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Misplaced Modifier     By Karen MacNutt

Young people tend to look at things as being black or white. They think all life's questions can be answered in certain terms. As we gain understanding, we learn a number of things. We realize language is imprecise. Most of life's events should be painted in shades of gray and everyone makes mistakes.

My January Women & Guns article, titled "FOB Syndrome," was focused on how aging impacts the marksman. It was not focused on self-defense. In one place, however, I stated ... "your goal is to place all your shots on a man-sized target at no more than 25 feet. The average defensive shooting, I believe, is 10 feet or less. Beyond that distance you probably do not have legal justification to use deadly force." An astute reader challenged the assertion that using deadly force beyond ten feet creates legal problems. I agree with the reader. Ten feet is very close. An assailant can cover that distance in a blink. In mitigation of my mistake, I would point out that what was published as three sentences began life as one sentence. During the creative process. the run on sentence was chopped up. The phrase "beyond that distance," which originally referred to the 25-foot distance, now incorrectly appeared to apply to the 1 a-foot distance.

Errors are not all bad if we can learn from them. The above mistake reaches me that I must be more careful about words used as modifiers. My error is an example of why most lawyers do not want their clients to give statements to the police. What one person intends to say, may not be what another hears. Language is very imprecise.

Lawyers often use qualifying words to avoid making direct statements which could be misinterpreted. Phrases such as, "based upon what I knew at the time," "to the best of my memory," or "to the best of my belief," are all qualifying phrases. It is hard for someone to accuse you of lying if you use qualifying words. It is also easier to alter a statement if the statement was incomplete. I used the qualifying word "probably" in my article. I stated that the use of force would "probably" not be justified. The reader who caught my error failed to see the qualifying word "probably." It is just as well. The impression left was incorrect. I am glad it was brought to my attention.

That, of course, begs the question. When is the use of force justified? As with most legal questions, the answer is, "That depends .... " How the law sees an event involves many different factors.

The first step to establish the defense of self-defense is to make sure that you are not the aggressor. Whether you are the aggressor or the victim depends upon the totality of circumstances. The facts used to prove self-defense vary place to place depending upon how much emphasis local law places on avoiding combat.

In some states you are required to retreat if you can do so safely. In other states, you are not required to retreat. Generally [note the qualifying word] you are not required to retreat in your own home when dealing with an intruder. You are not required to retreat if you have an official duty to do otherwise. If your job is to apprehend law breakers, you do not become the aggressor because you chase after them. In some states you may become the aggressor if you use excessive force. What is excessive force? Well, you would not shoot indiscriminately into a bus full of people just to apprehend one bad guy. In most cases, that would be excessive force. [Notice the qualifying words, "most cases."] On the other hand, fighter pilots now have orders to shoot down (killing all on board) hijacked airliners. This is because the harm one bad guy can accomplish with an airliner exceeds the harm caused by destroying a plane filled with innocent people. Before the September 11, 200 I attacks, anyone who suggested that the cure for hijacking was to shoot down the aircraft, would have been thought a crackpot. That perception has changed. People who object to arming air crews fail to understand the lost 9-11 reality. If a pilot kills a hijacker and twelve innocent passengers, he will have saved the rest of he passengers from being shot out )f the air by a missile. The net result is that lives are saved.

Under common law, if the aggressor breaks off the fight and tries to eave the area, his aggression is deemed to be at an end. If the person assaulted chases after the initial aggressor, the roles change and he person first assaulted becomes he aggressor. The law presumes hat the first aggression has ended. If the first aggressor is simply regrouping and intends another attack, chasing after the first aggressor may be justified. Proving intent, however, is often difficult. Most citizens should not chase after retreating bad guys because of the danger involved. Unless the circumstances are very compelling, it is just not a smart thing to do.

To trigger the right of self-defense, our life or that of another must be in danger of death or serious bodily injury. The distance between the parties is one of many factors looked at to determine if a life is really in danger. If someone is charging at you with a weapon, having stated his hostile intent to o you serious bodily injury, you may [note the word "may"] be able to take immediate steps in self defense before the attacker comes within 10 or even 30 feet of you. You do not have the right to use deadly force against anyone, even they are within 2 feet of you, simply because you find their conduct obnoxious. Their actions must place you in reasonable fear of serious bodily injury or death before you en use deadly force.

If someone three hundred yards away threatens you with a pitchfork, it is hard to justify shooting them with a rifle. The same person 10 feet away may still not be a theat if there is a wall between you.

On the other hand, if someone within arms reach of your child is threatening the child with a pitchfork, a three hundred yard shot by you in defense of the child might be justified. Even a six hundred yard shot might be justified to stop a suicide bomber or someone who has the clear intention to, and immediate means of, wrongfully taking someone's life. The immediacy of the threat and the lack of alternatives to deadly force, not distance, are the governing factors. Distance may lessen the i immediacy of the danger. Distance often increases the ability to use alternatives to deadly force.

The right to self-defense begins long before deadly weapons can be employed. Actions less than deadly force may be used in circumstances where deadly force is not available or justifiable. The best plans for self-defense start by avoiding, if possible, situations that might put you in harm's way.

