Should You Use Your Gun To Defend a Stranger? By Rob Pincus
PDN’s Rob Pincus with Mark Walters of Armed American Radio.
Mark Walters, host of the syndicated program Armed American Radio, sent me a link that he wanted me to review before an appearance on the show. The link was to a story from a CBS affiliate in the Dallas/Fort Worth area about an armed Good Samaritan who stopped a violent attack without firing a shot. He wanted me to review the story and discuss it on the show with him. It was certainly right up the alley of the topics we normally discuss, and it hits on several issues related to our community:
- There is violence in this world and we all have a responsibility to defend ourselves, and those we care about, from it.
- People should have a right to meet that responsibility and be armed with tools to make it easier, should they choose to.
- The right and responsibility to act against evil may extend beyond the boundaries of protecting one’s own personal safety.
- Should one who is ostensibly interested in their own safety interject themselves into a violent situation to assist someone else?
- When compelled to, how should one take action in a violent situation that they are not directly involved in?
Item #3 requires a little more thought. While most people who advocate for personal defense would extend the legal limits to include defending others who are in danger, there is a deeper level of discussion necessary to determine whether or not our responsibility should extend in the same way. This opens the Pandora’s Box of what I always refer to as the “should vs could” problem. Some people have a hard time distinguishing between what the law says we could do and what a reasonable and responsible person should do. I give you the following example for consideration:
I think it should be 100% legal for a person to take all their savings and all their weekly paychecks and buy lottery tickets. It would be the height of oppression for the government to step in and stop that behavior. Yet no reasonable or responsible person would suggest that spending all your available money on lottery tickets was something that you should do. Fighting for our rights does not always mean that we should exercise those rights in the extreme. The principle of being free to spend our money however we see fit does not dictate foolish behavior … and while the government shouldn’t be allowed to restrict merely foolish behavior, we as a community should discourage it.
We can apply the same logic to topics in the firearms community, such as Open Carry, Castle Doctrine, Stand Your Ground Laws, and getting involved in third-party critical incidents to defend others. I believe it should certainly be legal for us to act in the defense of others and I’ll even go so far as to say we have a responsibility to do so in many circumstances. How and when we do that, however, are matters of subjective judgment based on a multitude of variables and not something that should be boiled down to a yes or no. Furthermore, we shouldn’t yield to our government or conventional wisdom our opportunity as rational beings to decide for ourselves in each situation. I believe those who would do so are taking the easy out … all the more so because they know that their (often loudly) stated positions at the local watering hole or on the Internet will probably never need to be followed through on.
Item #4 brings us to what appears to be a question of ethics and/or morals. If one claims to be interested in protecting themselves, should they ever expose themselves to extra danger in order to help someone else? Remember that “ethics” refers to a system of rules and expectations that a community holds about what is right or wrong, while “morals” are an individual’s own beliefs. Thankfully, we live in a society where it is considered unethical to ignore someone who needs our help. So there shouldn’t be any doubt as to the ethics we are dealing with. Our legal system and the court of public opinion greatly favor the proverbial Good Samaritan. The moral questions are really where the challenges lie:
When would you choose to expose yourself to increased danger in order to help someone else? How big a risk will you take to help someone else? Does the amount of risk vary based on who it is that needs your help? Does the amount of risk vary with how much risk the person you want to help is facing?
These are all questions that you must answer for yourself. You can meet the ethical demands of our society in many cases by simply calling the police and “being a good witness.” That level of getting involved is usually the one recommended by personal defense instructors, as it carries the lowest level of risk and puts the highest value on one’s own safety. Deciding personally to get involved directly to help someone else and how involved to get when you do are issues that you should definitely think about ahead of time. By considering what situations you might intervene in away from the emotion of the moment, you can prepare yourself to deal with actual situations you might encounter.
Training and practice are crucial if you imagine yourself ever defending a third party (or yourself).
