fear for my life!” There are many ways to express this but the reality is that you must genuinely believe that you were in fear for your life or that of another and saw no other way of escape before you will be cleared for using lethal force. Repeat it early and often. Expressions of remorse are normal and can be helpful or may be construed as guilt. That is why you should say very little and insist on speaking to your lawyer before making a statement or agreeing to be questioned.
“I had no choice but to shoot!” If the attacker continues to advance and can’t be deterred any other way, the last resort may be to fire your weapon. Self-defense doctrine suggests you should keep firing until the threat ceases. Next, any secondary threats (such as an accomplice) should be dealt with. Once the threat ceases then contact the authorities as quickly as possible, usually via 911.
What you will do after the shooting is over? You will now be in a highly agitated state and are capable (likely) to do and say things you will regret later. These are normal tendencies but with some forethought and planning, the damage to you can be minimized. If you do not call 911 right away it will go poorly for you. This is the conventional wisdom and it makes some sense. Calling quickly and rendering aid will support the fact that you are the victim here and did not want to kill anyone. Say as little as possible because EVERYTHING you say from here on out will be used against you if it can be. The minimum suggested is something like. “This is John Smith of 123 Main Street. I was just attacked in my home and was afraid for my life. Please send an ambulance because someone has been shot.”
After calling 911
After you call 911, you lose control of events almost immediately. For starters, the phone you just used to call 911 on is usually ‘locked’ so you cannot make any other calls on it. Calling your lawyer or a support team member as soon as possible is advisable (on another phone) and say little except that you want to help and will make a statement after speaking to your lawyer. If your lawyer is not available, call a prearranged friend (you have a team, right?). Have them make all necessary calls for you (lawyer, family, pastor, etc.) as you may be unable to do so. They will be questioned later about why they got a call from you so quickly so their response needs to be solid as well.
Then the police will arrive and they won’t know who the good guy is. Their first priority is officer safety followed by bystander safety, securing the scene, and then determining what just happened. Make sure they know it’s you that called. Having a just-fired gun in your hand is not the best way to greet them. Make sure your weapon is secured and safe. It will be confiscated by law enforcement immediately and this is routine. Your hands may be bagged to preserve evidence of gunshot residue (GSR). Permission to search the rest of your house will be requested (or may just be done if there are exigent circumstances). The stated explanation will be to secure everyone’s safety but equally important will be to examine what role you played in the events. Avoid this if you can. Hopefully your other firearms are locked up and secure and not all in one place should the decision be made to confiscate them. Do not appear to be a threat in any way.
When they start pressing you with questions, it will get tricky. There is surprisingly little consensus on what or how much to say. The rule here is “Less is better”. I should point out that an officer involved in a shooting is presumed innocent pending an inquiry and is treated very differently than a citizen. He is given representation immediately and is not required to say anything until the rep or lawyer can meet with them and they have a chance to calm down. They are usually placed on paid administrative leave for several weeks. You and I will have to try to go to work in the morning. Yet if we try to take the same approach by wanting to confer with counsel before giving a statement, it is presumed we are trying to hide something. Doesn’t seem fair but it is true. The standards are very different. I believe by now you are getting the idea.
Some expert suggestions
Massad Ayoob, noted expert in the self-defense use of firearms suggests that people memorize these five steps and use them immediately and nothing more.
- “This person attacked me.” – establishes you are the victim.
- “I will sign a complaint.” – further confirmation you are the victim
- Point out evidence that supports you before it disappears.
- Point out witnesses before they disappear.
- “Officer, you will have my full cooperation after I have spoken with my attorney.”
His further suggestion is request medical attention for yourself as you may be unknowingly injured, in shock, or something similar. It will also get time for you to regroup your thoughts to avoid saying incriminating or conflicting things.
Alan Korwin is a widely-read 2nd Amendment rights author from Phoenix. Here are his new Safety Rules for Self Defense from his book After You Shoot
- If you shoot in self defense you must then defend yourself against execution for murder
- When you drop the hammer plan to cash in your life savings for your lawyer’s retainer. Avoid this unless your life depends on it.
- Sometimes the innocent get decent treatment and sometimes they don’t
- It’s always better to avoid a gunfight than to win one.
