Self Defense

Can I Shoot? May I Shoot? Should I Shoot? Must I Shoot?

The decision to use justified deadly force is a critical one that can be riddled with catastrophic consequences along with an arduous aftermath. This post briefly explores the can, may, should, and must components of the decision making process.

I found out about a podcast episode from That Weems Guy, titled Teaching Newbies, while checking out the most recent Weekly Knowledge Dump (May 6, 2022) from Greg Ellifritz and listened to it while driving to and from KR Training this past weekend to attend their Advanced Handgun class. The episode was quite interesting and gave me a lot to think about in terms of writing content intended to target folks who are new to guns, which plenty of readers who visit this blog are. During one of the topics in the episode, Lee Weems, Tim Reedy, and Rick Remington, brought up one of my favorite quotes from Tom Givens: “The question should never be, ‘Can I shoot him?’ The question should always be, ‘Do I have to shoot him?’” Lee Weems proceeded to discuss the semantics between can versus may versus should which is based on a paradigm introduced by Steven Harris in 2012 (see the update at the end of the post for more information). This got me thinking about how I’ve come to think about those questions when it comes to defensive shooting. I’m not discounting nor arguing what any of these instructors, who are far more experienced and well versed in both pistol shooting and armed self defense than I am, are teaching. Rather, I just want to present the notion I’ve developed to provide another perspective on this topic.

The question should never be, “Can I shoot him?” The question should always be, “Do I have to shoot him?”

Tom Givens

There are four questions to consider when deciding whether or not to bring a gun to bear and use it in a defensive encounter. These questions are:

  1. Can I shoot?
  2. May I shoot?
  3. Should I shoot?
  4. Must I shoot?

I’ve developed a notion that if the answer to any of those questions isn’t confidently and positively affirmative then one should decide against using a firearm or lethal force in self defense. I know that sounds absolute and I’m not a fan of absolutism. However, I cannot imagine a scenario in which deployment of force should be deployed where the answer to any of the questions is not affirmative.

A negative response to, “Must I shoot?”, after taking into account the totality of the situation indicates an alternative solution to the problem other than using lethal force is readily available. That option may be to retreat. Or perhaps it is an opportunity to use a less than lethal or non-lethal tool or technique as a potential solution. For example, issuing a forceful command to make an attacker(s) aware that they have been found out and that law enforcement has been contacted is enough to get the attacker(s) to change their mind. However, I don’t believe that an affirmative answer to the must I shoot question is sufficient to start shooting in self defense.

This is where, “Can I shoot?”, comes into the equation. As Lee Weems pointed out in the podcast episode, this question asks whether or not a person has the ability to shoot. While a citizen armed with a loaded firearm has everything they need to start shooting defensively, it is critical that the armed citizen also possesses the marksmanship skills necessary to achieve acceptable hits. Otherwise shots taken may result in misses or, as John Daub calls them, unacceptable hits because every miss means the projectile comes to rest on something other than the intended attacker(s) that must be stopped. Furthermore, unacceptable hits increase the likelihood of unintentionally shooting someone who shouldn’t have been shot, which is, as Claude Werner would say, a grave negative outcome and serious mistake. Another aspect of this is whether or not one possesses sufficient skill to bring the gun to bear and get to work fast enough before an armed attacker notices forceful resistance and decides to put an end to it.

The question of may, again as Lee Weems suggested on the podcast episode, deals with the legal aspects regarding the use of deadly force. The legalities are anything but simple and can vary from one jurisdiction to the next. Lack of knowledge in the legal aspects may lead one to make one more one of the serious mistakes gun owners make (also identified by Claude Werner in his work on the topic) such as getting needlessly arrested/convicted or intentionally shooting someone who shouldn’t have been shot. As such, I think it’s a good idea for folks to either seek to obtain a license to carry (concealed handgun license, carry a concealed weapon permit, or whatever the jurisdiction calls the permission slip issued in that locale) or at least attend the required training for it in order to familiar with the use of force and carry laws are in their area. Additionally, investing the time to read some books or attend training offered by Massad Ayoob or Andrew Branca is well worth the investment to help inform one’s answer to the question, “May I shoot?” A negative answer to this question means deadly force is not legally justified and as such should absolutely result in deciding against deploying deadly force.

The answer to, “Should I shoot?”, explores the morality of using deadly force (once again I’m borrowing from the Lee Weems podcast). Another way to ask this question is, “Am I willing to die or deal with the financial, legal, mental, and spiritual aftermath in the defense of the person(s) or property that is about to be defended?” The answer to this question is a very personal one. It behooves every single gun owner to invest some serious time soul searching for an answer to this. The worst possible time to first explore this question is when confronted with a situation that demands a decision. I can’t remember if I first heard this from Tom Givens, or maybe John Correia, or another instructor, but we won’t have the luxury of picking the time and place of an attack; the attacker(s) will decide that for us.

I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of these questions. While I want to dive much deeper into each one, and perhaps I will in future posts, I’m not going to that in this post because this post would be excruciatingly long and the brief cursory glance at them should be sufficient enough to see why I think answers to all four of the questions require confident and positive affirmations before deciding to use a firearm in defense of self or others. Additionally, readers would probably be better served by investing some time and either getting training or reading some of the work directly from the folks I’ve mentioned in this post so far who are significantly more qualified to speak on this topic than I am. The following table contains some suggested reading and a link to training information from the folks I’ve mentioned in this post.

Suggested ReadingTraining Information
Tom GivensConcealed Carry Class: The ABCs of Self-Defense Tools and TacticsRangemaster
John DaubWritings on Minimum Competency for Defensive PistolKR Training
Claude WernerSerious Mistakes Gunowners Make
Massad AyoobDeadly Force: Understanding Your Right to Self DefenseMassad Ayoob Group
Andrew BrancaThe Law of Self Defense: The Indispensable Guide to the Armed CitizenThe Law of Self Defense
Lee WeemsFirst Person Safety
Tim ReedyTDR Training
John CorreiaActive Self Protection

To summarize, I think ensuring all four questions have confident and positive affirmative answers before deploying deadly force in a situation where it is justified and absolutely necessary is critical in order to avoid negative outcomes. Granted this requires investment and preparation from gun owners in the form of education, training, and soul searching before confronted with a scenario where one is faced with the decision to shoot in defense of self or defense of others. I say this is required because attempting to answer the can, may, and should components on the stop will most likely lead to hesitation or a serious mistake.

Update 11/11/2022: I was recently made aware that the CAN-MAY-SHOULD-MUST deadly force paradigm was originally introduced and explored in depth by Steven Harris over the past ten years. His well thought out writings are extensive and articulate the concepts behind each question much better than I had in this post. Interested readers can read more on this paradigm using the links below:


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