PA’s Laws on Self Defense

The local bloggers have done an excellent job in bringing coverage to the recent attacks (four attacks in four days) happening in the city.  A handful of people, both in print and in forums and comments, have mentioned getting a gun in response to these attacks.  I’ll be first in line to defend your right to own a gun.  I believe that if everyone was armed, we would see a dramatic decrease in violent crime — just ask Switzerland.  The problem is, there’s so much misinformation — most of it politically charged and bordering on insane (from both sides) — available online that gun ownership typically gets presented as something it’s not. 

Before reading any further, let me point out that I am not a lawyer, law enforcement officer, or expert in anything.  This post represents my opinion only and is not a substitute for appropriate legal guidance.  The best source for answers to your questions is your local police department or county sheriff’s office.

Owning a gun gives you one last resort when the chips are down.  It’s one extra, hail-mary, last-chance deterrent to crime.  It is not an end-all be-all equalizer.  When used properly, it can be used as an effective crime deterrent.  But Pennsylvania gun law, which is actually quite liberal (pro-gun), makes it pretty clear that a gun is only a last-defense weapon.  You can’t start firing shots at someone just because you saw them breaking into your car; you can’t brandish your gun just because you see a shady group of troublemakers at the other end of the block; and you can’t just buy a gun and set it in a drawer.

PA’s gun laws have been summarized as having a “your home is your castle” mentality.  The laws allow for increased protection in your own home.  For example, if you get mugged or assaulted walking down Third Street, the law says that you must first either give them whatever they want or attempt to run away.  If neither can be safely done, or if the threat of death, bodily harm, or sexual assault is clear and imminent, and none of the exceptions apply (such as, among other things, you being the instigator), THEN the use of deadly force MAY POSSIBLY be justified.  On the other hand, if an unwelcome intruder kicks down the door to your home at 3am, the law takes your side on defending yourself.

While we have far better gun laws than most other states, they still leave a lot of gray area.  For example, imagine you’re walking down Third Street and a voice behind you says “I’m gonna kill you, mother$#@”.  A strict interpretation of the Pennsylvania code states that you have an obligation to run away — if it’s safe to do so — before resorting to deadly force.  And I agree; deadly force should unconditionally only be used as a last resort.  But being the imperfect human beings that we are, we all make mistakes.  What if that voice sounds familiar — what if you think it’s a friend playing a joke, and you turn around?  What if the attacker takes a swing at you and misses?  A jury will have to decide whether saying “I’m going to kill you” followed by a physical attack constitutes an imminent threat of “death (or) serious bodily injury” (PA 18§505).

They’ll also have to decide if you somehow provoked the situation.  Did you knowingly walk through a bad part of town?  If so, did you do so only because you had your gun?  If so, were you simply out looking for a fight?  If so, did you just end another human life for your own “tough guy” amusement?  Don’t get wrapped up in the “you have a right to walk down any street in any city without fear” argument.  While valid, the legal system doesn’t look at it that way.  Their first concern is whether the use of deadly force can be avoided altogether.

Even if you are acquitted on criminal charges, you’ll likely face civil charges from the family of the would-be attacker.  That’s the way our legal system works; an attorney will parade the attacker’s crying mother in front of a jury and you’ll find yourself on the receiving end of a $25 million settlement to the victim — even though you were the one who was attacked.

It’s not right, but it’s how our system works.

The guy watering his flowers wasn’t looking for trouble.  In fact, none of the stories printed thus far show that the victims had done anything wrong at all.  They were simply attacked.  They were victims.  There was nothing they could have done to avoid trouble.  And hence the gray area:  An attorney for the attackers might argue that the victims could have stayed indoors.  An attorney for the victims might argue that watering plants in front of your own home is far from “looking for trouble”.  Who is right doesn’t matter at all; who convinces the jury is what counts.  And sadly, the law doesn’t always follow rules like “common sense” or “consideration for the victim”.

My whole point?  Use common sense.  Avoid trouble.  Make sure you’ve taken every reasonable step to stay out of the way of crime.  Leave capturing criminals to the police; focus your activities in preventing crime in the first place.  People who go Bernhard Goetz on attackers usually don’t wind up alive.

