Deadly Force And The Law: When Can You Use It? By: Jim Davis


Laws on Deadly Force vary from state to state. It’s supremely important to know the laws in your particular state on the justified use of Deadly Force. You need to know the rules of engagement in the event you’re ever faced with a serious situation.

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As an example, today we are going to cover the laws for my particular state. as an example. This does not mean your state’s laws are the same! As well, this is not to be construed as legal advice. The spirit of this article is to spur you to do your own research because that is how you will know for certain what you can and cannot do.

For my information, I consulted Section 505 of Title 18 of my state’s Crimes Code.

I will also be up front that I am not a lawyer, nor do I play one on television. Again, this is not legal advice!

Deadly Force — What Is It?

What constitutes deadly force? In my state, it is: That force which would reasonably be expected to cause serious bodily injury or death.

Seems a little vague, doesn’t it?

Police vehicles at a crime scene at night.
Those who work in law enforcement constantly have the Use of Force policy drummed into their heads. They have to be intimately familiar with the Force Continuum. And despite that, they still sometimes are not sure what level of force to use.

The agency I worked for specified that Deadly Force could only be used if a lesser degree of force would not be sufficient. I think, for average citizens, that’s also a good policy.

In which instances can Deadly Force be used?

This is where it can get sticky. According to my state laws, one can use Deadly Force in the following instances:

  • To Prevent Kidnapping of myself or another.
  • To prevent serious bodily injury or death of myself or another.
  • To prevent sexual intercourse compelled by force or threat of myself or another.

Then it goes into dwellings and places of employment, and that’s where you really have to be able to discern the legalese double-speak that statutes are known for.

It appears that in my state, I have no duty to retreat from my dwelling, so I can defend my house without retreating. The same with my place of work, except if the aggressor also works there, and assuming that I am not the initial aggressor. Personally, unless I actually owned the business, I would not defend another person’s business.

A woman defends her home with a shotgun.
Many states have what is called the Castle Doctrine, where a homeowner does not have a duty to retreat from their home. (Photo: HomeDefShotguns)

Apparently, I can also use Deadly Force anywhere I happen to be if the aggressor displays a firearm or what appears to be a firearm or other deadly instrument, and I deem that such force needs to be immediately applied in order to prevent death or serious bodily injury to me. If these do not exist, or if I am able to, I need to retreat rather than use Deadly Force. Personally, I’d prefer to retreat if at all possible, rather than kill someone.

I boiled down a good portion of what I read in the Crimes Code and listed it above. However, I will confess that the way the statutes are written, I was confused on some points as far as if I could use force to protect my business, and exactly how far I could go to protect the business. It appeared that, as long as I had a right to be there, and as long as someone was breaking the law and/or trying to kill me, that I had no duty to retreat and could use Deadly Force as necessary.

That’s where things can get hairy, because once you’re making a statement to the police (you may want to lawyer up at that point) and subsequently get into court, they are going to dissect the law and your actions with a fine tooth comb. Decisions that you made in split seconds will be scrutinized at length.

Three Criteria

As it was explained to me during a couple of shooting schools that I attended in which legalities were covered somewhat in-depth, three criteria have to be met to justify the use of force. 

They are Means, Motive, and Opportunity. If any one of these is not present, we cannot use force because a threat does not exist. Look at it like a tripod—if any leg is missing, it falls over.

Man swings bat at police officer.
Here, a baseball-bat-wielding aggressor attacks a police officer. We can see it from the officer’s viewpoint via his body cam. This individual is displaying the Means, Motive, and Opportunity to employ Deadly Force. (Photo: El Cajon Police Department)


The aggressor must have a means with which to attack you. This could be interpreted as them needing to have a weapon or some sort of means of causing you harm. A gun, knife, striking object such as a bat, crowbar, hammer, or a vehicle—something that could harm you.

If they have no means with which to harm you, then this criterion is not met.

Are hands and feet considered a means? It all depends on how it plays out in court. If a 5’3″ tall woman who weighs 105 pounds is threatened by a man who is 6’5″ and weighs 275, there is a clear-cut Disparity of Force. He could annihilate the woman. In such an instance, the woman might make a case for using force based on that disparity, depending on the aggressor’s demeanor.

A large man attacks a police officer.
A female police officer is being attacked by a large male aggressor in this photo. If he overpowers her, he can access her weapons. (Photo: NBC News)

On the flip side, if you see a guy walking down the sidewalk carrying a baseball bat (which can be a deadly weapon), you can’t simply shoot him because he does not have the motive to kill you. In short, he has no visible intentions to harm you. Not all elements are present, and so the tripod is not complete.

There are a million other factors and rabbit holes that we could travel down, but this is a basic article and I’m not a lawyer.


The aggressor must have a motive, i.e., a reason to attack you. They must be visibly willing to commit mayhem upon you in order for you to act.

