I have been a police officer for eleven years, with assignments in patrol, SWAT, undercover operations, and as a use of force and firearms instructor, I'm often asked by gun owners one question. The questions usually goes something like, “When can I legally shoot someone?” Or, “Can I shoot somebody if they do this?” Because I am prepping myself, I also talk with those who are preparing for the collapse of society. They generally don't ask those questions. With the possibility of no law enforcement or court system to worry about, they believe they can shoot anyone who, in anyway, is a threat to their survival. But it seems whether we are talking about everyday encounters with criminals, or preparing for a world without order, everyone is very focused on the “can I shoot” question. Which I believe is the wrong question.
While current laws may restrict people's rights in regards to weapons, it almost always allows you to respond with lethal force, to protect a life. Even if you live in an area where the law says you cannot protect yourself, if necessary, you will protect yourself anyway. Making the question of what the law says you can do irrelevant. If you can articulate that a reasonable person would feel threatened with serious injury or death, the law allows you to shoot. It is important to know what the law says you can do. But when you are faced with a potential lethal threat you will not be asking yourself, “Can I shoot him?”
If I would have fired every time I could articulate that I felt my life was in danger, I would have shot dozens of innocent people. Many were home owners holding weapons. Some were concealing their hands, or reaching inside pockets at the wrong moment. The list would also include a person who I later confirmed was an off duty officer who pointed a gun at me while I was also off duty, and trying to come to his aid. We are both lucky I recognized a police control tactic he applied on a suspect a few moments earlier. Otherwise I would have drawn and fired. In the real world you will not be shooting at gray silhouette targets. There is a lot more going on that you have to pay attention to and process. You know you can shoot, but you will generally not shoot. Not until you can answer the real question, which is, “Should I shoot?” This question comes into play if there is any confusion about what is happening. Because of the fog of war, there is often a lot of confusion. Nobody wants to shoot the wrong person, so the fact that you automatically ask yourself this question is a good thing.
There are a lot of people out there who aren't trying to victimize anyone, but who do really stupid things that could get them shot. They aren't thinking about how their actions could make other people feel at risk. While not commonly dealt with by concealed carry holders now, I think if society collapsed, these situations would be very common. There could be a great number of people moving about openly armed, mistrusting, defensive and jumpy. A lot of good people would adopt a very aggressive security posture, making contact a very delicate situation. In this environment it would take a cool head to avoid unnecessary shootings.
Of course it is also possible the threat will be so obvious and apparent that you will not ask, “should I shoot?” If I was being shot at, stabbed with a knife, or stomped by an angry mob, I wouldn't ask myself, “Should I?” But neither would I ask, “Can I shoot?” These are situations where your mind screams, “I NEED TO SHOOT NOW!” There isn't a lot of thinking involved. Military and Law Enforcement do a lot of training so a conditioned response kicks in and you just draw and fire, without thinking. But other than those obvious situations, pulling the trigger is not something you want to happen without making a conscious decision to do so.
People are naturally afraid of acting too late, so many say, “I'm going to shoot first and ask questions later.” If you think this is good advice think again. I know an officer who had his thumb shot off when he rounded a corner of a residence during a call. The person who shot him was another officer who thought he was shooting the bad guy, even though the officer was wearing a police uniform. Lucky for the officer, after taking off his thumb, the shotgun round struck his M4 rifle which kept the round from penetrating into his body. Shooting first and asking questions later will likely end with you shooting the wrong person. People with this mentality either have a total lack of regard for human life or are unable to control their fear. Also keep in mind, even if society has collapsed, you will have to explain your actions to somebody. It may be the law, your local community, survival group, family members or simply yourself. Your decision doesn't have to be right or perfect, but it should be reasonable and not careless.
It should be obvious we need to make good shoot and no shoot decisions. I hope at this point you understand that often it involves more than just knowing when we can shoot. Knowing all of this, how do we answer the question of, “Should I shoot?” From my experience once someone has determined where they morally stand on taking a human life, they understand the law, or their survival group's rules of engagement, and have trained to be confident and capable of employing weapons and tactics, there are a few things that can assist you with deciding if you should shoot.
The first thing to do is minimize confusion by gaining better situational awareness. Knowing someone out there might try to hurt you is some level of situational awareness. But with shortwave, scanners, CBs, Ham radio, patrols, word of mouth and a number of other methods you can obtain a much deeper level of situational awareness. With these tools it is possible to know what the bad guys look like, where they were last seen, what vehicles they have, and how they carry out operations. With this information not only can you attempt to avoid problems, you will be more likely to recognize known bad guys and be mentally ready to engage if appropriate.