Consider also the ways in which you might be mistaken about what you are seeing when you come across an incident and how that should affect your decisions and actions. What happened before you arrived? How can you be sure who the “good guy” is? Always remember that getting involved in a critical incident carries risks that go beyond the moment of physical danger as well. Dealing with the legal ramifications, media attention, and financial issues that may follow a use of force on behalf of someone else can’t be ignored.
Item #5 is probably the easiest to comment on. It is a question of tactics and can be dealt with much more objectively. If you have made the decision to get involved, how do you do it? Here are some pointers:
Get involved as little as possible.Consider the concept of the Force Continuum that is taught to law enforcement officers. The first level is “presence.” In many cases, merely making your presence known to the attacker may make them stop whatever they are doing. Calling out, honking your horn, or taking any other action to make them aware that their actions are being witnessed could be all you need to do.
Don’t endanger yourself more than necessary to get control of the situation.Running in and jumping between an attacker and his victim and physically absorbing the violent action would put you at a much higher immediate risk than picking up a chair and shoving it between them. Similarly, grabbing the attacker and attempting to physically pull them away from the victim (and closer to you) could be riskier than shoving the attacker away from both you and the victim. Always choose tactics that keep you as safe as possible.
Don’t introduce a weapon unless its use is justified … and you would actually use it.Pulling out a gun to stop someone from verbally abusing another person would be reckless. Pulling a gun on someone for stabbing, raping or abducting someone would be reasonable. Consider that the justification for using lethal force to defend someone else will basically be the same as you would face for using it to defend yourself. If you wouldn’t use your gun to protect yourself from whatever you are witnessing, don’t bring it into the situation hoping to calm things down. The fact is that you would actually be escalating the event.
Consider that your actions could increase the risk to the person you are trying to help.It is impossible to predict the response of the attacker when you intervene. Be prepared for them to escalate their attack or simply ignore your commands. How far will you go in order to stop them? Also be aware that if you do decide to shoot an attacker to help someone else, your line of fire may be very close to the person you are trying to help.
Remember that you are not alone in the world, and other bystanders may misinterpret your actions.Just as you may not have all the information about the situation you are getting into, the next person arriving may not realize that you are trying to help. How will your actions look to the next witness?
Think about what you will do when the attacker complies with your commands.The danger isn’t over when the bad guy ceases his attack.
Remember, it is not your job to “arrest” or capture the bad guy. If the bad guy flees, it is probably not a good idea to chase him. If the bad guy surrenders and complies with your instructions, you should probably not approach or try to “secure” him in any way. In the immediate aftermath, you should also be thinking about the possibility of giving medical assistance to the victim and dealing with any bystanders in the area.
When the police arrive, you are as likely to be considered a threat as you are a Good Samaritan … and either way, you need to yield control.Regardless of what the police believe you are doing, it is their job to establish complete control of the situation. That requires you to surrender to them and comply with their commands. The situation is likely to be very tense and potentially confusing. Do your best to remain calm and demonstrate that you are cooperating in every way possible.
Once you have made the decision to go armed in public for your own protection, you have probably considered that you could use your firearm to protect family or friends as well. Many people stop thinking about defending others beyond that point. While you will always have the option of not getting involved if you are witness to a violent attack on a stranger, I believe that most people will be compelled to take action. Especially people who have accepted responsibility for their own personal defense and acknowledged that, whenever it shows itself, the evil in the world should be met by a powerful good force.
We live in a world where violence can be stopped by the proper use of assertive action, sometimes involving firearms. That is a good thing. None of us should want to live in a society where people refuse to get involved because they fear solely for their own safety. None of us should want to live in a society where people roam the streets looking for opportunities to use force against their fellow citizens without regard for solid observation, critical thinking, their own safety and that of those around them, and the rule of law and due process. Somewhere between these two scenarios is the society that most responsible gun owners want: one where the evil that exists in this world is tempered by good people with the training, tools and willingness to act prudently on behalf of good. In that society, there is less evil. In that society, those who would be bullies, predators and violent criminals hesitate to act for fear of the good guy with a gun.