Like some of you, I have been haunted by the video showing e1even-year-old Carlie Brucia of Florida being led away by a man who is now accused of killing her. The moment I saw the video, I knew the story would not have a happy ending. Several things struck me about the video that relate to a discussion on self-defense.

First, Carlie looked a lot older than she really was. I would have guessed she was sixteen. It is common for girls of that age to want to look older. The problem is that although children might look like young adults, they are still children. The law considers them children until they are at least 18 and in some cases until they are 21. Even older children lack sufficient experience to appreciate danger. The possibility of death by force or violence seldom enters into a child's or young adult's thoughts. Adults are sometimes hesitant to be graphic about who the big bad wolf is and what he really wants. This does not "protect" the child. Young people must be informed about sexual predators. They must understand that the rules of danger avoidance for small children apply to them as young adults and to you as a mature adult. These rules are for life.

Young people must understand that looks can be deceiving. Sometimes the people we need to fear are not strangers, but are people we thought we could trust. Second, although Carlie resisted slightly, she did not resist effectively. Even though children may not have the right to carry a gun due to their immaturity, they do have the right to self-defense. There are things they can do protect themselves. The NRA, AWARE and similar groups publish materials telling women how not to be a victim. Lyn Bates' column in Women & Guns frequently deals with techniques of self-defense. With some slight alteration, much of this material is suitable for older children. There is no reason a responsible child should not attend a course on the kuboton or unarmed self-defense. The fact these materials are designed for adults will appeal to the adolescent. Self-defense is not a game to be played lightly. Although we should be suspicious of conduct that is questionable and avoid situations that could lead to danger, we should not accuse people of misconduct unless it has really occurred. This is very serious business.

Children should know that there ate times that they should not obey adults. This is especially so when adults they know appear to be inappropriately intimate. If the child feels there is something wrong about a request, it is alright to tell even a teacher or member of the clergy, that they are not allowed to do some activity or they have to go directly home. The request may be innocent, but the child should know is all right to avoid complying with the request if the child feels uncomfortable. If a polite request is ignored, or there is an inappropriate touching, there are times when being loud, rude and obnoxious both with people we know and those we do not know is proper. If the situation calls for it, saying in a loud voice, "Take your hand off my bum [or whatever other graphic word fits]" is appropriate. The child should not feel ashamed to make that kind of statement. The shame is on the person doing the inappropriate touching.

Third, Carlie allowed a stranger to get close enough to grab her. That should never have occurred. We all have an instinctive set of boundaries, or defensive zone. We feel uncomfortable when people, particularly strangers, enter that zone. Most Americans like to keep people just beyond handshake distance. In some cultures or ethnic groups, the distance is smaller. We subconsciously feel uncomfortable in social groups with smaller defensive zones than we are use to. The zone is reduced at social gatherings and in very congested areas such as in busses. Even when you are packed so tightly in public transportation that you cannot turn around, convention say no one's hand should touch any part of your body.

Older children and young adults must understand that not getting close to strangers applies to everyone, not just small children. They should stand off from a car if someone stops (0 ask for directions. They should never be close enough to be grabbed. They should keep their distance from people who ask them for the time, a "light," change, directions or other things. Such questions may be innocent but they may also be a way for the bad guy to get close enough to grab the person who has been targeted as a victim. Young adults should not stop to talk to such people but should keep moving without showing fear. A shrug with the words, "I'm sorry," is an appropriate response as is making no response at all. So called "fighting words" that are inherently offensive should be reserved for only selected problems. Children should not be swayed by statements intended to make them feel childish because they are being careful. People who try to make children feel guilty about being careful are the very people children should fear.

Four, people who are in fear of being assaulted should never run or allow themselves to be taken from a public area into an alley or backyard. Carlie went from an area where security cameras were filming her to someplace out of sight. Once you are out of public sight, things can only get worse. If you have to fight someone, you want to be where someone else might see you and send for help. Security cameras are everywhere today. Being within the view of one of these cameras can be used to discourage an attack. Many people behave if they think they are being filmed.

Just as you should go through fire drills at home with your family, you should discuss with your children what to do if they are bothered by strangers or imposed upon by an acquaintance. Young people, especially girls, are sometimes afraid to stand up to aggressive adults. Some do not effectively resist our of fear of looking silly or because they have been taught not to resist. Parents must talk to their children, especially their older children. Young adults are often under the mistaken belief that adults do not have to avoid danger. If children are unable to avoid trouble, they should be told to abandoned backpacks, jackets or other property if doing so will help them get away. If they have cell phones, they should know how to call for help. They should be aware that dialing 911 may not connect them to the correct police department. The police will want to know who they are and where they are. Being able to say, "Near the corner of High Street and Main Street," is more effective than saying, "Near a mail box." Knowing how to identify where you are is important.

Most importantly, young people need to trust that sneaky feeling that something is not right. Things are not always what they seem to be and people do not always mean what they say. Evil hides in the gray areas and pretends to be what it is not. Young people need to be able to recognize evil. They need the courage to take appropriate steps to avoid or resist danger.


This article was reprinted from Women&Guns Jul-Aug 2004, Copyright © 2004, Karen MacNutt