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Should Armed Defenders Help Strangers?

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Once upon a time, this really wasn’t quite as urgent a question.

If you carry a concealed firearm for self-defense, the question has no doubt occurred to you: “What would I do if I saw a stranger in distress?”

It’s actually a pretty thorny dilemma for armed defenders, because the fact that they now have access to lethal force absolutely does change the calculus about whether or not to help a stranger who appears to be in mortal danger. Having a firearm on you means that, should you choose to intervene, your involvement in the conflict can get very ugly, very quickly.

Picture this: You witness two men struggling with a lone woman. She’s screaming for help, so you intervene—and you wind up shooting one of the men. But when the police arrive, you learn that both of the men were plainclothes law enforcement officers arresting a female felon. The bad news: You’re now a cop-killer. The good news: The cellmates you meet on your way to Death Row might be impressed.

Meet your cellie. His name’s Skeeter.

At the same time, for many if not most of us, the idea of not helping a fellow human being who appears to be struggling for their lives is deeply distasteful—almost inhuman. We can’t tell you what to do should you find yourself in this situation. What we can do is point out some considerations you should work through mentally now, before such a situation unfolds in front of you.

The legal definition of justifiable self-defense changes a bit from state to state, but there are some universal concepts…and those rules do not change when they apply to the defense of others. First, you must hold a reasonable belief that this person’s life is in danger—and by “reasonable,” they mean that most sane people would agree with your assessment. That’s pretty easy, even when you’re making that assessment on someone else’s behalf.

Second, that danger must be present right now, in the moment that you’re thinking of intervening. This is also a pretty easy determination for most reasonable people.

But here’s the toughie: Third, the person you are contemplating assisting must either have not started the conflict, or must have made an attempt to de-escalate. They cannot have been engaging in unlawful activity at the time. And that is an extremely difficult determination to make on a stranger’s behalf.

For example, among the most common types of violence out there is domestic violence. Ask any LEO and they’ll tell you: DV calls are a source of dread. It’s hard to tell who is the primary aggressor, for one. And it’s also quite common for one or both members of the couple to turn their rage on the officers trying to separate the combatants. If trained, experienced law-enforcement officers have a tough time determining fault while not placing themselves in greater danger, how do you fancy your chances?

The best, the safest advice we can give is to call 911, and to be a good witness. Doing so will keep you out of legal danger, and may very well be the best thing you can do for the victim.

We all have to draw a line somewhere.

All that said, as people with a moral compass, there are some things that we simply cannot abide in our sight. Sometimes the choice to intervene isn’t really a choice at all—not if you have a conscience. Just know that if you do so, you should do it under the same circumstances you would if you were defending your own life. Further, know that if the life you’re defending isn’t yours, you’ll face an increased level of scrutiny both from law enforcement…and from the general public, should the story make the news (and it very well may).

Have you ever intervened to defend a stranger with lethal force, even if all you had to do was display your gun? Tell us about it in the comments!

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