Ability, Opportunity & Jeopardy

Posted: August 1, 2010 in Awareness, Self-Defense & The Law

A lot of people have questions regarding the use of lethal force, and some folks are just downright mistaken in their assumptions about when it is appropriate. Let me preface this discussion with a disclaimer: I AM NOT A LAWYER, and it is up to an individual to read and understand the law that governs them in their particular jurisdiction. You are responsible for yourself and your own actions, so if you do not understand your self-defense law, it is a good idea to talk to legal counsel to determine how it would be interpreted by the legal system and its constituents. Following a survival encounter in which you are the victor, you have the burden of proof and you must articulate why you did what you did. Please do not let this scare you, though, and do not let it sway you from making the firm decision to protect your precious life at all costs. You owe it to yourself to get educated so you can act confidently and appropriately if, God forbid, you ever find yourself having to use lethal force.

Three basic standard criteria must ordinarily be met for the lawful use of lethal force: ability, opportunity and jeopardy. Without all three, it is simply not warranted. Here in the state of  Georgia, the initial part of the code reads as follows:

§ 16-3-21. Use of force in defense of self or others; evidence of belief that force was necessary in murder or manslaughter prosecution

(a) A person is justified in threatening or using force against another when and to the extent that he or she reasonably believes that such threat or force is necessary to defend himself or herself or a third person against such other’s imminent use of unlawful force; however, except as provided in Code Section 16-3-23, a person is justified in using force which is intended or likely to cause death or great bodily harm only if he or she reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent death or great bodily injury to himself or herself or a third person or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.

More than once, you can see that our law uses the verbiage reasonably believes. Your actions must fall within the spectrum of what other reasonable people would do in your situation, knowing only the variables you knew within that context. Now, let’s look back at the three criteria:


The other person in question has the power to cause you death or great bodily injury. The concept of death is pretty self-explanatory. But what of great bodily injury? This could be open to interpretation. It could mean losing a limb. It could mean paralysis. It could mean any kind of harm that might possibly affect your physical abilities until the end of your life: crippling physical injury. Weapons are certainly a great equalizer and can come into play here. Disparity of force is also an important consideration: what if you were unevenly matched against the threat? Examples of this might include: a bigger and stronger person versus a smaller and weaker person, multiple attackers versus one individual, a man versus a woman, a skilled martial arts practitioner versus an unskilled opponent, an able-bodied individual versus one who has physical disabilities, an adult versus a child, etc.


Does the other person have the opportunity to maim or kill you at this very moment? How far away is he or she? Are there obstacles in the way of this person doing you harm? It is important whether the other person is armed or not, as well. Obviously, if someone has produced a firearm and is within sight of you, this certainly presents a good opportunity for them to harm you. If that person is wielding a knife or other improvised weapon and they are 50 meters away, it’s not justifiable to gun them down! However, if this person is an able-bodied adult within 21 feet of you, he or she can cover that distance within about 1.5 seconds. That changes the game considerably! You must use common sense and observe the pertinent environmental variables.


This means the threat is immediate. The totality of the situation indicates to you that you or a third party is in grave danger, here and now. This is where reasonableness really comes into play. Perhaps this individual did not verbally indicate the intent for facilitating your early demise, but was advancing toward you menacingly in your home and with a weapon drawn. Do you stand there and wait for confirmation? Certainly not! Perhaps this individual does state the intention to kill you, and has the ability to do so, but no opportunity. This is important because the threat is not actually imminent. As soon as opportunity does exist, it can change to imminent danger in a heartbeat!

This is a good time to touch upon force continuum. Sometimes the three criteria can appear and disappear in seconds. Say, for instance, an assailant strikes you, but you are able to defend and attack with such ferocity that he or she ends up lying on the ground unconscious. Do you still have the right to continue using force? NO! This person is no longer an imminent threat, and it would be advisable to contact the local authorities and/or move to a secure location. However, if you are in the middle of dialing 911, and this person revives and advances toward you again, force may once again be warranted. If this person revives and runs away, you cannot shoot him in the back! The important point to take away is this: the moment at which you choose to use force and the threat is no longer a threat, you technically become the aggressor. Witnesses and cameras can serve as testament to this fact, so keep this in mind. Your justification must be sound, so you must use what Kelly McCann calls rage with reason.

As aforementioned, this discussion is not meant to dissuade you from using lethal force, but you must understand when it is warranted, and when it is not, as your actions will most certainly be held up to scrutiny by your peers. Understanding the law of the land will go a long way towards correct decision-making in this area. I was listening to audio of Lt. Col. Dave Grossman giving a speech on being a warrior, and therein he talks about making the decision to use lethal force, or simply speaking, to take another human life. It is a decision many struggle with because most species are not wired to harm their own kind. Nevertheless, a warrior that is fully prepared to use deadly force when justifiable will most likely never have to use it. I guess it is because this warrior wisely understands the great responsibility that comes with that decision. But one must make it now, and not in the moment of reckoning, because every second counts; it could mean the difference between you living and dying. Assume the responsibility with a grave and sober mind, but nevertheless assume the responsibility; you deserve to live.


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