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Atty. Ralph D. Sherman

130 West Main Street • New Britain, Connecticut 06052
tel. (860) 229-0213 • fax (860) 229-0235 • e-mail


Legal Opinion

November 2001


A question of deadly force

"May I suggest an article for Hook & Bullet? I cannot get a clear answer from anyone I talk to, nor do I feel competent in giving an answer to when asked at the gun shop I work. When, in Connecticut, is it legal for a private individual to use deadly force (kill someone)?" -D.F.

Thanks for asking. Anyone who believes they are prepared to use a firearm for self defense should learn the answer-because without it, they're NOT prepared. So here's a short answer.

If you intentionally cause the death of another human being in Connecticut, you can be charged with murder. At trial, however, your attorney can raise the defense of "self defense." The claim of self defense, if believed by the jury, is a total defense to the charge of murder and to such related charges as manslaughter (killing someone through recklessness), negligent homicide (killing someone through carelessness), and assault (if the person is shot but survives). Once your attorney introduces some evidence-even rather slight evidence-that you acted in self defense, then the burden of proof falls on the state. This means that the prosecutor will have the burden of proving to the jury that you did NOT act in self defense. (In recent years, some anti-gun legislators have tried to change this aspect of the law and put the burden on you-the burden of proving that you DID act in self defense.)

So the question really is, when would your action be considered self defense?

In Connecticut, you are justified in using "reasonable physical force" on another person when you reasonably believe that "reasonable physical force" is necessary to protect yourself or another person from the use or imminent use of physical force. If you use deadly force, you must reasonable believe that you or another innocent person are in imminent danger of "grave bodily harm." This is quite a mass of verbiage, so let's look at some of its components.

The first issue is "reasonable physical force." Whether you use deadly force or non-deadly force against an attacker, the force must be reasonable under the circumstances. If someone hits you with a snowball, it probably would not be reasonable to respond with a firearm. But you could be justified using a firearm if, for example, an attacker showed a gun or a knife; if an attacker, armed with a piece of rope, announced that he was about to strangle you; or even if a bare-handed attacker were relatively close and showed the ability and intent to break an arm, a leg, or maybe a finger. In these three situations-but not the one with the snowball-a jury could conclude that your attacker is threatening "grave bodily harm."

"Imminent" means that the harm from the attacker is just about to happen. If someone calls you on the telephone from another state and says, "I'm going to kill you someday," you are not justified in driving to other state and shooting him. The threatened harm simply is not imminent. This factor is important because, in essence, you are legally justified in using deadly force only if you have no other option by which you could stop the bad guy at the very moment that he is attacking or about to attack you. Clearly if someone threatens you by telephone, you have many options other than deadly force.

Speaking of options, you also to consider whether you could save yourself from your attacker by simply escaping. This aspect of the law varies widely from one state to another. In Connecticut, you must retreat (get away) if (1) you can do so in complete safety AND (2) you are aware that you can retreat in complete safety. You do not have to retreat, however, if you are attacked in your home or place of business.

One more point about self defense. You can't claim self defense if you are the aggressor, which means you started the fight. You must act honestly and conscientiously, not from anger, malice, or revenge. You must not provoke or intentionally bring an attack on yourself just so you can claim self defense as an excuse for using force, deadly or otherwise.

One last point: You asked when it would be legal for a "private individual" to use deadly force. You implied that the law is different for police officers. It isn't. But then the reason that police officers want to carry guns is no different from the reason I want to carry mine. Police officers want to be able to exercise the right of self defense if they are attacked. So do I.


Copyright 2001 by Ralph D. Sherman

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