Go places in groups.  Don’t walk through gang territory just because you “have a right to walk without fear”.  Look confident.  Act confident.  Make yourself appear “not worth it”.  Know your surroundings.  Look out for your neighbors.

Unfortunately, even when people follow the rules to a letter, crime still rears its ugly head.  And that’s when our self-defense laws come in.  When you’ve tried all other safe avenues of escape and the situation is still dangerous, the law allows for the use of deadly force in certain circumstances.  It’s beyond the scope of this blog to go into a detailed explanation of when deadly force is and is not permissable.  For more information, contact your local police department, county sheriff’s office, or appropriate legal counsel.

If you’re going to buy a gun (and my vote is that you do), the process is pretty painless.  The Pennsylvania Instant Check System (PICS) eliminated the five-day waiting period nearly a decade ago.  You can walk into your local gun shop (I recommend Shyda’s), plunk down $200 – $400, and walk out with a quality handgun in a matter of minutes.  You’ll also want to get a concealed carry permit (officially called a “License to Carry Firearms” in Pennsylvania).  Without it, you’ll only be able to take your gun to and from target practice or the dealer.  Even if you never plan on taking the gun outside of these two places, get the permit.  It costs about $20 and can save you a BOATLOAD of legal trouble down the road.  The how and why are beyond the scope of this blog, but trust me; you’ll want one.

There’s no shortage of energized discussion on what type of gun is best for a first-time shooter.  A simple Google search will return approximately 28 trillion opinions, all of them angrily conflicting with the others.  My recommendation is a Bersa Thunder 380.  It’s small, easy-to-conceal, reliable, and inexpensive (well under $250 with taxes and fees).  I love mine and carry it just about everywhere.  And it doesn’t hurt that .380 is some of the cheapest ammo on the market right now (to the tune of around $20 / 100 rounds).

Some people will argue (quite aggressively, it seems) that nothing short of a .40-caliber (which I also have) should be used in self-defense.  However, aim is everything.  A well-aimed .380 absolutely, positively has the power to stop an attacker, while a .40 to the arm will not.  The difference is that at 15 feet (a typical range you might encounter in a self-defense situation), a .40-caliber shot will knock an attacker back a few steps, while a .380 probably won’t.  A single hollow-point .380 round can still easily deal lethal damage.

At the end of the day, what you do to protect yourself is up to you.  There’s no shortage of armchair-tough-guys who go on forums and bang their tiny fists of rage and angrily assert their god-given right to shoot anything that moves.  These are generally the people who either don’t own a gun, or who will some day become the victim of a shooting themselves.  If you’re considering getting a gun, listen to the calm majority.  Ignore the people (be they pro- or anti-gun) who get themselves worked into a frenzy.

If you’ve done everything you can to avoid trouble — as it seems these recent victims have — it can be comforting to have some additional deterrent on your hip.

One final word:  This post may seem a bit thin to anyone familiar with guns.  When I was shopping for my first handgun about 18 months ago, I found very little factual, untainted information online.  It was either “you’re an America-hating terrorist if you don’t buy a full-auto AK” or “anyone who even looks at a firearm is a violent murderer”.  I intended this post to be nothing more than a broad starting point.  It is not meant to be an all-encompassing primer on gun laws.

3 thoughts on “PA’s Laws on Self Defense”

  1. Thanks. People get so “enthusiastic” (that’s being nice) about their views on this matter that both sides should really be embarassed. I believe that everyone has a clear constitutional right to own a gun, but I also equally respect the rights of others to decide that they want nothing to do with guns. It’s a big responsibility that should be preceeded with a lot of careful thought and research.

  2. Nice job. I have owned a 9mm Brazilian Taurus, and a tiny .380 Auto, when I was in the Military. I’m glad I never needed to use it. My wife and I could only asfford to live in Gang Central when I was junior enlisted in San Diego. I have often heard of the AK-wielding home defender. Very poor choice for home defense, because unless you are in a SOLID brick house, you are putting neighbors at risk. I agree with your assessment of the .380, full on. My favorite pistol is a .45 for stopping power, but it was a bit heavy for the wife to use and wield. Luck.

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