An enraged, screaming man.
Does this guy appear to have a Motive to harm you? He certainly seems enraged. (Photo: Rehab and Community Care Magazine)

Motive alone is not sufficient to use force. Let’s say your nemesis, Mr. Nasty, sees you walking down the sidewalk and yells at you, “Next time I see you, I’m going to blow you away with my hunting rifle!”

That’s certainly a threat and you should report it to the authorities. If he tries to make good on that threat at a later date, at least you will have a paper trail and hopefully a police report to establish that you feared for your life. That might help you in court later on.

However, just because Mr. Nasty makes a threat does not mean you can pull out your piece and take him out right there on the sidewalk. He did not have the Means nor an Opportunity to kill you, so the law will say that there was not a credible threat to your safety at that moment.


The final part of the tripod is Opportunity. The aggressor must have sufficient Opportunity to utilize his Means and Motive.

Hypothetically, let’s say you’re in a room with Mr. Nasty, and the two of you are separated by bars running across the room that prevent him from attacking you. He’s enraged and armed with a baseball bat that he would clearly love to use to cave your head in. However, those bars are protecting you, so he has no Opportunity. You cannot draw your pistol and shoot him because you are currently safe.

Rioters attack police and EMS personnel.
Mob and riot scenarios often create an opportunity for people to attack. (Photo: Getty Images)

Applying the Criteria — A Scenario

Let’s say you’re at your favorite deli and Mr. Nasty walks in and declares that you’re in his seat. You advised him that his name isn’t on the seat and that you have a right to be there.

“I’ll be back in five minutes with my shotgun, and if you’re still in that seat, I’m going to blow you right out of it!” He walks out the door.

You continue sitting, on the premise that you have every right to be there. You’re legally armed and are confident that if there’s any trouble, you’ll use force successfully. As a matter of fact, you can see the door where he’ll have to come through and you’ll have the drop on him.

He walks through the door with a shotgun and you blast him.

Are you in trouble? You betcha!

Why? Because you had the opportunity to leave and prevent the entire situation. Witnesses will come out of the woodwork and state exactly that, too. Believe me.

Is it worth going to court for it, even if you happened to win?

Is there another option?

Having worked in the prison system for my entire adult life, I will tell you this: if there is any other option to using Deadly Force (or really—any force at all), take it.

If there is a way to avoid physical conflict, take it! Generally, Deadly Force is only authorized if a lesser degree of force will not suffice.

Now, if an armed person kicks in the front door of my house and appears that they’re going to kill me, then I need to take immediate action. If I can convince them to leave without shooting them, I will do that.

An armed man in a home.
Sometimes, when faced with a deadly threat, you just have to do what you have to do. (Photo: Getty Images)

With that said, and I can’t emphasize this enough, it’s in your best interest to try everything you can to avoid using your gun if you’re out and about. And even if you’re at home, still try to avoid it.

The System

I’ve written about The System in other articles, but this one absolutely requires a quick mention of it.

A court room.
You want to try to avoid being here—in the courtroom. (Photo: World Architects and Engineers)

If you become involved in the Criminal Justice (Just-Us) System, you are in for a miserable experience. I absolutely promise you that.

For nearly 29 years, I worked in my state’s prison system and I saw a lot of terrible things. Reading case files and criminal reports was a part of my job for years. I saw many men that I really didn’t think belonged in prison because of the circumstances they were caught up in. However, it wasn’t my call to make.

They’d gone through the meat grinder of the Court System—after, of course, they had acted and been arrested. And if you use Deadly Force, you may very well be arrested too, regardless of how “right” you know you are.

You’ll need a lawyer if that happens, and they do not work cheaply.

You’ll wait for trial in county prison (you may be allowed out on bail, but can you raise the money?) for over a year. Are you prepared for that?

view of a prison cell
This is a place you REALLY do not want to find yourself—in a cell on a cell block!

Prison is a horrific place to be. Think about it before you utter that famous phrase, “I’d rather be tried by twelve than carried by six.” That sounds great, but let me tell you, prison is not the place where you want to end up.

You literally cannot imagine how horrific of a place prison is, it will surpass your worst nightmare. Watch the Shawshank Redemption—that movie comes so damn close to reality, it is scary. Sure, there are parts that Hollywood took liberties with. However, the core of that movie is incredibly realistic.

In Conclusion

As I often say, the intention of this article is to get your investigative juices flowing. Check out your state’s laws in their Crimes Code. Read articles. Talk to law enforcement and/or folks in the legal system if you’re able.

Not knowing your state’s laws can cause hesitation in the event you are ever in a Deadly Force situation, and that can be worse than being caught unarmed.

Literally, a few minutes of research can clear up many misconceptions and bring things into stark clarity for you.