Training 2/7/2018

Surviving The Aftermath Of A Self-Defense Shooting

by Tim Herr

You’re standing in your living room, pistol in hand, trying desperately to catch your breath and make sense of what just happened. You remember drawing your gun as the knife-wielding intruder kicked down your door, but even as you become faintly aware that your ears are ringing, you can’t remember hearing the firearm discharge. Your field of vision has narrowed to one small circle, in which you can barely make out the trail of blood the suspect left when he crawled back outside. You reason that he must still be alive, at least for the time being, and he may still be on the premises. You fumble for the cell phone in your pocket, adrenaline coursing through your system, and mash the buttons to call 911.

What do you say? What do you do? 

Most gun owners understand the importance of practicing to make sure that they can use a firearm effectively, and a substantial number of them undergo some form of training relating to self-defense. Although no one can fully anticipate the physiological responses that occur in a life-or-death scenario without experiencing them, your average gun owner understands abstractly that their performance will be hampered by effects such as tunnel vision and auditory loss. Yet they may have only given thought to surviving the combat portion of the encounter. If so, they risk being unprepared for what follows. 

“The post-shooting, or post-use-of-force experience is a meat grinder that everyone goes through,” explains attorney Chuck Michel. No matter how clearly justified the shooting was, you must be prepared for legal proceedings to dominate your life for the foreseeable future. In the short term, you are about to make decisions that will have far-reaching ramifications, and mentally you will be in just about the worst state possible to make them. Therefore, knowing in advance what to say and do gives you the best chance for avoiding extensive legal proceedings and even prison. As Michel says, “It’s far easier than anyone understands for an innocent person to be convicted of a crime.” 

Your greatest danger in the immediate aftermath of a defensive shooting will probably be your desire to explain what happened to everyone with whom you come into contact. From this point forward, everything you say—to the 911 dispatcher, to family members and other bystanders, to the police—is evidence that can be used against you. Regardless of whether the shooting leads to an arrest and criminal trial, you run the risk of being held liable in a civil suit. Any remarks you make that can be used to characterize you as bloodthirsty or flippant could cost you a fortune even if you don’t end up in prison.

Calling 911

It is important to call 911 as soon as you determine that the immediate threat to your life is no longer present. Focus on conveying your location and the fact that there was a defensive shooting, and try to resist the temptation to express your emotions or give the whole story of the incident. If someone else is on the scene who is able to call 911 on your behalf, this may be preferable as long as all of the necessary details are given to the police. 

If the shooting has occurred in your home, you are likely to be dealing with frightened family members and neighbors. In a public space, bystanders are less likely to be personally known to you. Remember that everyone present will potentially be called upon as witnesses. Refrain from discussing the details of the shooting beyond the fact that you fired in self-defense and that the police are on their way; if necessary, explain that you are likely in shock and should not answer any questions at that time. Do not move objects or interfere in any way with the crime scene; police will note any discrepancies between what witnesses describe and what they see when they arrive.

In most cases a wounded suspect will either be unresponsive or will have already fled the scene by the time police are called. If a suspect happens to be conscious and wounded, it is generally not advisable to attempt to hold them at gunpoint; you do not have the legal justification to shoot if they retreat or otherwise disobey your commands. Retired Dallas officer Rich Emberlin, whose long tenure included undercover narcotics work, officer training and the SWAT team, suggests that if there is any question of a suspect posing a continuing threat, it may be wise to leave the immediate area yourself and wait nearby, even if the shooting has occurred in your own home.

