In Krav Maga training, practicing handgun and other firearm disarms is as commonplace as a boxer practicing punches on the heavy bag.
And we do this for a good reason: in our context, almost every criminal threat is accompanied by the use of a firearm or a knife to coerce or injure the victim. In addition, a good percentage of our students choose to carry a firearm for the purpose of adding to their ability to lawfully defend themselves.
So, one of the most common questions we get asked, both in classes and workshops as well as by our online students, is: WHEN AM I ALLOWED TO SHOOT IN SELF DEFENSE?
So, here are some answers!
PLEASE NOTE: The information contained in this article is specific to South Africa and the laws governing handgun use. If you're a student from another country or region, please ensure that you abide by the laws applicable to your specific location. Oh - and please bear in mind that the information provided below is not qualified legal advice; it's simply a general guideline.
When learning about the concept of disarming a criminal, many people want to know what their rights are in terms of using a weapon they have just taken away from the bad guy - because they may have to!
As with everything related to intelligent self defense, the answers to this are not always simple or one-sided. But, having said that, here are some guidelines:
1 . YOU MAY ONLY USE A WEAPON IF YOU ARE IN IMMEDIATE, DIRECT DANGER OF LIFE THREATENING HARM.
If you disarm someone, and they turn to run away, you may not shoot them or attack them. If they offer no direct threat, but simply stand there, you may not shoot them or attack them. If you do, you will likely face a charge of assault and of murder in the case of lethal force being used.
The ONLY TIME you may shoot or attack with a weapon, is if you are directly, immediately, and forcibly being attacked, and if you have reason to believe that your life is in imminent danger.
If you have the option of running, placing a barrier between you and the assailant, or using other means to avoid injury, you must be able to prove that you used these before shooting as a last resort. Sometimes, these are split-second decisions, and it's better to think about them in training, long before they might happen!
“Imminent danger” is commonly defined as an attack distance of around 2 meters, with a direct and obvious immediate threat to your life should the attack reach you. So, for example, you are not allowed to shoot someone standing in your garden, even if they have a firearm their hand.
2 . THE FORCE YOU USE HAS TO BE IN PROPORTION TO THE THREAT.
If you’ve disarmed a criminal, and he runs toward you shouting “I will kill you!” and he is large and aggressive, you may (depending on circumstance) be justified in shooting him to save your life. However, shooting him, and then pulling off another 6 shots into his back while he’s lying on the floor, will get you jailed for murder. The rule is: when the threat stops, you stop. (Of course, you still scan for other attackers, make sure the area is clear, etc, and call for help.)
If a court determines that you could have reasonably restrained the attacker by other means (for example, if you are a very large male and he is a short, skinny teenager), then you could still be in trouble for shooting him when you might have been able to stop him by other means. However, if roles are reversed, and you are a woman faced with a large, aggressive man, it would be unreasonable to expect you to wrestle him into submission, and so you would (in most cases) be more justified in using a weapon to defend yourself.
3 . THE LEGAL DEFINITION OF SELF DEFENSE.
Under South African law, the term “personal defence” is used as a blanket phrase which describes the act of using (usually) physical force to protect yourself, or a third party, from imminent assault, or an assault that is in progress. This applies chiefly to the preservation of life and limb – it does not allow you to assault somebody if they kick your car, for example, or if they utter a threat, or if they are in a place where there is a barrier between you which could prevent an assault from taking place.
Remember: under South African law, you MAY NOT shoot or attack someone in order to defend property or possessions. At all. And I know, it seems unfair, but there it is.
And, once again, context is everything. The “test of the reasonable person” is often used as a legal yardstick for determining whether claim to self defense was legitimate – in other words: would a normal, reasonable person see your actions as justified, when emotion and bias are removed from the picture?
This is highly subjective, which makes a legal defense quite complicated. There are legal absolutes, but there are fewer situational absolutes, and plenty of grey areas.
The common advice given is this: always err on the side of caution (do not use excessive force), but do not hesitate or hold back to the extent that you endanger your life or safety by doing so.
4 . CONTEXT IS EVERYTHING.
An example of context:
If a gang of home invaders has (heaven forbid) broken into your home, badly hurt your spouse, and are preparing to torture you, and you then disarm one of the criminals – you do not need to hesitate unnecessarily. In such a case, as an assault is already in progress, you are justified in fighting back immediately without hesitation.
