Most people assume that in the event of a self defense shooting their problem ends with the shooting. An armed citizen buys a handgun, trains in its use, earns a carry permit, gets attacked, defends themselves, and survives. It is pretty reasonable to assume that that cycle is over. Unfortunately its not, a new cycle begins where people begin to pick apart the citizens actions, and decide using the benefits of hindsight and comfort what a person did instantly and under the stress of a lethal encounter.
The police, the prosecutor, judge, and possibly a jury will decide the citizen’s fate. As tools they will use the actions of the armed citizen before, during and after the incident. Knowing what to do after a shooting is just as important as knowing what to do during a shooting.
Many people, myself included, earn a living studying and teaching the art and science of what actions to take before and during a self defense encounter. A person is not even legally allowed to become an armed citizen unless they prove they live up to the standards imposed upon them. They must be sane, responsible, free of felony convictions, and additionally cannot have even committed certain misdemeanors. Proper tactics to use in a gunfight are also well documented. Anybody with five dollars can buy a book or magazine discussing tactics and strategies that will help them survive a gunfight. What is not so well known are what actions to take after a self defense shooting. What should a citizen do to reinforce that what they did was justifiable. A citizen can feel that they were threatened, and that they had no option but to fight back using lethal force, but if the police, the district attorney, and the media decide otherwise, the upstanding citizen is now a suspect, and possibly a convicted felon.
The State of Tennessee’s handgun permit course discusses an acronym C.A.P.S to describe what actions a person should take after being involved in a shooting. I will not only describe the acronym here, I will add some of my own thoughts, and how I arrived at them.
Call the Police
You did not do anything wrong. You were attacked. Attacked people call the police. Guilty people hide their actions from the police. The prisons are full of people who did not see witnesses and left the scene, only to be described later at trial as a guilty person who ruthlessly shot an innocent civilian and then fled the scene. Flight equals guilt in our legal system. If this is not enough, let’s look at another common theme of system of justice. It is that the first man to make complaint is right; the other is wrong. If you were involved in a shooting and then called the police, and while you are on line with the dispatcher, a friend of the attacker called the police, you look innocent, you have already made a report, you have already asked for the police’s help. Imagine that you did not call, and that someone reported you as a murderer, and the police found you carrying a pistol that matched the bullets in a dead man.
Assist the injured (yourself and others)
Justified self-defense means someone tried to kill you. Bullets, broken bottles, baseball bats, or bowie knives were just used against you. After the smoke clears, you’re going to see if you’re okay. Also because you’re a decent human being you’re going to make sure all the innocent bystanders are not hurt. The next thing you’re going to do after you called the police and did the other functions of CAPS is assist your attacker with first aid. You are going to do this because you are a decent human being who does not want to hurt anyone, you don’t want to kill people. You were attacked and you defended yourself. Now that the fight is over you are back to being a full of peace and love. Now you are not going to run over to a drugged up street thug holding a knife in his hand at cursing you at the top of his lungs. You are not going to do anything to risk your own safety. However, if you can safely do so you should try to help everyone that is injured.
Place your weapon in a safe location
Now imagine the following scene, you’ve been attacked, a shooting has taken place. The police have been called. You are covered in the blood of your attacker, because you have just finished bandaging his wounds. You are standing up waiting on the police; your gun is in your hand so you can hand to the police when they get on scene. Do you what to know how the police would see the same thing? A police man and his partner are just back from a domestic dispute, they haven’t had lunch, and they both know they have a long couple hours left of report writing, when they get a call from dispatch of a shooting a few blocks down. Not much information yet from dispatch. They hit the lights and sirens. Their bodies get hit with a burst of adrenaline, and their mind starts racing with the possibilities. They get to the scene to see a wild eyed man with bloody hands and a big black handgun. They see a man on the ground, and once again their eyes focus on that man standing there with that big black handgun.
Police are trained to react to the sight of a gun, and they will.
Put your weapon back in the holster, make no sudden moves when the police arrive, and above all do what they say. They time to make acquisitions of mistreatment are after you are cleared of all charges.
Secure the scene
Have you seen the movie “Con-Air”? Nicolas Cage was found guilty of killing a man with his bare hands. In the fight scene three guys attacked him, because they dislike soldiers, liked his wife, and were generally unpleasant people. One of them also pulled out a switch-blade knife. Nicolas Cage, being the hero of the movie, and being an Army Ranger fresh from Desert Storm killed him. One of the attackers took the dead man’s knife and ran off. Does anyone think that a unarmed war hero, attacked by three knife wielding men, would be convicted of manslaughter? Not if there was proof of a weapon. Gang members have been known to take evidence. If it is safe and if you can do so without substantially altering the crime scene, make sure that your attacker’s weapon is present the police will need it to clear you of wrongdoing.
In addition to the CAPS acronym, here are two other thoughts of mine, which might be of help to you in the event you do have to use lethal force to protect your life:
No matter what your friends cousin said, never, under any circumstances try to fool the police by adding, taking away, or moving evidence. If you ever shoot someone outside your house and drag the body inside, the only thing that will happen is my friends that work for the Tennessee Department of Correction will be feeding you your lunch every day for the next 20 years. The same applies to shooting a burglar and putting a kitchen knife in their hand. Have you ever seen TV show CSI? It might not be the most accurate description of a crime lab, but it based on the fact that there are such things as forensic scientists. Policemen are not dumb. They can deduce that the knife in the dead guys hand is the same kind of knife in your kitchen butcher block, and that that block is missing the exact type of knife in the burglar’s hand. Match that with the kitchen is behind where the evidence says you were when you shot the guy, and the police will soon figure out that the dead guy in your living room could not get the knife in his hand. If that happens your in a world of hurt.
Never lie to the police. Everything you say will be written down and verified. If you lie and they find it you will look guilty. If you look guilty charges will be put on you. If charges are placed against you, and you look guilty, it is not a stretch of the imagination that you will be found guilty. The problem with this comes in if you realize that if it appears that you lied to the police they will assume that you ARE lying. Many physiological changes occur in your body in response to dealing with someone who is trying to kill you. One of these things is called cognitive dissidence. Without going into huge detail, this basically means that the brain distances itself from things it believes are not important to its survival. Important things sometimes do not seem important, while trivial things can seem extremely important. This translates into you saying things at the scene that you later realize are inaccurate. The reason for the Fifth Amendment is so that you do not incriminate your self by saying such things. Anybody who has ever watched a cop show knows that “pleading the fifth” is the same as saying “I’m guilty as sin”. How does a person juggle all this? You cannot lie to the police, you have to cooperate, everything you say is going to be used against you, and you know going in that everything you say at the scene has a strong possibility of being wrong. One such solution is saying something like “Officer I want to cooperate, I’m the one that called you, but before I talk to you, I’d like to see a doctor, I’m not feeling very well.” Remember CAPS, assist the injured. You have just been in a lethal force encounter. Remember all those physiological changes I briefly mentioned. It’s perfectly normal to want a doctor to explain them to you. The time it takes to get checked out, is probably all the time it will take to get a lawyer to protect your rights.
In conclusion I would like to reiterate that in the event you are in a lethal force situation, your training is what will get you through, but it is your actions and lifestyle before and after that will keep you out of legal trouble. Never give up.