When The Police Arrive

Veteran Green Beret and NRA Carry Guard Lead Instructor Jeff Houston says, “When police are on the scene, keep your firearm clearly pointed in a safe direction, away from police and citizens. Ideally, you will holster your firearm just as they are arriving so that they do not see you manipulating a firearm at all.” Police approach the scene of a shooting without knowing for certain who are the “good guys” and “bad guys.” As Emberlin says, “they’re going to take in everything; they’re going to assume the worst, though.” Make sure that you provide the 911 dispatcher with a detailed description of yourself so that the police can identify you quickly—and even then, understand that they cannot assume you have good intentions. According to veteran Navy SEAL and firearms instructor Jeff Gonzales, “The facts of the case should point to your being justified, but in the process, they don’t know and it is their job to discover the truth.” He emphasizes being careful and deliberate while holstering, rather than making speed your primary concern. 

The police will do whatever they consider necessary to guarantee their own safety and that of any bystanders, so it is entirely possible that you will be handcuffed while they secure the area. Jeff Houston recommends, “The key here is being completely compliant with all commands and showing absolutely no resistance or sudden movements.” Since the tendency of most survivors of an armed encounter will be to babble, most instructors advise gun owners to say the least amount possible until an attorney is present. But to clarify, completely stonewalling the police is unwise. Emberlin points out that officers responding to the scene need to establish a narrative of what happened in order to be able to treat a shooting as justified; anyone who refuses to talk at all is likely to get themselves arrested unnecessarily. 

Chuck Michel offers a suggestion of what to say when the police arrive: “I wish I didn’t have to do that. I thought I was going to die, and I did what I thought I had to do to stop the threat. Beyond that, I really don’t want to go into it. I’m shaken up right now, and I don’t think my lawyer wants me to say anything more. So let’s wait until he gets here, and I’ll cooperate fully as soon as I have my legal counsel with me.” 

If the evidence found at the scene corroborates your account of a defensive shooting, police are likely to release you after receiving some basic information from you. In such a case they will ask you to appear at the police station at a later date in order to issue a full statement on the incident. However, it is also possible for you to be transported to the station at that time and even held in a jail cell temporarily. You will not need to answer any questions until you speak with your attorney. Regardless of the outcome, maintain a respectful attitude toward the police and express your intention to cooperate fully with their investigation. If you do happen to find yourself under arrest, comply quietly and trust that, with the proper actions on your part, you will not be found guilty of a crime. As Michel cautions, do not try to talk your way out of being detained: “All you can do is make the situation worse.”

Your Gun 

The firearm that you used in the self- defense incident will be confiscated by law enforcement officers when they arrive and sent away for forensic testing. In order to properly investigate the shooting, the police will need to confirm that your firearm is functional and matches the type of ammunition found at the scene. You should assume that your gun will not be returned to you for at least a month; sometimes the process has been known to take well over a year. 

Emberlin advises that if police do not find evidence leading to your arrest, they are unlikely to confiscate any other firearms that you own. You should be able to continue protecting yourself with your backup gun(s) while waiting for the firearm used in the incident to be returned. If you do not have another gun, it may be advisable to buy one as soon as possible—especially if you have reason to fear retaliation from associates
of the suspect. 

Preparing For The Legal Battle

When you give your full statement to police, you can expect to be asked for a number of specific details about the incident, some of which probably did not stand out to you as pertinent—what clothing you were wearing, for instance, or where someone was positioned in a room. Try to be prepared by visualizing the scene beforehand and memorizing all of the details that you can. If the police did not find evidence of criminal action on your part, Emberlin says that the questioning process is unlikely to be adversarial. Just remember that your innocence in the eyes of the law does not mean that you are safe from liability in a civil suit.

“A lot of people will say, well, if you’re innocent, it’s pretty simple,” Marcus Allen Weldon, an armed citizen from Detroit who faced the nightmare of criminal charges, told NRATV’s Cam Edwards in an interview on the “Cam & Co.” show. “But you’re thinking, does the jury get it?” If you face the misfortune of being arrested and subjected to a trial, your state’s laws
on self-defense are likely to have less bearing on your fate than the optics of your case. If you are to prevail, you will need to have avoided irresponsible remarks and provided a coherent and accurate statement to police. Your fate will rest on your attorney’s ability to convince the jury that your actions taken in self-defense were absolutely necessary. 

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