Why We Do Not Shoot to Kill

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Staff member
Aug 13, 2008
Some recent discussions among public figures and media pundits have revolved around such topics as "shooting to wound" vs "shooting to kill".

Some people apparently assume the former to be do-able, and believe the latter to be permitted and routine in law enforcement.

We do not want to debate the debaters, but it might be a good idea to review the concepts here.

First, "shooting to wound", which is an unrealistic concept that comes from screen fiction, is not a viable strategy for self defense, either for law enforcement officers or for civilians. There is no practical way to reasonably ensure that a person who has been shot with a firearm will not die from his wounds.

We are not speaking here of "less lethal" force options--more on that later.

Also, any tactics that might decrease the likelihood of a fatality would, by necessity, slow the defender's reaction and render the defense ineffective. That would increase the likelihood of the defender becoming a victim. Criminal attacks happen far too quickly to introduce additional steps or assurances.

Second, it must be clearly understood that not "shooting to wound" is not tantamount to "shooting to kill". The objective of the defender is to prevent an attacker from successfully pressing his attack--not to kill. In some instances, deadly force is necessary and is lawfully justified.

Deadly force is defined as force that is known to create a significant risk that the person against whom it is used may be seriously injured--and may die.

The death of the assailant is never the goal in lawful self defense or in law enforcement, even though the appropriate use of lethal force very well might result in his death. The justifiable use of lethal force to achieve the lawful purpose of stopping a wrongful attack is distinguishable from unjustifiable use of force with the actual intention of taking a human life. But while the wounded person may die, the lawful objective is not to kill intentionally, even when deadly force is justified.

The defender, and that includes a sworn officer enforcing the law, must use no more force than he reasonably believes necessary to achieve his lawful objective. Once an attacker is no longer capable of continuing his attack, or if he has surrendered or started to flee, the continued deliberate use of deadly force is not justified.

One last thing: it should be clearly understood that knowingly and willfully taking the life of a suspect or criminal is lawful only when it is carried out to execute a lawfully imposed death penalty, after the condemned person has received due process.

We mentioned "less lethal force options". Law enforcement officers carry and routinely use batons, TASERS, and chemical sprays to enforce compliance when deadly force is not justified; rubber bullets are often used to deter crowd violence. Civilians sometimes carry pepper spray, canes, etc., to deter attacks that do not rise to the level of danger that would justify deadly force. None of these are effective substitutes for deadly force, and they cannot be relied upon to defend against an imminent threat of death or serious bodily harm.

These are sometimes referred to as "less than lethal and even as "non lethal" weapons. It should be realized, however, that their use can, and sometimes does, result in death, though unintended. Should a death from one of these weapons result when the instrument was properly used, the legal implications of the death will likely differ from what would take place had deadly force been used

Despite what some people may have been led to believe by media sources and screen fiction, deadly force is always a last resort.

We hope that the foregoing clarifies what seems to have become a confusing subject.

Feel free to use it to help in you discussions with those by whom the subject is not well understood.

One other thing:

Wanting to take a life or actually taking a life is never a good thing for a modern society. Expressing a desire to take a life is not is acceptable philosophically for most law enforcement or self-defense circumstances. Expressing such a desire in a discoverable way, such as in utterances to others or through letters, memoranda, or social media, may help bring about a decision to prosecute, and it may well be brought up as very damaging evidence in a trial or civil action.

This note was prepared by the THR Staff, working in collaboration.
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