Self-defense laws generally make it clear that victims of a potentially lethal attacks have the right to neutralize the attacker(s). How they may do so is not as clear cut as one might think.

While we can’t provide legal advice or try to explain the laws of the many U.S. states, we wrote this article to let our readers know what types of legal issues might arise from defending oneself in a violent attack. We urge anyone reading this article to become intimately familiar with their own state’s self-defense laws and seek out an attorney to provide specific clarification or advice.

Many of us have heard stories of criminals who, even after being found guilty of robbery or battery, are able to sue the victim for damages for injuries sustained in a self-defense situation. Civil awards may be rare, since courts and juries often sway towards the crime victim. Still, there are cases when good guys get sued for using “excessive” force to stop a crook.

People have also been successfully sued for beating up a criminal attempting to flee from robbing a bank or committing a range of other criminal offenses. In fact, legislation from certain so-called “Nanny States” actually allows burglars to sue their victims if the criminal gets injured for any reason while breaking into a home!

Worse yet, there are scenarios when innocent citizens are arrested and criminally charged for defending themselves.

Using Excessive Lethal Force in Personal Defense

The apex of this craziness relates to a relatively new legal concept of “excessive lethal force.” Depending on your jurisdiction, you may have to be on alert for just how you are allowed to defend yourself when your safety is jeopardized.

Rather than have the freedom to protect yourself with a firearm without regard to the well-being of an attacker, these laws require private citizens to justify each and every time they invoke lethal force while defending against being raped or potentially murdered. This law protects murderers and rapists from being “wrongfully killed” while they commit felonious assaults.

While all people should be justified in shooting an assailant who is directly threatening to kill them, the number of times you choose to pull the trigger matters. The number of shots that impact your target can be used to prosecute you if it can be asserted that you could have stopped the threat with anything other than lethal force. In such instances, you can risk going to jail for homicide if, in a self-defense situation, you “double tap” or shoot a potential killer twice.

Unfortunately, this legal principle of “only shoot-once and re-assess the threat” goes against every aspect of human nature.  In real, life-threatening situations, adrenaline kicks in, and our self preservation instinct typically results in emptying a magazine into the bad guy. It is human for such a flurry of firing in response to a deadly threat. It is what I would do. Regardless of the consequences.

However, be aware that your natural instinct for self-preservation can lead to murder charges in some jurisdictions. Even where so-called “Stand-Your-Ground” laws allow more leeway in response to threats, such as Florida, overzealous prosecutors can make your life hell.

Since we are not attorneys, we will not attempt to tell you when it is OK to use a gun to kill somebody in self-defense, regardless of where you are located. What we can tell you is that the “double tap” technique is still routinely taught in self-defense classes in order to increase the odds that a threat is neutralized. In fact, some would say that until a threat is on the ground and no longer moving, it continues to remain a threat.

Security guards are taught to use the double tap when an attacker menaces somebody while threatening lethal force, when the attacker is closer than 21 feet to the victim. They are taught to draw their weapon and shoot the assailant twice in the chest. They then are told to cease-fire and re-assess the situation.  Only if the attacker continues to shoot or threaten to shoot is there authority to re-engage.

What is also interesting to note is that police officers go beyond the double tap method when faced with a threat. They routinely empty their service weapons to be sure they have stopped the offender. Of course, the police have a special level of protection from criminal charges by District Attorneys that civilians do not possess, so don’t make the mistake of thinking you can follow the same procedures with impunity.

Protecting the Rights of Violent Felons

The following is an example where excessive lethal force laws have been applied to re-victimize a woman who was raped. It is derived from several real cases from “Nanny States” that would rather protect the rights of violent felons than support the rights of citizens to live free of violent threats.

 A 55-year old retired executive awoke to find a burglar in her bedroom.  He dragged Kay from the bed, pointing a gun at her head while threatening to rape her and ordering her to strip. She was able to distract the rapist long enough to grab her handgun and she “double-tapped” him, sending him to the floor in a pool of blood.

She carefully kept her gun trained on him and called 911. When the police arrived, they found her attacker laying dead in a pool of blood at her bedside. Barely saving her own life, she did not expect that her troubles were just beginning.

