Legally (and morally) speaking, there is (generally) a proportionality limit when it comes to self defense. Simply put, the use of force by a person acting in self defense must not be out of proportion to the use or threat of force by the attacker. An example: Person A throws a ping pong ball at Person B, and stands ready to throw another one. Person B would (generally) not be entitled to use a gun to shoot Person A, in order to put an end to the ping pong ball attack. That is because the harm from of a ping pong ball attack is rather slight, and taking a life to end it is grossly disproportionate. As a public policy matter, it is seen as better to allow Person B to suffer a ping pong ball attack today, and then prosecute Person A later, than to have Person A die as a result of Person B’s attempt to avoid that minor attack. This rule helps prevent minor scuffles from escalating to deadly situations, and prevents those seeking revenge from using some minor scuffle as an excuse to kill. However if Person A were throwing knives at Person B, then Person B would (generally) be justified in shooting Person A in self defense.
Unfortunately, this proportionality requirement is often misunderstood. A recent self defense shooting case shows this misconception: A 70 year old woman was on her own property when a 24 year old man allegedly threatened her life. It is alleged that this man had beaten his girlfriend, who came to the 70 year old woman’s house for help, only to have the 24 year old man pursue. The 24 year old man is said to have been armed with a shovel, which he took from the 70 year old woman’s grandson after he tried to protect his grandmother. After allegedly again refusing to leave, and advancing on the 70 year old woman in a threatening manner, the 24 year old man was shot by the 70 year old woman in self defense. The man survived, and his mother had the following to say:
“It doesn’t give her a right to have a gun when [the 24 year old man] didn’t have a gun.”
Here, the mother of the man who was shot apparently believes that the 70 year old woman should have to use her bare hands to fight off an allegedly violent and trespassing attacker, who is himself armed with a shovel. That is simply ridiculous, and not what the law requires. Nor does the proportionality requirement for valid self defense mean that one attacked with a shovel can only defend with a shovel. Instead, it just requires that force used in self defense be proportional to that which was used or threatened by the attacker. A 24 year old man could easily kill or seriously harm a 70 year old woman with his bare hands. Being armed with a shovel only make the threat he posed greater. A 70 year old woman almost certainly lacks the physical strength to defend herself against a younger male attacker. As such, the 70 year old woman was within her rights to use deadly force (a gun) to defend herself.
Indeed, the right to use a gun in self defense is not limited to situations where the victim is an elderly woman, and the attacker is a young male. No matter how young and/or strong the victim may be, a criminal may still pose a deadly threat. Using myself as an example, I’m a rather large male in his mid 20’s. Yet my skin is neither knife-resistant nor bullet-resistant. My throat is not strangle-resistant, and I am sad to report that my skull has no special defenses against baseball bats or shovels. If I were facing the sort of attack that this 70 year old woman faced, I too would feel the need to use my gun in self defense – and believe I would be legally justified in doing so.
My thanks to Anders for pointing out the self defense case I used as an example.
Note: Nothing in this article, or anywhere on this website, constitutes legal advice. Self defense laws vary by state, and it is the responsibility of each citizen to know the law. See the full disclaimer here.