Killing in Self Defense IS Homicide
Here’s a fact many gun owners have a hard time understanding: when you take someone’s life, even if you do it in self defense, it is considered a “homicide.”
But isn’t self defense a time-honored right of every individual? Yes.
Self defense is a natural right. If someone threatens you with death or great bodily harm, you have the right to defend yourself, and that includes using deadly force. This right is built in to our laws.
However, the misunderstanding comes with the legal definition of the word “homicide.” While it is often used interchangeably with the word “murder” when speaking informally, the law defines homicide as the taking of life by another regardless of the circumstances or intent.
So if you defend yourself from a physical attack using deadly force and the attacker dies, you have in fact committed homicide. The question is: was it a justifiable homicide or a criminal homicide?
It is not uncommon for someone who uses deadly force in self defense to become confused or angry when authorities treat them like a potential criminal. After all, the person knows what happened and believes they have done nothing wrong. So why is the incident being called a homicide? Why are police investigating as if a crime has taken place?
When you are mentally preparing yourself for the aftermath of self defense, you need to understand the definition of “homicide,” the point of view of police when they arrive at the scene (there is a dead body on the ground and you made that happen), and the inevitable process that will determine whether the homicide is legally justified or a criminal act.
Here’s a simple definition of “homicide” from Law.com:
The killing of a human being due to the act or omission of another.
If we look more deeply at the definition of homicide, we find that there are different types of homicide. Here’s a list with explanations from FindLaw.com:
First degree murder is the most serious criminal homicide. Typically, first degree murder is both intentional and premeditated. Premeditated can mean anything from a long time plan to kill the victim, to a shorter term plan. The intent of the accused murderer does not need to be focused on the actual victim. If someone planned on killing one victim, but by accident kills someone else, the murder is still intentional and premeditated meaning a first degree murder charge.
When there is a lack of premeditation but the killer intended to kill for example, in homicides commonly described as occurring “in the heat of passion” the homicide may draw second degree murder charges or perhaps voluntary manslaughter charges, depending on the state. Here is more information about your state’s second degree murder laws.
Manslaughter generally means an illegal killing that falls short of murder. The lowest form of manslaughter is involuntary manslaughter. This means that the perpetrator did not intend to kill anyone, but still killed the victim through behavior that was either criminally negligent or reckless. One common example is a DUI accident which kills someone. Someone driving drunk is behaving in a criminally reckless manner, even if they had no intent to kill anyone. Here is more information about your state’s involuntary manslaughter laws.
Voluntary manslaughter usually means that the offender did not have a prior intent to kill such as when the homicide occurs “in the heat of passion” and without forethought. Depending on the state, this crime may fall under a variant of murder charges, instead of manslaughter. Here is more information about your state’s voluntary manslaughter laws.
Some homicides are not illegal. Criminal laws carve out exceptions for some killings which would otherwise fall under criminal laws against manslaughter or murder. These are referred to as “justified homicide”. One primary example is a killing in justified self-defense or defense of someone else. Such a homicide is deemed justified if the situation called for self-defense and state law allows lethal force in that type of situation. Most state laws allow justified homicide to defend oneself or another from credible threat of serious crimes such as rape, armed robbery and murder.
Related Wrongful Death Claims
No matter where a homicide falls on the criminal spectrum, it may also bring a civil lawsuit for wrongful death. In the case of a homicide, the family of the victim may sue the alleged perpetrator to collect damages for that person causing the death of their loved one. While wrongful death lawsuits offer monetary results rather than criminal punishment, they also have a much lower standard of proof than the criminal standard of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
Here’s the takeaway: if you defend yourself using deadly force and the attacker dies you HAVE committed homicide. From a legal perspective, what happens next is a process to determine whether the homicide you have committed is legally justified.
Don’t panic, but be ready to be treated like a criminal and endure a full investigation. Keep your calm. Remember your training. And keep your mouth shut until you have spoken with an attorney.