More Law You Must Know … Before You Start Firing a Gun in ‘Self-Defense’

Written by Greg Hopkins on May 23, 2018

Last week, I discussed some principles from Marc MacYoung’s book, In the Name of Self Defense. Got your copy yet? You NEED this book! Also, be on the Lookout for Marc’s new book with Jenna Meek, What You Don’t Know Can Kill You. It will be on Amazon very soon. I push books from experts in their fields like Marc and Jenna because as a society, we are over-entertained and under-informed.

If you think sound bites and slogans that pass for knowledge on the internet and in gun shop bull sessions are going to get you safely through a trial for felony assault or murder you are sadly mistaken. Thinking you know the law of self-defense, without having studied it with the help of a qualified legal professional, will end up tragically in court for you and your family. Otherwise, you are like a man who thinks he can build a bridge just because he has driven over a lot of them.

Take an example from my home state, Alabama. You can get the basic story at: The defendant (named Scott) was a bread truck driver, delivering bread to various stores. He saw a black teenager (sixteen, named Mustafa) walking away from his cab with the defendant’s lunchbox. Scott ordered Mustafa to stop or he’d shoot. Mustafa gave Scott a contemptuous look and started to run. Scott fired six “warning shots”, several of which struck Mustafa, killing him. Scott was convicted of manslaughter this past Friday and the jury wasn’t out long. He will get at least ten years for Manslaughter and a mandatory additional ten for using a firearm. Scott’s legal ignorance and outraged attitude just ruined his life, Mustafa’s, and anyone whom either is related to or dependent on them.

In contrast, I’m the only lawyer in AL who teaches a course on our state laws of self-defense. Had Scott taken my class, he’d have known to let Mustafa go and call the cops. Instead of spending $50,000 on a losing defense, he’d have spent $175 dollars on my six-hour class and have known WHY he mustn’t shoot thieves; especially over a $10.00 lunchbox and a dry sandwich. Scott is going to prison because he didn’t know the legal difference between “Theft” and “Robbery”. Theft, at law, is defined as “Taking someone else’s property with intent to permanently deprive them of it.” In almost all states, you CANNOT use deadly force to stop a theft! Robbery, however is “Theft BY FORCE OR THREAT OF FORCE.” Did Mustafa come up to Scott with a knife, or even his finger thrusting out his jacket pocket to look like a gun, and say, “Your lunchbox or your life!”? No! Therefore, Mustafa did not commit robbery.

Simply opening the unoccupied truck’s door and scooping out the lunchbox is THEFT. BUT, had Mustafa come to the cab as Scott sat there and pulled a knife or gun, or acted like he had a weapon, or even yanked the lunchbox out of Scott’s hand, AL law says Scott could have legally used deadly force. Your state’s law, of course, may be different.

Now, understanding that the common law definitions of theft and robbery I just gave you are good in every state, had Scott known the difference between Theft and Robbery, would it have kept him out of jail? MAYBE. I say “Maybe” because even had he known the difference between Robbery and Theft, if he did NOT know the legal responses of how MUCH force is allowed by AL in response to either crime, and he exceeded it, he would STILL be up the river for 20 years!

You see, the FACTS always determine the applicable law. That’s why you hear us lawyers say, “It depends….” so often. Ever wonder why you never see a one-armed lawyer? Because they can’t say, “…but on the OTHER hand….”. Merely knowing the difference between these two crimes DOES Not tell you how much force you can legally respond with! The only way to know that is to LEARN your specific state’s self-defense statute PLUS any distinctions or exceptions in the amount of force allowed between Theft and Robbery and the various degrees of Robbery in BOTH your statutes AND the case law interpreting those statutes from your state’s appellate courts.

For example, most states have at least three degrees of robbery, some have five or six. In 1st or 2d degree in your state, the victim may be allowed to use deadly force. Yet in 3d degree robbery or less your state may FORBID deadly force. The only way to be legally safe is KNOW the “elements” (the specific ingredients/facts) that differentiate the degrees of robbery where deadly force can and cannot be used in your state.

Scott made another mistake by claiming he only fired “warning shots”. If you claim self-defense, but your fist or bullet hits and innocent bystander, or a person that you used illegal, unjustified force on, you are criminally AND civilly liable for any damage your “miss” causes. This is one of several reasons that judicious, reasonable, citizens do not fire warning shots. Plus, Scott hit the guy (more than once) that he was supposedly “warning”. Folks, when you claim self-defense you are admitting to committing an intentional act. You are not legally (or logically) allowed to say in court that “I did it accidentally, but deliberately.” “Go to jail. Go directly to jail. Do not pass GO. Do not collect $200.” … Continued Next Week …

Greg Hopkins
Greg Hopkins is a recovering lawyer, city prosecutor, police Use-of-Force law instructor, former city judge in two towns and criminal defense lawyer. He’s been teaching the Bible to teens and adults for 40 years. He now trains CCP holders and armed church security teams in self defense law. He also does expert witnessing in firearms and self defense cases. His book is A Time To Kill: The Myth of Christian Pacifism, on the Bible and Self Defense.