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Can I Shoot a Burglar in Self Defense?

By Stephanie Rabiner, Esq. on May 18, 2011 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

We've all heard stories supposedly out of Texas where a mean ol' cowboy, when faced with an intruder, made use of his rifle before he made use of his phone.

While it's common knowledge that Texas (and some of its neighbors) is fairly lenient towards homeowners who shoot a burglar to protect their property, the fact is that, in most states, this is not the case.

Instead, in most of the country, you can only shoot a burglar in self-defense.

As a general rule, to claim self-defense, or defense of others, a person must have only used reasonable force in a situation where he reasonably believed that it was necessary to protect himself or another from harm.

Reasonable force is usually defined as proportionate force--you can kick someone who tries to punch you, but it's unreasonable and disproportionate to try and shoot him.

In less convoluted terms, you can probably shoot a burglar in your home if:

  1. It's reasonable to believe that you or another person are in harm's way, and
  2. The burglar was threatening serious bodily harm.

This, however, is not an absolute.

Depending on the state and the situation, asserting self-defense may only downgrade a murder charge to voluntary or involuntary manslaughter, meaning that you'd still be criminally liable for shooting a burglar.

You may also live in a state that requires you to first attempt to retreat before you use deadly force on another person--even a burglar.

If you're really concerned about whether and in what situation you can shoot a burglar in self-defense, try talking to a local criminal law attorney, who should be well-versed in the law.

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