If you shoot someone in self-defense are you better off (from a legal standpoint) to kill the person rather than wound them?

I was reading the comments section of a Reddit thread and came across this string of responses where a very large number of people responded that if you shoot someone in self-defense you are far, far better off from legal liability or criminal punishment if the person is killed rather than wounded.

It was claimed that police will tell you this. Gun instructors will tell you this. Pretty much everyone who owns a gun seems to be in agreement. The reason being a dead person can not tell their side of the story and wrongful death lawsuits are cheaper than someone who has a lifetime disability.

They also mentioned that if you tell the police you were trying to do anything short of kill the other person you are instantly in trouble because the only acceptable reason (legally) to shoot someone is when you are in fear for your or another person’s life and the only way to stop that was to kill the other person. Anything less than an attempt to kill the other person is a legal admission that you could not have been that afraid to try to attempt a wounding shot rather than an easier shot to kill.

Is this how it really works in the US?

IANAL but I heard that anecdotally it often works out this way.

This is not a legal doctrine I’ve ever heard of. You’re theoretically supposed to use the minimal amount of force that you reasonably feel is necessary to defend yourself. If you feel confident that you can shoot a person threatening you in the leg and that wound would stop him than you’re fully justified in aiming for his leg.

The general rule of thumb about shooting in self defense has nothing to do with the legality of it. There are several reasons why “shooting to wound” is a bad idea.

  • It’s hard to shoot someone, especially when you are panicked and things are moving very quickly. Aiming for the leg or whatever tremendously increases the odds that you’ll miss entirely, and now the person who was already a threat to your life is even more enraged and motivated.

  • Gunshots are funny things. A person with a bullet in their leg may well still be capable of hurting you. If you are confident they are trying to kill you, you need to stop them. This means aiming center mass.

  • People get killed by their own guns a lot. Once you introduce a gun into the situation, you have escalated it. You need to de-escalate it immediately.

  • Don’t lie to yourself about what’s happening. If your life is in danger, shoot to kill. If it isn’t, don’t show a gun. There’s no in-between.

Another factor is you can’t assume that shooting a person in the leg is different than shooting to kill. Plenty of people die from being shot in an extremity. If you’re not in a situation where you’re justified in killing somebody then you shouldn’t shoot them. Don’t tell yourself that you’re “only” going to wound them.

Some Chinese drivers have the same philosophy about car accidents: it’s better to make sure you killed a pedestrian rather than leaving them alive.

If you kill him then he doesn’t get to tell his side of the story in court.

That’s a horrifying article.

Back when I had a handgun and a concealed carry permit (I’ve since sold the gun and allowed my CC to expire), I had some lessons by a cop. He stressed that I should shoot at the center of mass and I should pull the trigger until I’m empty, then use my speed loader.

The idea was, I should only be using the gun if I had fear of bodily harm, and the reasonable response was to shoot until the potential for harm was gone.

If someone is threatening to, say, pepper spray you or punch you in the face, I don’t think you’d ever be (legally) justified in shooting them, be it center of mass or in the leg. My understanding has always been that since discharging a firearm is considered lethal force, therefore, shooting them is, by definition, attempting to kill them (because you’re using lethal force). Maybe this is from watching too much TV (including Live PD), but I feel like often times when people are arrested for shooting at/near someone, the initial thing they’re charged with is often attempted murder.

I don’t see this as a bad thing either. There’s enough people already casually carrying guns around, I prefer if they didn’t feel they could use them to shoot people in the leg (or even to fire a warning shot) on the idea that if they’re legally held accountable for it, they’d be charged with something like assault.

If someone shoots, I really hope it was because that someone I presented myself in such a way that they truly felt like I was about to kill them and they had no other options.

This discussion, and the fact that I don’t think most people could pull the trigger if they needed to and even if they could, could they under duress, get their gun out, make sure it’s ready, aim and hit the person, is why I’ve often suggested that most people are probably better off carrying pepper spray. At least then if you’re wrong, you’re not looking at years in jail and the person will be fine in a few hours.

Agreed. That’s one thing I remember from my CCW class. You shoot until the threat is gone, and you’re not a doctor so you shoot until the magazine is empty. It also makes questions from the police (uh, why’d you shoot him 16 times?) easier to answer. There’s no judgement calls (that’s when I ran out of bullets).

Then it’s a jail you’ll be a going. Pretty sure emptying a 16 round magazine would be considered “excessive force”.

That depends. I believe in states with “stand your ground” laws, you are allowed to use lethal force in such circumstances. Plus someone could easily take your gun and use it against you after immobilizing you with pepper spray or a fist pummeling.

IANAL, but I’d like to see the law that says an armed person is required to take a face full of pepper spray or endure a beat down.


Prosecutor: “So can you tell me and the jury again why you approached the victim, who was lying lifeless on the ground, and proceeded to stand over him and shoot him another 6 times?”

Defendant: “Uh, I had more bullets?”

“I was scared, he was trying to kill me, all I could think about was protecting my family”.

The scenario here generally isn’t a bar fight. It’s waking up with a stranger in your home, robbing your store, mugging you on the street.

No. If your life is in danger, your goal is to stop the threat. Any death is incidental.

In a self defense situation, never use the word kill, e.g. “I felt my life was in danger, so I used my gun to kill him.” It will not look good for you in court. Instead say, “I felt my life was in danger, so I used my gun to stop him.”

If using a gun in a self defense situation, you keep shooting until the threat is gone. Once the threat is gone, you stop shooting.

If you empty a 16 round magazine into a bad guy, the prosecutor will have to prove the threat could have been neutralized with less rounds. I’m not sure how successful that would be.

You are talking law, I am talking morality. If you think shooting to wound might be “enough”, your life isn’t really in danger. If your life really is in danger, you shouldn’t fuck around. It just makes it more likely you’ll get killed.

I am a bleeding heart snowflake liberal. The myth that “shooting to wound” is a plausible option is extremely common in my circles, and i find it really foolish. I blame Hollywood.

(bolding mine)

Jerome Ersland found out that’s not the case.

Is that the guy who ran out of his store to chase and shoot a fleeing man in the back?

The question in the OP is less about the wisdom of trying to merely wound someone rather than kill them in a situation where you need to shoot to defend yourself.

It is more about the notion expressed by so many in the thread I linked that if you shoot someone in self defense and don’t kill them (but you have managed to stop them) that you are better off killing them rather than letting the police arrive to arrest the wounded person (assume it’s just the two of you, no other witnesses when the shooting occurs).

I think everyone would say that is immoral but it also seems that many would say making sure the other person is dead is preferable from a future legal problems for you standpoint.

I think you are thinking of Joe Horn in Texas (and he shot two guys in the back and neither was robbing his house).