The serious defensive shooter spends a good deal of time selecting the proper equipment needed to protect himself/herself and family. Further, they seek the best defensive training that is available and even make plans to attend periodic refresher courses. However, many fail to be equally diligent in getting good legal information relative to personal defense. It is critically important to know and understand the law prior to strapping on that defensive handgun. Yes, most CHL courses do discuss the law, but there is a lot of information to cover in a relatively short time and these courses generally only hit the high points.
As a general rule, the local gun shop is a very poor source of information. The sales staff will usually have no formal training in personal defense law and are generally just repeating their interpretation of information that they have heard from others.
An even worse source of defensive information is the gun forums on the Internet. Anonymous individuals enjoy trying to sound well-informed when they are often horribly ignorant of the laws in your state. Others will say just about anything in order to sound professional and important to those reading their foolishness. You really don't want to find yourself sitting on the witness stand, in your own trial, and saying, "Well, ‘Big Bazooka' on the Gunchester Forum said it was okay to shoot in this kind of situation."
Sadly, even police officers may not be a good source of defensive legal information. They generally know what the statute says, but they often don't know much about the case law that has been developed since the law was passed. Case law refers to how the courts, through actual trials, have interpreted the statute. Some of those interpretations have been upheld by appellate courts, while others have not.
So, to get the real skinny on laws regarding personal defense in your state, you need to be talking to an attorney. And not just any attorney will do: The serious defensive shooter will seek the counsel of a practicing criminal defense attorney. This is the guy who makes his living defending clients against criminal charges and can be expected to stay abreast of all the laws pertaining to the use of deadly force.
If you have a criminal defense attorney in your family, you should consider yourself blessed; the rest of us should expect to pay for such a consultation. That sort of counseling is not cheap. So you might get a group of friends together to attend the counseling session and share the cost. Or you might find that a criminal defense attorney is a member of your local gun club and would be willing, even at a small fee, to meet with those seeking information. Use your imagination and make it work.
During this session, the attorney should explain your state law regarding personal defense and the use of deadly force. You need to know exactly which criminal acts justify the use of force. You need to know if your state expects you as a citizen to make a reasonable effort to retreat prior to using deadly force. It is also important to know the common pitfalls and mistakes that can result from ignorance of the law or bad judgment. Critically, you really need to know what to say, and what not to say, to law enforcement in the aftermath of a defensive shooting.
If you are suitably impressed with this criminal defense attorney you should discuss with him or her the possibility of representing you should you ever be forced to defend yourself with a firearm. His or her contact information should immediately be placed in your speed dial. Listen to what your attorney says and follow it. The expense that you have encountered in these counseling sessions is nothing compared to the expense you will encounter if you have to go to trial for defending yourself.
Finally, should you be involved in a defensive shooting in another state, your local attorney can find a lawyer in that state to represent and advise you. And, should you be involved in a civil suit resulting from a defensive shooting, he or she can assist you in getting good representation for that situation as well.
Being involved in a perfectly justified defensive shooting places great stress on us, more stress than we can ever imagine. Under that sort of stress we may say, or do, things that we don't intend. We may forget facts that are important to our situation. All of these can come back to bite you in a court of law. You will also realize, sitting there in that police interview room, that there is really no one there who has your best interests at heart. All of that can change with the presence of a criminal defense attorney, especially one that you already know and have established a relationship with.
Getting good legal advice is one of the most important things that you can do in preparing your personal defense plan. Don't overlook it.
Editor's Note: If you liked this article, don't miss Jim Wilson's previous piece, "Interacting With Law Enforcement: What Concealed-Carry Permit Holders Need to Know," here.