Here is another example of how situational awareness speeds up the shoot or no shoot decision process. Imagine a scenario where you hear a gunshot in the distance, thirty seconds later you see a guy come over a hill. The man is carrying a gun, and running in your general direction. Should you shoot? It is hard to say, you really don't have enough pieces of the puzzle to know what is going on. Did he fire the shot? Was he shot at? Is he a threat to you? Now take the same scenario, but this time, after hearing a gunshot, another member of your group radios and tells you he was just shot at by a guy wearing jeans and a camouflage jacket. Then you see a guy, matching that description, come over a hill and run in your general direction with a gun. Armed with a deeper level of situational awareness you have many more pieces of the puzzle and can very quickly decide if you should shoot.
Even if you suddenly find yourself in the middle of something and you are initially confused, you can still rapidly gain a deeper level of situational awareness by quickly observing body language, facial expressions, weapon position, clothing, gear, and things they say or do, in order to determine someone's intent. He may be holding a weapon, but the look on his face, his posture and everything else about him might be submissive and non threatening. While it is conceivable someone might try to trick you by acting submissive and non-threatening, in the real world things usually are as they seem. Of course you still want to use caution in these situations, but often you will have to trust your instincts. Experience and quality training is the biggest factor in being able to size people up and make quick but accurate decisions about what is going on.
If you still can't figure out whether you should shoot, the trick is to establish lines in the sand. Basically you are saying, “If he does this, I will shoot.” An example on how to use this would be a situation where you see a stranger on your property, who is walking casually towards you. You notice he is carrying a machete low by his side. Although you might possibly feel at risk of being attacked, you really don't know if he intends to hurt you at all. You raise your weapon to a low ready position, and yell, “Stop! Stay Back!” You then draw a mental line in the sand and tell yourself, “If he raises the machete, or takes one more step towards me, I will shoot him.” Lines in the sand greatly assist you in making quality, quick shoot decisions, that allow you to articulate your actions. Just realize that situations are dynamic and always changing. For instance the guy with the machete may not do either, but might instead start walking in another direction, towards other innocent people. This would require you to quickly adjust to his unexpected actions and make another line in the sand decision. Real situations are complicated, but drawing lines in the sand will help you decide if you should shoot.
Sometimes you just can not decided if the situation warrants lethal force, or the situation hasn't quite reached the point where you believe you should shoot. Yet you know you need to do something. In these situations don't just stand there, start moving.
Creating distance and seeking cover is something you should do in almost every high stress confrontation. Unlike pulling the trigger, which usually requires a conscious decision, moving to cover should be trained so it is a conditioned, automatic response. If while moving you decide you should shoot, then engage on the move, stop and shoot, or get to cover before firing. It is usually a lot easier to figure out what is going on, if you are not right in the middle of it. If the shooting starts, or you identify a valid threat, you are in a much better position with cover and distance. Often just by getting out of the immediate area changes the situation so that no lethal decision needs to be made.
Family members and other survival group members need to learn to key off of your actions. If you move to cover or drop to the ground to create a low profile, your family and other survival group members should know to do likewise, without any further direction. While it is good to verbally communicate, you shouldn't need to say anything, they should learn to watch and match your actions.
Communicating is a great option when it is not yet time to pull the trigger, or you can not figure out if you should pull the trigger. Communicating is best done from a position of distance and cover. Communicating with a person who is a potential threat is a great way to recon and obtain insight about his intent. In the above scenario with the stranger holding the machete, by saying, “Stop. Stay back!” you are communicating to the person that you see him as a threat. Your weapon position, stance, commanding voice, and the fact you moved to cover, tells him you mean business and are willing and able to defend yourself. Upon seeing that, I guarantee he will start communicating with you, letting you know if he is a threat or not.
While we are talking about communicating it is imperative that you don't communicate the wrong message to him. Unless you are convinced the situation will end with shots fired, don't point your weapon directly at the person. If he sees this, he will likely feel in great fear for his life, and might easily feel that he has no choice but to shoot. I know everyone wants to gain every advantage they can, but muzzle sweeping someone you are not ready to shoot only obscures your view of their hands, and really amps up the situation.
Communicating also involves communicating with family or other members of your group. Family members need to learn to respond to simple commands that you may give in these moments. A simple command like, “Bug out” should be all they need to hear. They should run, with or without you, without any questions. Communicating with other group members to alert everyone to something you see, or to obtain backup, is also very important. The bottom line is if you are not shooting, move and communicate.
The preceding information has greatly assisted me in making these very critical and important decisions numerous times. I hope you find it useful. By all means if a bad man threatens your life, and you have the means, snatch his soul. But lets not let our trigger fingers get in front of our good sense. Be safe, and God bless.