The Judicious Use of Deadly Force

by John Boch, with Steve Davis, Esq. and Frank Wright, FBI Special Agent, retired

(Reprinted from the July 2013 issue of GunNews Magazine)

(Guns Save Life) – To use deadly force in self-defense carries with it a host of downsides and should be avoided in all but grave circumstances where innocent life is threatened with imminent death or great bodily injury.

Act by the standard by which you will be judged.  By knowing that standard, it will help you avoid criminal charges following a critical incident and should a trial subsequently occur, it will help with your acquittal where your use of force was justified.

Even if force is justified, avoiding its use is preferable to dealing with the negative aftermath of a justifiable use of force.

Here are some of the basics of the judicious use of deadly force.

Lethal Force (aka deadly force) is that degree of force that a reasonable and prudent person would consider capable of causing death or grave bodily harm.

A crippling injury is a definition of grave bodily harm.  An assailant with a gun or knife is obviously armed with a weapon capable of causing a crippling injury or worse, as is an assailant using an unconventional weapon which could cause broken bones or other disfiguring injury (a container of acid or scalding hot liquid, for example).


Deadly force is justified only when undertaken to prevent imminent and otherwise unavoidable danger of death or grave bodily harm to the innocent.

The “Reasonable Man” Doctrine will be the standard by which your actions will be measured – in other words, what would a reasonable and prudent man, knowing what you knew at the time, have done?

The threat must be immediate, and the moment the attacker legitimately tries to get away, the conflict has ended.  Do not pursue an attacker, because if the conflict begins anew in a new location, you may be seen as the aggressor to witnesses and in the eyes of the law as well.  If, however, the attacker is retreating to seek better cover to press the attack, or a better weapon, then you may still employ deadly force in self-defense.

Verbal warnings should only been issued if they can be done with complete safety to innocents.

Never use lethal force to protect property, unless the loss of said property might cause death, such as attempted arson of an occupied dwelling.

Lethal force is justified to stop a sexual assault (rape).

Retreat from a location you have a right to be at is not required in Illinois, but it surely looks good to witnesses, cops, prosecutors and jury members – and if it saves you the necessity to employ deadly force, then it’s a big win for you.  If you cannot retreat or withdraw safely, then retreat is not demanded, even in states that require you to retreat.

You have zero obligation to retreat in your home in Illinois and most other states, however a few states still require a “retreat to the wall”, even in the home.


Use of force against wily perpetrators

Ability, Opportunity and Jeopardy (AOJ)
A.O.J. must all be present for an individual to successfully claim justifiable self-defense.

Ability refers to the aggressor’s possession of some form of weapon capable of causing death or great bodily harm.  It can be anything from a toilet bowl lid to a gun, or anything else you can articulate was a weapon capable of causing great bodily injury or death.

In the case of an unarmed perpetrator(s), the question of “ability” goes to Disparity of Force.

This can be a force of numbers, (two or three against one), able-bodied vs. the disabled, male vs. female, physical size (mini vs. monster), a known trained fighter or when you are on the ground and the attacker is on their feet (the shod foot of the attacker is a deadly weapon in that instance).

Opportunity generally means the assailants must be close enough to immediately use their weapon (their ability) to inflict great bodily injury.  You cannot use your rifle to shoot a man holding a knife yelling at you from a block away, as he doesn’t have the opportunity to immediately use his knife against you.

However, a perpetrator with a knife or blunt force instrument standing roughly at 21 feet away is easily considered to be a lethal threat as they can employ their weapon before the victim has the opportunity to react.

Jeopardy refers to a reasonable belief that an assailant with ability and opportunity means to do you harm.  A policeman standing in the same room as you has the ability (gun) and opportunity (you’re within range), but without some extraordinary circumstances you will be hard-pressed to convince a judge or jury that you were in jeopardy of death or great bodily injury.


Debunking common myths:  No, you may not shoot someone through the door, plant a knife on a home intruder after shooting them or “drag them in through the window or door” if they fall outside.

Modern forensics will reveal evidence tampering and your claim of self-defense will be greatly discounted if you tamper with the scene.

For a more thorough understanding of the judicious use of deadly force, we *strongly* recommend anyone securing a gun for use as a self-defense tool get training which includes lectures and discussions on self-defense law.

Perhaps the crown jewel of these schools for civilians is Massad Ayoob’s “MAG-40” 40-hour class (formerly known as LFI-I) which is roughly half lecture on the judicious use of deadly force and half range time learning everything from the basics of handling and shooting a gun to advanced gunfighting skills.

Locally, any good NRA Personal Protection in the Home class will have a discussion of the judicious use of deadly force, with the presenters varying in their lecturing ability.

In any event, learn the rules of the road about self-defense so you may act by the standard by which you will be judged so you will stay on the right side of the law.