Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Self Defense

Q - I have been considering purchasing a gun for my home for protection but then I got to thinking what would the consequences (sin / God's judgement) be of me shooting and killing an intruder in my house. Is it wrong to take another's life in defense of one's family and home?

A - Thanks for the question. No, it is not a sin to use a gun to protect yourself from an intruder. I am happy that this is a concern for you though, because it means that you value human life.

The principles that would guide the Church's thinking in this matter are as follows:
Each of us has a right to life and an inherent dignity as humans, even the intruder. So, if possible, we should use non-deadly force to stop the intruder. So, if you could do so, you should use a non-lethal means of stopping them. This may mean threatening to shoot first and then, if necessary to stop them, shooting to wound, not kill.

We also have a right to protect our own life, property and family. Just as the intruder's life is valuable, so is our own and the lives of our families. Therefore, we have an obligation to protect our own lives as well. Each of us should follow our consciences in determining what level of force would be necessary to defend our lives and other lives, but this could mean taking the life of another in order to do so.

Here is what the Catechism of the Catholic Church says about our legitimate right to defense:

2263 The legitimate defense of persons and societies is not an exception to the prohibition against the murder of the innocent that constitutes intentional killing. "The act of self-defense can have a double effect: the preservation of one's own life; and the killing of the aggressor.... The one is intended, the other is not." 
2264 Love toward oneself remains a fundamental principle of morality. Therefore it is legitimate to insist on respect for one's own right to life. Someone who defends his life is not guilty of murder even if he is forced to deal his aggressor a lethal blow: 
If a man in self-defense uses more than necessary violence, it will be unlawful: whereas if he repels force with moderation, his defense will be lawful.... Nor is it necessary for salvation that a man omit the act of moderate self-defense to avoid killing the other man, since one is bound to take more care of one's own life than of another's. 

2265 Legitimate defense can be not only a right but a grave duty for someone responsible for another's life. Preserving the common good requires rendering the unjust aggressor unable to inflict harm. To this end, those holding legitimate authority have the right to repel by armed force aggressors against the civil community entrusted to their charge.
A good hypothetical situation might be that an intruder with a knife enters your home. You wake up, get your gun, and then threaten them. They come at you with the knife so you shoot them in the leg to stop them. If on the other hand they had a gun, you might shoot at any place you can, because they might very well shoot you, if you don't stop them with the first shot.

I hope this helps.


Theocoid said...

Hi, Marcel.

Thanks for taking up this topic. The moral right to self-defense and the obligation to protect the vulnerabl are so frequently forgotten in discussions about firearms.

Perhaps I can suggest that you reconsider the "intruder with knife" scenario. It is easier to do damage with a knife at a short distance (say, ten or fifteen feet) than it is to do so with a gun because you can charge in using swinging, arcing movements to slash at vulnerable spots. You can close distance very quickly at that range, and I've seen demos proving just that. A knife at that range wins.

With a gun, you have to aim and you have to be precise. Going for a wound (which I assume to mean, a limb rather than center mass or head) is a bad idea because you will not have the capacity to steady yourself enough for an accurate shot at a small moving target (a leg) or even for areas on the torso that are not central. Adrenaline will make it difficult to use more than gross motor movements unless you are very experienced in this kind of situation.

Obviously going for a killing shot (head) is not the best choice morally, because there is little chance that someone who takes a shot to the head will survive. In addition, a head is a smaller target. So for both moral and practical reasons, a head isn't a good choice.

The point is, you are trying to remove the danger of the intruder. The aim is to stop them, and the most effective means using a gun is to shoot for center mass. This will be difficult enough in an adrenalin-charged situation. I believe most handgun self-defence instructors suggest aiming for the navel. Gut-shots apparently hurt, but blood loss is slower, which improves the likelihood of survival. So it is a moral choice given that the aim is not to kill but to stop, and the resulting injury is not absolutely sure to cause death. It will, however, stop the intruder. I think that scenario meets the principle of double effect.

I personally think a handgun is too dangerous and iffy in that situation. I have a bokken (Japanese wooden sword) that I keep for home defense. I know others who recommend a shotgun loaded with birdshot.

Kohl Leger said...

It simply is not prudent to "shoot to wound." Life is not like the movies where you can just shoot the gun out of the bad guy's hand. In an adrenaline fueled confrontation with an armed home invader, the vast majority of people will not be able to shoot accurately enough to hit non-vital extremities. It is estimated that the best trained shooters are only able to hit half of their targets under such stress. If it is your life or an intruder, aim center of mass. Center of mass shots are much more likely to disable an attacker than hits to the extremities.

I am not saying that one should shoot first and ask questions later. I am saying that one should not gamble when it comes to self defense or the defense of your family.

Daniel Nieswiadomy said...

Everyone will have a slightly different opinion as to what level of "defense" is required to protect your home/family/friends. We all must search our heart, mind, and conscience to determine what we believe a certain situation would require. If you own a gun, I suggest thinking about multiple possible scenarios you could encounter defending your home, and decide ahead of time what you think is right. Better to be prepared than caught off guard.

But the most important thing to remember is that anytime you wield a gun, you have the capability to end the life of another human being. Always keep that in mind.

Cliff said...

I am curious to hear your take on lawsuits that take place when someone breaks into a house, is shot but not killed, then sues because they say the homeowner used excessive force. I know this has happened before. If the person shot is not killed, it is his word against yours in court. I am not saying that you should always shoot to kill, I just wanted to hear your thoughts on the matter.

Kohl Leger said...

In Texas, as long as you are justified in using deadly force (there are specific requirements spelled out in the law), you are immune from both criminal and civil penalties.