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Atty. Ralph D. Sherman
130 West Main Street New Britain,
tel. (860) 229-0213 fax (860) 229-0235 e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
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
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
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
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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