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Now that you’ve got a sound—though basic—understanding of the relevant laws, how can you apply it? Well, you must use your judgment, as always. No two situations are the same. However, here are some guidelines that you may find useful:
- Prepare by researching the self-defense laws in your state. If you carry a knife, gun, or another weapon, look into those laws, as well. Understand that if you use a weapon in a violent confrontation, even if it is technically legal to do so, prosecutors may be looking at you for mens rea, or “guilty mind.” If you are carrying a ten-inch fighting knife useful for nothing but combat, law enforcement will wonder if you wanted to stab someone. State of mind is a big deal; it may influence a decision to prosecute, and if you are charged, will certainly come out in your trial when the DA portrays you as someone who was ready and willing to fight.
- If you’re going to carry a weapon—a gun, a knife, or whatever—first get trained in its use. Not only do you need to know how to use it, for your own safety and the safety of those around you, but you also need to know the legal ramifications of its use. If you carry a gun, there are good (albeit expensive) on-site tactics and handling courses you can take that will also address legal issues. There is also an excellent seminar expressly devoted to the legal angle, Massad Ayoob’s Judicious Use of Deadly Force. Specific training and further information can be found as well concerning knives and non-lethal tools like pepper spray, though as in all research, make sure your source is credible. When in doubt, the laws themselves (ideally through the eyes of your lawyer) are the surest source.
- Do what you can to avoid potential altercations altogether. Stay away from places where your safety is not assured (parking lots, alleys, or streets at night in the wrong part of town, and certain bars and other establishments where you don’t feel in control). Stay in groups of people whom you can count on to be on your side (friends or acquaintances if possible). Do not appear weak or vulnerable, and do not behave in ways that make attacking you easy.
- If a dangerous situation threatens, do what you can to defuse it. Don’t rush to “skip ahead” and start preparing for a fight as soon as someone speaks to you aggressively; be prepared, but be optimistic. Act cordially, apologize, move away; buy your antagonist another beer; give up the seat—be polite, but act with confidence. In short, pursue all available avenues of speech or interaction that do not lead to violence. Do this even if it seems futile; at the very least, you will establish for any witnesses that you did not want this fight. If necessary, state loudly that you don’t want to fight, that you want to leave; you are creating witnesses who might otherwise see nothing, or miss the initial confrontation and only see you hitting the other guy. If the situation appears to be deteriorating, continue your peacemaking efforts, but also ensure that you are positioned to escape if necessary, and are not vulnerable to a surprise attack. Make a mental note of the things that indicate danger to you so that later you can relay them to the police.
- If violence seems imminent, leave. If necessary, run. After escaping the immediate danger, head toward safety—a well-lighted public area, a police station, an emergency room (where police can often be found). If leaving a bar, restaurant, or other venue, do not return anytime soon.
- If you are unable to avoid or escape a violent encounter, and you are either certain that you are about to be attacked or have already been attacked, respond immediately and without hesitation with the amount of force necessary (and no more). This does not mean to start fighting; your assailant’s actions may be designed to harm you, but yours should be designed only to restore your safety. If a small amount of force opens a window of escape, take it—don’t forget that you can run just because force has already been used.
- Once the immediate danger is over, stop the use of force. If your assailant used a weapon, secure it, if it is safe to do so. Move at once to a place of safety. Do not stay in the area even if your assailant is incapacitated (or dead). If possible, do take note of any potential witnesses. If you have a weapon, put it away (do not ditch it). Do not tamper with the crime scene.
- As soon as safely possible, call the police. Describe the immediate situation, give your own location and the location of the altercation, and request medical assistance for yourself and your assailant, if needed. Try to give only the necessary information. (“I need an ambulance” is good; “I done killed some hombre and I liked it!” is not so good.)
- When the police arrive, identify yourself. If you used a weapon and still have it on you, tell them so in non-threatening manner. Do not be alarmed if they handcuff you. Cooperate but tell the police only those facts that are necessary for them to know immediately (e.g., point out injuries, witnesses, etc.). To be safe, say nothing more at all; you are under a great deal of stress and the adrenaline is pumping, which may lead you to say things you do not mean. Explain this to the police and tell them that you will not make a statement or answer questions until your attorney is present. (Here is an outstanding and compelling run-down of the reasons why not to talk to the police, whether innocent or guilty, presented by an attorney and an active-duty officer.) Do not apologize or verbally express remorse for what happened; remember, your actions were justified.
- When the paramedics arrive, seek treatment whether you are aware of any injuries or not. You may be wounded and not realize it, and shock is a danger regardless.
- If you have a criminal attorney, call him/her as soon as possible. If he can meet you at the scene, have him do so; give him the details and have him relay them to the police.
Obviously, this step requires that you already have an attorney, and you should; if you have any kind of high-risk lifestyle, you should consider keeping an attorney on retainer, which will facilitate bringing him to the police station at 1:00 in the morning. At the least, you should know a good attorney you can call—which means getting recommendations from within the legal field, not looking through the phone book. And the one you pick should be someone not only versed in criminal law and self-defense cases, but someone who is able and ready to defend an innocent person—a matter that is a world apart from defending a guilty one.
The Second Amendment Foundation keeps a referral list of lawyers who specialize in firearms cases.
Continue to politely but firmly decline to answer police questions until your attorney is present. Do not speak to the media under any circumstances.