Recent events have brought to light a general confusion over the legal use of deadly force. Each state has its own laws concerning the use of force and every citizen ought to be familiar with the laws for the jurisdiction in which he lives. However, there is a common basis for all American deadly force law. Reasonableness and practicality are the two points that guide deadly force law. We can summarize the legal justification for all deadly force: to be in fear of an imminent danger of serious injury, great bodily harm or death. That’s the meat of every deadly force statute in this country.

The law, like the moral justification for force is never based on weapons or specific circumstances. There is no clear line because of the innumerable situations in which people may find themselves. That is why the law must deal with intent and reasonable standards rather than shoot/don’t shoot declarations.

An 80 year old lady armed with a butter knife is no threat to an able-bodied man. Things change if the woman is fifty, armed with a butcher knife, and both parties are confined in an elevator. It’s never the weapon; it’s always about the threat balanced between the parties. The old lady with the butter knife would be a deadly threat to a newborn, for instance. The court must consider the entirety of circumstances surrounding every case.

Let’s consider the recent Ferguson, Missouri police shooting. A police officer was found legally justified for shooting an unarmed man. That was a foregone conclusion for those informed on deadly force matters and it is regrettable that even now no one in authority has attempted to explain the reasoning behind the legal use of deadly force. Here’s the two elements that justified that shooting:

1. The officer had no reasonable alternative to the use of his firearm. Due to the previous assault which occurred inside the police car, the officer pursued with his gun in hand. Holstering the handgun and drawing another weapon would have taken about 2 seconds using both hands. A young man can cover over 30 feet in that time. Mr. Brown could have overrun Officer Wilson before Wilson could have drawn another weapon. If Wilson was hit by the larger running man while holding his service weapon, he would either lose the weapon or, if retaining it, be forced to fight with one hand while moving backward or falling down. Mr. Brown had already demonstrated a willingness to disarm Officer Wilson. For Wilson to choose to hold the gun during a tackle would have been extraordinarily reckless. Other nearby weapons were inadequate. I assume Wilson had pepper spray. Pepper spray is fine for use on a non-compliant, stationary subject. A charging man will not be stopped by spray. In short order, he will suffer watery eyes, a runny nose, coughing, and skin irritation but nothing that is likely to stop his charge. In my experience, nearly as many officers get sprayed as suspects. Wind matters. If Officer Wilson had a stun weapon instead of a gun, he would have had no more than one chance to hit Mr. Brown before the collision. Like the sprays, the stun guns don’t work on everyone. Side-handled batons are too light to do much instant damage unless they are used as deadly weapons and swung tomahawk style at the head (prohibited by police agencies). Old wood batons were better but it is extremely unlikely that a charging man will be stopped with one hit. Finally, Wilson had good reason to believe that Brown could win a fist fight particularly if he wound up on top of Wilson. Time and distance combined with available options meant the handgun would have to be fired in the Wilson/Brown incident.

2. The officer had reason to believe that he was about to suffer serious injury or death. Mr. Brown had already struck him in the head and tried to remove his weapon. Brown charged Wilson without regard for the obvious presence of the handgun. Aside from the struggle previous to the shooting, Wilson would have been foolish to allow himself to be knocked down by a an angry, heavier man who had dismissed the warning presented by the officer’s handgun.

So, we all need to know what local laws require for the use of deadly force. But we also need to understand that the law is reasonable and depends on an honest answer to a simple question: “Do you have to shoot?” For Officer Wilson, the answer was “yes.”