The Medical Examiner determined that her first shot was non-fatal and severed his spinal cord, rendering him paralyzed. This first shot effectively neutralized him as a continued threat.  The second shot, fired instantly after the first, killed him as he fell to the floor.

Because the second shot was unnecessary to neutralize the lethal threat against her, the District Attorney charged her with homicide!

It was no surprise that her attacker was a violent felon and a registered sex offender. Even though he was a repeat offender, his prior bad acts were “prejudicial” and the D.A was able to withhold facts about his bad character from the jury. The jury had no choice but to agree with the medical examiner’s unrefuted testimony that the second, fatal shot was unnecessary. The potential rape victim was ultimately convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to several years in the State Penitentiary.

To add insult to injury, the dead rapist’s son (who was also a convicted sex offender) also successfully sued her in civil court for excessive force.

“You have to determine whether your safety is more important than the risk of prosecution.”


Choosing the Right Firearm to Stop a Threat

If the law may only allow you to one chance to neutralize a lethal threat, make it count. The threat of being charged with excessive force makes it clear that all citizens should use the most powerful gun that they can safely and competently handle.  Some experts say that home defense calibers should certainly begin with a “4” (e.g. the .45 ACP or .44 Magnum). Others advocate using a 12 gauge shotgun for the best personal defense in the home. Since a shotgun is actually a number of projectiles, this makes a lot of sense. One shot has the same effect as several individual shots from a conventional handgun.

Regardless, consider a firearm with the most knock down power in a single shot. The human body is incredibly resilient, and there are cases where the police have failed to stop a crazed attacker even after clearing out an entire magazine of high-caliber ammunition!

Small .22- or .380-caliber “mouse guns” are considered by many to be a bad idea in a defense situation, since they are unlikely to stop an attacker and may actually serve to further anger him. Unless you are at point-blank range, with a direct hit to the head or chest, and using high-powered and hollow-point ammo, they may not have enough “wallop” to neutralize a determined adversary.


Warning:  A .380 “mouse gun” may not stop a lethal threat


Many people are intimidated by larger caliber guns because they have a large recoil, or kick. But not all of them are particularly unwieldy. Some of them, including the Kimber .45-caliber, are designed specifically for reduced recoil. While not cheap, even the meekest shooter should find them easy to operate with practice.


Ultra Crimson Carry II™

The Kimber Ultra Crimson Carry II, with a 3-inch, weighing 25 oz.


Many women are especially concerned about their ability to accurately shoot guns with the heavier 44 and 45 ammunition, opting instead for the greater impact velocity and greater cavation of a .357 magnum with hollow-point loads. We advocate practicing with the various forms of firearms at a shooting range, until you find one that has the right feel and fit to it.

Comparison of Different Caliber Ammunition


You can increase your odds when you are forced to fire by getting closer to your attacker. At closer distances, with sufficient practice, you have the best chance of hitting your target with one shot. Still, no matter how well-trained you might be, it is instinctive to fire more than once in the heat of battle.

If you are well-trained, you know that in a gunfight you can’t be sure you will hit your target, especially if it is moving. Even if you do manage to get a shot off, there’s no guarantee that the first shot will stop the threat. Even a well-trained marksman can miss a shot in the heat of the moment.

Self-defense experts routinely train people to be sure the adversary is stopped. This typically means firing more than one shot to stop a threat. Anybody who attacks another person with a gun or a knife should be assumed to automatically relinquish all legal rights and right to life itself. Unfortunately, in many jurisdictions that is not the case.

While defending yourself by firing multiple times into an attacker may save your life, it may also result in terrible legal troubles. It is extremely important that you understand your rights in a self-defense situation and choose the appropriate gun for the situation. Don’t get victimized twice!


If you are interested in learning more:

Essential Guide to Handguns: Firearm Instruction for Personal Defense and Protection teaches that in certain “Nanny States,” any potential victim who defends themselves against a lethal attack must justify each and every bullet shot into somebody who is trying to kill them!

Another useful book for those of you in Florida is Florida Firearms Law, Use & Ownership 7th Ed. (Authoritative Guide That Explains Florida & Federal Laws on Firearms, Weapons and Self-Defense Issues)

The concept and portions of this article are rewritten from an original posting by Donald K. Burleson, January 2011