We frequently see reports in the media of sad stories when mistaken identity leads to the injury or death of a loved one. Here is one example:
and here is another:
The narrative is all too familiar. A family member or roommate enters or attempts to enter the house at an hour that was not expected, usually late at night. The startled person living inside assumes he or she is under attack and fires a gun in the dark. It is only after the damage is done that identification is made as a friend, not a foe.
From a legal standpoint (note, I am not a lawyer) I believe most state laws generally follow the principle of reasonableness when it comes to fear of imminent serious bodily injury or death. In addition, most states include provisions commonly referred to as “Castle Doctrine”, where a duty to retreat inside one’s home is not required. Based on this kind of legal footing, many instructors and pundits in the shooting sports community inadvertently leave the impression that it is good tactics to “shoot first, ask questions later”. In fact, I have heard bellicose rhetoric from some in the community to just that effect, that as soon as a concealed firearm carrier feels threatened, he or she is justified to shoot and therefore SHOULD shoot.
But is that really the case? Just because we are legally justified to use potentially lethal force, we automatically should? Even if it is legal, is that the moral thing to do?
Every defensive situation is different, and no set of axiomatic laws will cover exactly what to do in every situation. However, one of the well accepted axioms of firearm safety is to know your target and what is beyond. Sadly, in each of these unfortunate examples of mistaken identity, the shooter pulled the trigger without having positive target identification and/or having non-targets in the near vicinity of the attacker. In addition to this tried and true rule, I suggest the following three additional guidelines when carrying your defensive tools:
- If there is time, reach for the phone first. Calling 911 is a valid recourse in an emergency situation, but so is using the camera.
- If there is space, try to get away first. There is little point in “Standing Your Ground” just for the sake of your ego. A fight avoided is a fight won. Obviously, if you are in your home options for getting away are limited. Nevertheless, taking the shot to protect a flat screen TV may not turn out to have been worth it if what you thought was a burglar turns out to be a family member.
- If it is dark, reach for the light first. Besides a firearm, other defensive tools I always carry include the phone and a flashlight. In a darkened parking garage, a high-lumen white light in the eyes can often be as effective as a firearm. At home, it need not be a flashlight, but a light switch. Most intruders want their nefarious actions to remain in the anonymous and hidden in the shadows, and will therefore run from the light, just like scattering cockroaches. Don’t worry about “giving away your position” – you are not setting up an ambush of Taliban fighters in the Hindu Kush. Your attacker already knows you are there, or if he does not then a flashlight beam in his eyes will surprise and startle him just the same.
Here is another great discussion of this problem of mistaken identity in defensive shooting situations.
Ultimately, every concealed carrier must accept the basic principle that in any confrontation we may face we cannot be the first one to escalate to potentially lethal force. We need to practice de-escalation, and only reach for the gun as a tool of last resort.
I am reminded of something noted defensive legal scholar Andrew Branca teaches. He points out that when some people strap on a concealed firearm, their attitude becomes something like “Because I am armed, I don’t have to take guff from anyone”. Contrary to what these people may want to believe, the exact opposite is true. Because you strap on a concealed firearm, you DO have to take “guff” from everyone and anyone, all the time, in every circumstance EXCEPT the one circumstance when that person is threatening imminent serious bodily injury or death. Except for that one case, we HAVE to reach for the gun as a tool of last resort.