Victim v. Bad Guy: The Morality of Lethal Force

Written by Rob Morse on May 23, 2014

It used to be called suicide by cop. Some insane guy points a toy gun at a police officer fully expecting that the officer will kill him. The insane person’s next of kin complain about unnecessary violence. Sadly, the next of kin also complains when an ordinary citizen faces a violent criminal and the citizen uses lethal force in self-defense. Call it suicide by citizen. Citizens who use firearms to stop an immediate, severe and unavoidable threat have the same, if not stronger, moral defense as the police officer.

It usually looks like this. A suicidal citizen threatens a law enforcement officer with a knife or a gun. The citizen then advances toward the officer and defies the officers’ command to drop the weapon. The sad result is inevitable. If the policeman’s perception of the weapon is accurate, then the reaction is entirely appropriate. The officer thinks his life is in severe, immediate, and unavoidable danger. The police officer’s actions are unfortunate, but justified as the suicidal citizen takes his own life using the police officer as a tool. A violent criminal presents a similar threat to the victim of the crime. The citizen has the right of self-defense.

That is true within limits. You and I don’t defend ourselves against the neighbor child who knocks on our door simply because she is selling cookies again. There is no threat in that case, or the threat to my wallet is entirely manageable. My young neighbor doesn’t leave me in jeopardy of being severely hurt and she doesn’t have the ability and opportunity to hurt me.

We need to weigh the disparity of force between the aggressor and defendant. Under different circumstances, the homeowner might be outnumbered or pitted against a stronger adversary. This is where a policeman, even an elderly retired policeman, has a huge advantage over the average firearms owner. The homeowner is often less well trained in de-escalation of a conflict than are police. The homeowner is less well trained than most police in the use of non-lethal force. Citizens are not the police, and few citizens investigate a bump in the night working as a trained team while wearing ballistic vests. Trained police officers bring more tools in their tool kit when facing a threat. Citizens have fewer options and therefore place greater reliance on retreat and the use of defensive force for self-protection. Self-defense isn’t perfect. Sometimes citizens have to use lethal force and criminals die.

Look at the differences between the criminal and the victim. See what each had to gain in this encounter. The criminal broke into a home or threatened a citizen in public, while the citizen wanted to mind his own business and peacefully go on his way. The criminal wanted to come away wealthy, while the citizen thought they could lose their life in the attack. The criminal sets the time, place and manner of their crime, while the victim is happy to break even and leave the scene intact. The criminals were in control of their actions. The criminals were the initial aggressors and initiated a lethal threat. Acting in self-defense, the citizen simply matched the criminal’s use of force.

Criminals have used toy guns during a robbery and hoped that their intended victim would be intimidated into surrendering. That worked for the criminal if the citizen is defenseless. That doesn’t work for the criminal now that we see more and more armed citizens who can defend themselves with lethal force. “Give me your money or I’ll kill you” is likely to get the criminal killed even if the criminal is only armed with his finger inside his jacket pocket.

We can honestly wish the criminal had turned from their life of crime. We can feel the sadness of the next of kin. The innocent citizen also has the right, if not the duty, to protect their life and the life of others. The dead or wounded criminals do not deserve our sympathy. Often, the criminals’ next of kin disagree (here and here). The way I see it, the criminals chose suicide by citizen.

What do you think?

Image: Courtesy of: 2502710429/