Why You Should Not Defend a Stranger

You spot a large man dragging, hitting, or kicking a woman on the ground who is screaming, “Help! Rape! Anyone! Help!” When should you intervene? The simplest answer is, “never”. The best answer is, “whenever you are willing to risk 20 years in prison”.

Scenario One —¬†Shoot

Law versus Wisdom

Regarding the legality of gun deployment, novice armed citizens often ask, “Is it legal to draw on someone beating a stranger?” The experienced armed citizen usually answers something like, “It would be foolish to do so unless your own life was threatened”. The reply (about wisdom) does not really answer the question (about legality). But what is legal is often unwise and vice-versa.

The Law

The law in virtually every state allows you to use lethal force to protect another person’s life. In some states you may legally defend only a member of your own immediate family. In others, you may use your sidearm to defend a complete stranger. The traditional common-law principle is that you may put yourself in the victim’s place, good and bad.

In other words, if the person you defended had a valid claim for self-defense, then so do you. Conversely, if they did not have a valid claim of self-defense, then neither do you. For example, you may defend someone in grave danger, but not if they started the fight. See “When Does Provocation Bar Self-Defense?“. Also, if their self-defense would have been challenged by any of the 15 negative factors described in “When Courts Defy the Law“, then your action will also be so challenged in court.

The Wisdom

Legal or not, drawing your sidearm to protect a stranger puts you at the legal mercy of the person you saved. The most common scenario is:

  • You see a man beating a woman, even throwing her to the ground and kicking her.
  • You yell at the attacker to stop.
  • He ignores you or¬†threatens you.
  • You draw your sidearm and hold him at gunpoint.
  • The police arrive.
  • The bloodied victim swears that she and her husband/boyfriend were just playing around, when you appeared out of nowhere and threatened to shoot them for no reason at all.
  • The two strangers press charges against you of aggravated assault (assault with a deadly weapon).
  • They testify to that effect at your trial.
  • You are sentenced to 20 years in prison. (Florida 784.021 mandates minimum 20 years for first-time aggravated assault, which is defined to include brandishing a gun.)

Why serially abused women repeatedly hook up with serially abusive men and fiercely defend their abusers is irrelevant. The fact is that they do. The above scenario is the rule, not the exception. Virtually every law enforcement agency in the country mandates that, whenever possible, two or more officers respond to domestic violence (DV) calls. The following quotations are taken from an online law enforcement discussion group:

BigSpenda864: It is tough to nail down how often [the victim turns on her rescuer] occurs. I can recall many, many instances where I have been a part of an arrest, etc. where the victim of DV turns on the officers and ends up taking the ride right along with the suspect. It rarely makes the papers but it is a ridiculously common occurrence to LEOs.

m2hmghb: The department where I live has one person cars, but the minimum they use at a DV is two cars. I’ve seen three or four cars at times. I’m not LEO but I’m willing to bet there is a damn good reason they don’t dispatch a single car.

Patchman: The behavior of DV victims is extremely interesting. If I hadn’t seen such behavior over and over again with my own eyes, I would never believe why they’d put up with such abuse, or their (sometimes) response.

Ohio Copper: It is our department policy that we are not permitted to go to a DV call alone. It is a two or more person call all the time, if the other units are tied up we utilize mutual aid and get a neighboring agency to assist. We respond accordingly and I’ve been the first on scene to physical domestics multiple times. It is always good to know that my backup is only a minute or two behind me. That being said, contact/cover is your best friend on these calls. One person handles the call, the other stays with the other half and is a cover officer.

RetailNinjitsu: I just got back to work after a serious injury/surgery that occurred when I was assaulted by a DV “victim”. Male half called on the female half but freaked out when he realized that she was taking a ride to jail. Our policy is to dispatch two cars to any DV call and a third car if available. Our problem is that in my patrol area, my nearest backup is at least 15 minutes away.

volsbear: The crazy chick who called the police is the one who jumps on the officer’s back as soon as he throws the hooks on her beloved abuser. Side note: we had a deputy here last year get slashed with a blade from her forehead to her chin after she walked into a DV call alone. And then she ventilated the guy.


In conclusion, I tell my classes that if they see an apparent DV going down, they should call 911, be a good witness, and never inject themselves into the conflict. Sometimes a student will reply that he could not possibly stand aside and see a woman abused, and he would hold the abuser at gunpoint. I answer, “If abuser and abused then testify that you threatened them with a gun while they were just horsing around, you will spend the next 20 years learning what it is like to be an abused woman.”

Scenario Two — Don’t Shoot

[The two video clips above are from the DVD “Armed Response: Shoot/No-Shoot Scenarios” by David Kenik and Ralph Mroz (which I highly recommend) and are used here with permission.]


Frank W. Sweet is an NRA-certified firearms instructor who teaches the safe and effective use of handguns for self-defense. He was awarded an M.A. in Civil War Studies in military history from American Military University in 2001. He is the author of Legal History of the Color Line (ISBN 9780939479238), Six Gems of Forgotten Civil War History (ISBN 9780939479023), and of numerous published historical essays. To receive a schedule of his firearms training courses, email to fwsweet@ccwvslaw.org. The information above should not be construed as legal advice.

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