One of the most common laments to come out of Ferguson these last days has been that surely it was outrageous for Office Darren Wilson to use his service pistol to shoot an “unarmed” Mike Brown. (Earlier iterations of this narrative went further in their misinformation, describing the 18-year-old 6’4″ 292 pound Brown as a “kid” or “child,” as well as falsely claiming that Wilson shot Brown in the back, but such misinformation falls outside the scope of this post.) Similar arguments were made in the context of the shooting by George Zimmerman of the “unarmed” Trayvon Martin.
The notion that a defender may use a firearm in self-defense only if they themselves are faced with a firearm is entertainingly naive, but has no basis in actual law, nor in common sense.
In the eyes of the law a gun is not some magical talisman of power, it is merely one of perhaps an infinite number of means of exerting force. Legally speaking the law tends to divide force into two broad buckets: non-deadly force and deadly force. There is some stratification in the context of non-deadly force–a poke to the chest is not the same degree of non-deadly force as a punch to the face–but really none whatever in the context of deadly force. Deadly force is simply deadly force. For purposes of conciseness, I limit this discussion to cases in which deadly force is involved, as was the case in both Ferguson and Zimmerman.
Deadly Force: Force Likely to Cause Death or Grave Bodily Harm
It should also be noted that when the legal system uses the phrase “deadly force,” it is not merely referring to force than can literally cause death. Of course, force likely to cause death qualifies, naturally. But the law’s view of “deadly force” is broader than the phrase might suggest. In fact, “deadly force” includes BOTH force likely to cause death, as well as force likely to cause “grave bodily harm.”
We all understand “death,” but what could possibly be meant by “grave bodily harm.”? Typically, grave bodily harm means something along the following lines: the temporary loss of an important bodily function/organ, the permanent loss of even a minor bodily function/organ, maiming, rape, or debilitation to the point of defenselessness.
Note, also, that under the law of self-defense, NONE of these must ACTUALLY be experienced by the victim before the victim can lawfully respond. Rather, there must be an imminent threat of one of these occurring, as perceived by a reasonable and prudent person, in the same or similar circumstances, possessing the same or similar capabilities as the defender, having the same or similar knowledge as the defender, and experiencing the same or similar mental stress as would a defender being threatened with such harm.