On the other hand, if someone has held you up at gunpoint, demanding your phone, and you then disarm them, you may not shoot or use force beyond that point, unless they actually attack you. This is why (in such a case) it is vitally important to issue a strong verbal instruction: “Get BACK! Get DOWN!” so that there is no mistake regarding your desire to stop the bad guy without just resorting to further violence automatically. If there are witnesses, this also helps you legally, as they can testify that your desire was to disengage and get to safety, not to attack any further.
5 . USING FORCE (ESPECIALLY LETHAL FORCE) IS A LAST RESORT.
If you can run, then run. If you can slam a door, slam the door. If you can disarm a gunman and then act in a way that enables you to escape or to put a barrier between you and him, this is the best course of action to take.
Only when you have NO OTHER CHOICE may you choose to shoot, and that also carries consequences, as you will usually have to prove that it was necessary to do so.
6 . BE AWARE OF INNOCENT BYSTANDERS AT ALL TIMES.
If you fire a shot at a bad guy who is attacking you, and you miss, or the bullet travels through him and injures or kills someone else who is innocent, YOU ARE LEGALLY LIABLE for that bullet until it comes to a stop.
ALWAYS be aware of who else is present in a crime situation. If you absolutely have to shoot, be absolutely aware of your target, and what lies beyond it. This is a serious responsibility.
7 . YOU WILL HAVE TO JUSTIFY YOUR ACTIONS IN A COURT OF LAW.
If you use a firearm that you have disarmed from a criminal, and you shoot that criminal, a case of murder (or attempted murder if he lives) WILL be opened against you. This is standard procedure, and between the state prosecutor and the defense, the magistrate hearing your case will have to decide whether you acted justifiably or not.
8 . WHAT TO DO IF SUCH A SITUATION OCCURS.
The first step is to ensure your immediate safety. Check your surroundings for other attackers, and once safe, you can then proceed. If you are not sure, you may choose to move to a safer area.
It is your duty to inform the police immediately. You may also elect to call emergency medical services to attend to the criminal, if possible, (and yourself if you are injured). We also recommend that you call your attorney as quickly as is feasible, and to allow your attorney to speak on your behalf or make arrangements to get to you as quickly as possible.
When the police arrive, describe the situation as accurately as possible, giving only the FACTS. Do not say anything that could be interpreted as aggressive, inflammatory, or angry, because statements made in the heat of the moment can be used against you later on in a court of law. We are not saying you should lie at all – tell the full truth as accurately as possible – but don’t say stupid things like “He deserved to die! He threatened to rape me, I should have shot him ten times!” – that kind of thing. Rash statements like these, often uttered under stress and shock, can be used against you. Don’t do it!
Ensure that when the police arrive, you are not standing there waving a firearm around. When they arrive, they have zero knowledge of a situation, and may see you as a threat. For this same reason, when practicing Krav Maga, always treat a training handgun as if it was real – never point it at anyone, keep your finger out of the trigger guard, and always point a firearm downward at a safe angle.
When the police arrive, comply fully with them – if they tell you to raise your hands or lie down, for example, do not argue. They will sort out the facts very quickly.
GET BASIC HANDGUN TRAINING!
If you haven’t already done so, we strongly recommend that you consider doing a simple handgun handling and safety course, under a qualified shooting instructor. This ensures confidence and sound knowledge should you ever have to use a handgun which you have disarmed from a criminal.
Elite Defence Academy International (Weapons Division) offers these courses, which are around 4 hours long, and will equip you wonderfully for such a situation. For more information, please mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org, and we'll send you information on our beginner handgun courses, which are safe, and are presented by qualified firearm instructors.
Our training is extremely professional and user-friendly, and even if you've never handled a firearm before, our introductory courses will remove any doubts, dispel any fears, take away the mystique, and give you a huge amount of confidence and genuine basic practical handgun knowledge.
ANY OTHER QUESTIONS?
If there's anything else you'd like to know, you're welcome to mail us and let us know!
If you'd like to learn a powerful, fundamental handgun disarm, take adavantage of our free Krav Maga video, which teaches you the basics of a superbly effective disarm technique.