If you're really going to buy a gun (or, indeed, take any serious steps) for the purposes of self-defense, you need to do better than dogma. I recently ran across an interview that should be required reading for anyone with even a passing interest on the subject:
The entire interview is well worth reading; here are a few particularly interesting tidbits (Harris is the blogger hosting the conversation; Levine is the lawyer; Thornton is the martial artist; Miller is the cop/guard/author. Underlining has been added for emphasis). The punch line here: if you want to talk in public about guns, or self-defense, or violence, you owe it to yourself and the rest of us to understand reality. Let's stop babbling about Hollywood fantasies and bumper-sticker platitudes about Good Guys and Bad Guys.
Sam Harris: One sometimes hears horror stories about people who engaged in seemingly necessary acts of self-defense and yet were zealously prosecuted and landed in prison. What is the worst that can happen?
Steven Levine: The worst that can happen is that you go to prison for the rest of your life, especially if you kill somebody. In California, even if you have a valid self-defense claim, the DA’s office will typically still file charges on you. I recently had a client, a 50-year-old nurse, who was in her own home when her ex-boyfriend (for 26 years) came over. He’d moved out 7 months earlier. There was a small history of domestic violence. But in fact, he had recently assaulted their 22-year-old daughter by head-butting her. While they were discussing things downstairs in the living room, he picked up a sledgehammer. She grew worried, told him to leave, and retreated upstairs. He put down the hammer but followed her upstairs and told her he did not have to leave. Once upstairs, he was yelling at her. Finally, she grabbed her gun. She’s a cancer survivor. She’s had a double mastectomy. She’s half his size, and she told him to leave. He went for the gun, and she shot him. The bullet went through his rib cage and he died. She tried to save him by doing CPR.
The jury convicted her of murder despite the fact that she said that she was scared for her life.
Steven Levine: The real issue is using force on another person. And I’m telling you, most people do not succeed with self-defense claims in California.
Sam Harris: I suspect that most martial artists and gun owners will find that a pretty startling statement.
Steven Levine: The way to prevail with a claim of self-defense is to have it accepted prior to filing, because once the DA’s office is invested in your case, they’re just not going to let it go. It’s at the pre-filing stage where you need for them to say, “I’m not filing this; that was just self-defense.” If they think it’s something more, then you’re going into the system.
Matt Thornton: The fact that most self-defense claims don’t succeed doesn’t strike me as that surprising when you consider that most victims know their assailants—and much of this violence occurs in the home.
Rory Miller: In my experience, most of the people who claimed self-defense had been involved in a mutual fight and were rationalizing it as self-defense.
Matt Thornton: Sam noted that for a self-defense claim to be valid, the other person must have the means, opportunity, and intent (I’ve also seen this covered under the rubric of “jeopardy”) to harm you. But there is a fourth requirement that one often encounters:preclusion. This is the idea that force has to be the only available option (i.e., all peaceful means of escaping danger were “precluded”). My guess is that many self-defense cases fail because the victims are unable to show preclusion. I also suspect that the proliferation of “stand your ground” laws affects this fourth criterion. Can you say something about this and about whether you think such laws are a good idea?
Steven Levine: Well, like Florida, a person being threatened in California has no duty to retreat and can stand and fight. I was amused when I read so much criticism of the Florida Stand Your Ground Law when we have that here, albeit not in a statute, but as part of the common law. Just don’t be the initial aggressor here, because then stand your ground is not available.
Steven Levine: GBI [Great Bodily Injury] in California is particularly broad: For example, a cut lip can be GBI, a broken bone of any kind, a bruise under the eye, and DAs have no qualms about alleging what to common sense seems like a minor injury as GBI. But the basic fact is that if you cause serious injury to your assailant in the course of defending yourself—if you stab or shoot him, for instance—your actions are going to be heavily scrutinized, and the DAs will err on the side of caution. This means that they will at least file the case, and you are going to find yourself hiring a lawyer.
Matt Thornton: One point I’d like to make in this context is that the best defense against violence is always your own mind. People tend to overlook this because it sounds like an empty platitude, but it’s true. Some people acquire the maturity and understanding to avoid violence early on, but these days—and this is obviously a good thing—most of us go our whole lives without encountering violence, so we need to be taught what to look for. We also need to be willing to see it, and we need to know how to manage our distance from it.
From the victim’s perspective, an attack may seem to have occurred suddenly, but we know that in most cases it was anything but sudden.
Steven Levine: If you’re actually in a fight, and you’re scared, and you think you’re about to suffer great bodily injury, then you have the right to defend yourself with deadly force. But the major criteria are: Did they start the fight? Is the fight actually happening? I mean, we have all seen the movies where the bad guys pick on the person who they think is the easy mark, and to the audience’s delight, he kicks all their asses. Well, in real life, if you are being attacked, you can kick ass, but if you pull out a gun and start shooting, you will have problems explaining the reasonableness of your conduct. If you pull out a knife and stab three guys to death, that also presents problems.
Matt Thornton: I am certainly not suggesting one shouldn’t learn to use a weapon. To the contrary, I am saying that every weapon comes with a great responsibility, not just when it is used, but also in the ongoing training needed to remain competent in its use. For a civilian, carrying a knife or gun dramatically increases the danger posed should he find himself in a fight—especially if he has to grapple on the ground. This is, in part, due to the fact that it will always increase, rather than decrease, the stakes (as in the example I offered above). Because of this, a weapon should make one less likely, rather than more likely, to engage in any conflict; but it takes a certain level of maturity to realize that (the lack of which was on display in the Zimmerman case). I realize some self-defense experts claim that every physical conflict is a potentially lethal situation, but what I don’t think many grasp is that the addition of weapons into the situation almost guarantees that is so. Some might ask, but what if the attacker has a knife? The question assumes that a rational response to such a situation might be to pull out my own and engage in a knife fight.