Defending Strangers: Legal and Practical Considerations

Defending Strangers: Legal and Practical Considerations


There have been several incidents of late in which armed citizens have come to the rescue of other people, typically perfect strangers, during violent criminal assaults. Under the law, all states typically acknowledge the right of the individual to use deadly force to defend one’s self or an innocent party when facing a deadly assault. The use of deadly force in self-defense opens a legal examination that is, in itself, complicated.

When an armed citizen intervenes in an unfolding event that concerns others, especially if the others are strangers unknown to the armed citizen, the potential for disaster looms large. The advice from most self-defense experts will remain consistent on this: be very cautious when intervening in a situation between people that you don’t know. Here I offer a few things to consider:

Do You Really Know What is Happening?

Imagine walking out into a parking lot and witnessing two men chasing and restraining a woman. Imagine walking upon a scene of several men beating another man on the ground. If you just happened to stroll upon such a scene, do you really know what is happening? Are the two men chasing down and restraining the woman a couple of hoodlums who are trying to rape her? Possible. However, they might be two undercover police officers making an arrest. Do you know if the men beating the man on the ground are a group of thugs, or are they a group of citizens who just turned on an individual who was in the process of assaulting an old lady?

The bottom line is this: if you just walked into a situation that is transpiring, you don’t know what is happening. Getting involved opens up a huge risk for you. Generally, interfering in a situation is not wise unless you have witnessed what is happening from the beginning and truly know what is going on. When in doubt, it is probably best that you keep your self-defense close to home. The protection of yourself and your family should be your priority.

Now, depending on the situation, interceding to defend others may be perfectly acceptable. The typical example that comes to mind is an active killer attack. An individual who is wandering around in a public place, shooting at anyone present, is quite clearly an active killer that warrants a lethal response.

Similarly, a robbery in which masked men are pointing guns at innocent people is most likely a clear-cut circumstance. A uniformed officer being overtaken by an attacker is a circumstance of self-defense in which interceding to save the officer’s life is warranted

However, many other forms of interpersonal violence are not going to be clearly discernable and taking out a firearm to deal with such a situation opens you to severe legal consequences. Tread carefully. Even if a firearm is present in the hands of a person not in uniform, do you know who they are? Perhaps they are another armed citizen like yourself. You need to know the entire situation or avoid getting involved.

Another consideration regarding defending others is this: some apparent victims don’t want your help. There have been incidents in which an individual interceded in an assault to stop a man from violently beating a woman. Sounds quite noble, does it not? Well, in said incidents the hero was subsequently sued by the woman for assaulting her beloved boyfriend or husband. It is for such reasons that, quite frankly, chivalry is dead in our society. I suggest extreme caution when interfering in any fight or assault that you have not witnessed from the beginning, the one exception being an assault or other violence towards a child. Any violence towards a child (as in real violence, not a parent spanking a misbehaving child) is clearly not acceptable, and children must be protected. Protecting other adults, however, is potential trouble.

Practical Considerations

Beyond the possible legal ramifications, defending others must be done cautiously as entering the situation can put you in danger from the assailants themselves, from responding police, or from other armed citizens. If you are the first to introduce a firearm into a situation, then you also escalate the situation. Putting somebody who is acting violently at gunpoint might defuse the violence, or it might escalate the situation; either is possible.

While a threat does not have to be armed with a weapon to warrant a response with one, you need to be careful that you can truly articulate your own need to resort to deadly force. There is no calling back your decision to draw a gun. If the decision is deemed unlawful after the fact you can be charged with aggravated assault even though you did not shoot. Once again, the decision to intervene in violence transpiring between others should not be taken lightly.

As more people go armed in society, it is becoming clear that citizens need to be ever-more cognizant of responding police officers. Most police are evidently not used to taking into consideration law-abiding armed citizens at a given scene. There have been several tragic events in which responding officers have shot and killed armed citizens who defended themselves or others. This must be taken into account and if you need to draw your gun. You should program yourself to put the gun away as soon as possible. Once a threat is neutralized, and the scene appears safe, re-holster the gun.

Responding officers that are speeding to a reported shooting are typically, you guessed it, looking for a guy with a gun in his hand. If you are the first guy with gun in hand that they encounter you run a great risk of being shot. This is a risk that you run when defending yourself even in a rapidly transpiring situation, but the chaos involved in defending others can escalate this risk.

Finally, remember that there are many armed citizens today, which proves to be a good thing. However, just as you must understand what is truly happening before you intercede in a situation, so too does any other armed citizen in the vicinity. Consider this: if you put a gun on someone who is attacking another person, then another armed citizen stumbles into the middle of the situation, what might they think you are doing? Would they automatically presume that you are a good guy trying to save the day? We tend to consider anyone in plain clothes and a gun in hand as being a criminal threat, so act accordingly. When intervening in the business of others there is an associated risk, and when producing a gun to defend somebody that you don’t know you up this risk substantially. Act accordingly.



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