It may seem simple enough in your mind. If someone attacks you, you defend yourself. However, the law might not always agree with that sentiment. It might depend on maintaining your presence of mind. You’ll need to know when to stop, and when guns are involved, you need to know your rights.
If you carry a gun for self-defense — or if you have one in your home to protect your family and your property — it’s important to know your rights, as well as your limits, before you use your gun for self-defense.
While the right to keep and bear arms is enshrined in the Constitution of the United States, the right to defend oneself has its roots in English Common Law. Although the various states enact and enforce laws differently, a US citizen generally has the right to self-defense with reasonable force against an act of violence when the victim has a reasonable fear of personal injury, death, sexual assault or property loss.
In some situations, a person who is subject to such an attack has a legal responsibility to flee from the situation, if a reasonable means or avenue of escape is available. This is known as a duty to retreat. However, many state laws adhere to the so-called “Castle Doctrine,” which comes from the old saying that your home is your castle and refers to the right to defend your home.
In Castle Doctrine states, citizens have the right to protect themselves from violent aggression — with deadly force, if necessary — in places where they have a legal right to be, such as their homes, vehicles or places of employment. This doesn’t necessarily free residents of those states from the duty to retreat in all situations.
Even though there may be conflicting interpretations of the Second Amendment’s association of the right to gun ownership with “a well-regulated militia,” the US Supreme Court affirmed the right to protect your home with a legally owned handgun in the 2008. It is legal to keep an assembled handgun in the home as a means to take action in the event of a home invasion.
All of this doesn’t mean that if someone attacks you and you, in turn, beat the attacker into submission or kill the attacker, by any means, that you won’t be arrested.
Generally, an act of force in self-defense must be proportional to the attack. If someone is merely shoving you, it would not be a proportional response to shoot that person. Indeed, merely letting that person know that you have a concealed weapon would probably suffice to de-escalate that situation. It’s not always a matter of “push comes to shove.”
If the situation develops into a physical altercation, you have the upper hand, and your attacker indicates that he is giving up; you generally have a responsibility to cease your counterattack. If you don’t, you could be charged with assault, anyway, even though you were defending yourself.
You also have the right to defend yourself if you have a reasonable fear of an attack, and the key word is reasonable. If someone is wielding a knife on the sidewalk in a threatening manner, you mostly likely have a duty to retreat, if possible. However, if you’re cornered or backed into a barrier or wall by that same person, you will probably be legally justified in defending yourself.
On the other hand, if you’re nearing someone on the street, and you see him pull out a pocket knife to cut slices from an apple, a prosecutor or jury probably would not agree that you had a reasonable fear of injury from that person. What is “reasonable” may not always be easy to agree upon. That’s why it’s important to know the laws governing self-defense before you have to defend yourself.
If you use a gun to defend yourself, the stakes may be even higher, depending on the various state laws. In Texas, you have the right to own a gun — with certain limitations. Using that gun to defend yourself without knowing those limitations can cost you your freedom and someone else a life.