- If innocent life doesn’t depend on it, don’t shoot. And if it does, don’t miss.
Expect unbelievable levels of scrutiny
Every decision you have made in your life up to this point will come into question at some point. You will have to justify the pertinent ones….Here are a few ways you will be challenged for starters:
1. Why did you shoot? Why did you feel threatened?
2. What did you do/say prior to shooting that could have prevented this?
3. Why that choice of pistol…shotgun…type of ammo?
4. How long or why did you wait to call 911?
5. Who else have you contacted? Why?
6. Did you know the victim? (Notice that now he is the victim and not you?)
Remember that the job of the police and prosecutor is to get you to tell them as much as they can get from you before your lawyer arrives. By the way, the time to establish a relationship with an attorney is before all this happens as part of your team. Don’t ask for an attorney – you must request to speak with YOUR attorney. Make sure you have one. Korwin’s After You Shoot has some great suggestions about how to put a team together.
“Don’t Talk to the Police” video – Professor James Duane
“Don’t Talk to the Police – a Police Officer Responds” video -Virginia Beach Officer George Bruch
US Concealed Carry Association Supports ways to be a responsible CCW holder
GunLaws.com Web site of firearms author Alan Korwin
FirearmsLaws.com Web site of attorney and author Mitch Vilos
Armed Citizens’ Legal Defense Network An education and legal defense organization
Massad Ayoob Group – Training and education on personal protection and self defense
My Simple Plan
Our Plan is very simple so it is also easy to remember. I am fortunate that I know a lawyer who is also a prepper, a sport shooter, and a friend. Two like-minded friends have agreed to be the team and we do this for each other. If any of us is involved in a self-defense shoot, we place what we call a Tiger Call to as many of the others as we can reach. We all have a second small disposable cell phone for this purpose. I carry both phones at all times. If one of us were to be involved in an incident these are the steps we have agreed to once the incident is contained and both 911 and the authorities alerted. The plan goes into effect when the Tiger Call is made.
Phase 1 – Immediate actions
- Call the lawyer immediately. Our code phrase within the group is “This is a Tiger Call on behalf of Joe Smith.” If unable to reach the lawyer, someone goes to his office or house as appropriate. Our lawyer has also given us a backup lawyer if he is unavailable or if he is the one involved in the shoot.
- Contact all other team members. Decide who will coordinate.
- Meet near the scene and attempt to observe and video events.
- Do not interfere or identify your presence and do not attempt to contact Joe
Phase 2 – Follow-up
- Contact pre-planned individuals so rides, child care, bail, moral support, etc. is available.
- Contact employers as planned to arrange for time-off without arousing alarm.
- Consolidate all notes and observations in writing. Sign, date, and photocopy them. Make duplicate copies of all recordings. These will all be given to the lawyer.
- Joe will contact the Tiger group as soon as possible.
Phase 3 – Family support
- The family will be in disarray and will need immediate support. Call secondary support friends and implement help as needed.
- The Coordinator will facilitate assistance and keep tabs for coordinating follow-up.
An occasional drill can be very helpful. Our first practice run helped us realize that we needed small kit like a B.O.B. just for Tiger Calls. Mine has bottled water, snacks, pencils, paper, mini binocs, and a cheapie video cam.
Now You Have Your Wakeup Call
A TEOTWAWAWKI scenario may not come in a broad encompassing sweep or last indefinitely. To the victims of the recent localized tornados it was more like the end of my world – a sort of personal micro-burst if you will. If you use lethal force without being suitably prepared you will experience a SHTF event all your own.
The thugs who show up to steal, kill, and destroy give neither warning nor thought to their actions apart from what they can score from you. However, the aftermath of a self-defense shooting will be life-changing for you. We all think about how to best prepare for numerous possible scenarios yet will completely overlook this area. I avoided this for years for the same reason I avoided preparing a will. I didn’t have the experience to know where to begin. It’s uncomfortable to think about dying. It’s equally uncomfortable to think about what to do if you shoot someone. Being responsible means doing your research and making a plan. So now I have both the will and plan for after a shooting. Do your research and make your plan. And by God’s grace you will never need to use it.