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When Can You Legally Use a Gun in Self-Defense?

By Christopher Coble, Esq. | Last updated on

The majority of gun owners say they bought a gun for protection (despite evidence that gun owners are more likely to shoot another member of the household in the home than an armed intruder). And most of the people that buy guns for self-defense would rather never use them. But we don't live in a perfect world, and there are times when it becomes necessary to sue a gun to protect yourself, another person, or your property.

The laws that govern whether using potentially deadly force is legitimate can vary greatly from state-to-state, but here are a few common considerations on when it's legal to use a gun in self-defense.

The Rule

As a general principle, you have a right to self-defense, in that you may use force or violence to prevent force or violence being done to you. But this general right begs a lot of questions: Can you respond to threats of violence as opposed to acts of violence? Do you have to try and run away first? What is an acceptable amount of violence to use? What if you honestly believed you were in danger, but it turns out you were mistaken?

Again, specific state statutes differ, but for the most part, the threat must be imminent and involving physical force (not just insults), and your fear of imminent physical harm must be reasonable, generally defined as an average person in the same situation feeling and responding in the same way. Your use of force must be proportional, or only as much force as required to remove the threat. Finally, some states laws require you to make an attempt to escape the situation before employing lethal force.

Firearm Principles

When it comes to using a gun in self-defense, there are some specific things to consider. First, any use of a firearm in self-defense is potentially lethal, so the threat of force and level of fear you feel might needs to be higher than if you were using your fists. Second, as noted above, your duty to retreat may be heightened, with two major exceptions:

  • Stand Your Ground Laws: Many states have enacted stand your ground laws (and a few others have interpreted existing laws to allow stand your ground-like legal doctrines), which remove the duty to retreat; and
  • The Castle Doctrine: The duty to retreat does not apply if you are in your home, and some states have extended that to a homeowner's yard, a private office, or a vehicle (although most require the intruder to be inside the home).

Firearms are dangerous, and the use of a gun, even in self-defense, should not be taken lightly. It is important to understand the nuances of self-defense laws particular to where you live, so contact a local criminal defense attorney if you have more questions about state self-defense statutes.

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