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When Can I Use a Firearm in Self-Defense?

Posted by Dmitry Gorin | Apr 01, 2024

In California, you have the right to defend yourself against an attacker without retreating, and your right to self-defense will be protected, provided that the amount of force you use is proportionate to the perceived threat (not necessarily the actual threat). 

This includes using a firearm in self-defense when it's deemed necessary. In other words, you're legally allowed to use a legal firearm in self-defense when the circumstances suggest lethal force is necessary.

When Can I Use a Firearm in Self-Defense?
California’s self-defense law allows you to use force to prevent harm, including using a firearm.

Simply put, California's self-defense law allows you to use enough force to prevent harm. For example, suppose the court determines that a reasonable person in your position would have reacted similarly. In that case, your criminal charges should be dismissed.

However, there are some key factors that you should know. First, the force you use must match the level of threatened danger. The danger does not need to be real if you believe it is reasonable.

Also, you can use deadly force only if you reasonably fear great bodily injury or death. California is a stand-your-ground state, meaning there is no legal duty to retreat from a fight. California's Castle Doctrine allows you to use deadly force against an intruder who breaks into your home.

Self-defense laws can be used for many types of crimes, including Penal Code 187 PC murder, Penal Code 245(a)(1) assault with a deadly weapon, Penal Code 243(e)(1) domestic battery, and many others.

That being said, if you're charged with a crime and claiming self-defense, you need to demonstrate that you reasonably perceived that the other person posed a threat to your safety—and if you discharged a firearm against that person in the process, you might need to show that lethal force was authorized in that situation.

What is the Definition of Self-Defense in California?

In California, self-defense is a legal defense that can be invoked when a person reasonably believes they are in imminent danger of being killed, suffering great bodily harm, or becoming a victim of certain forcible and atrocious crimes. 

The person must also reasonably believe that immediate use of force is necessary to defend against that danger and must use no more force than is reasonably necessary.

In California, you do not have to prove you acted in self-defense. Once you claim that you did, the prosecution has the burden to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that you did not.

Elements of Self-Defense 

Three principal elements are generally required for a self-defense claim:

  1. Imminent Danger: The threat must be immediate and present, not potential or future.
  2. Reasonable Fear: The fear of harm must be reasonable; a hypothetical average person in the same situation would feel the same way.
  3. Proportionality of Force: The self-defense force must be proportional to the threat.

Self-defense is considered an “affirmative defense,” meaning that you admit you violated the law by inflicting physical force on somebody, but your actions were justifiable.

What is Stand Your Ground and Castle Doctrine in California?

California law incorporates two essential principles that can impact a self-defense claim: Stand Your Ground and the Castle Doctrine.

Stand Your Ground

Castle Doctrine

Unlike some states with explicit "stand your ground" laws, California does not have a statute explicitly codifying this principle. However, California law does recognize the right to stand your ground under certain conditions. In self-defense situations outside your home, you are not obligated to retreat before using force to defend yourself or others. 

This principle is derived from case law rather than specific statutes. The key is that the use of force, including lethal force, must be reasonable and necessary under the circumstances.

Castle Doctrine

The "castle doctrine" is more explicitly recognized in California law. This principle allows individuals to use force, including deadly force, without the duty to retreat when they are in their own home and an intruder unlawfully enters or attempts to enter. 

This doctrine is based on the belief that your home is your castle, and you have the right to defend it. Unlike standing your ground in public, the "Castle Doctrine" doesn't necessarily require you to prove a perceived need for deadly force. 

If someone breaks into your home by force, you have the right to assume it's a lethal threat, and you're allowed to respond with lethal force (including the use of a firearm). There is no duty to retreat, even if a safe retreat is possible.

What about the Use of Firearms and Lethal Force?

Because a firearm has the potential to cause death, using a firearm in self-defense introduces the consideration of lethal force. Lethal force is legally justified only when necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to oneself or others. 

Use of Firearms and Lethal Force

The use of a gun automatically escalates the situation to potentially lethal force due to the deadly nature of the weapon. Therefore, the law requires a high threat threshold to justify its use.

Before employing lethal force, one must reasonably believe that lesser means of defense would be insufficient. This decision must be made in the heat of the moment, and hindsight is not a luxury afforded to those making split-second decisions in life-threatening situations. 

Nonetheless, the justification for using lethal force will be meticulously examined in legal proceedings, focusing on whether the perceived threat was immediate and if the response was proportional.

Simply put, in California, you are legally justified in using deadly force in self-defense under the following circumstances:

  • You reasonably believed that you, or another person, was in imminent danger of sustaining a great bodily injury, being killed, or being the victim of a forcible and wicked crime and
  • You reasonably believed that you needed to use deadly force to prevent the danger and
  • You did not use more force than was reasonably necessary to keep the harm from occurring.

Why Do You Need an Experienced Attorney?

Using a firearm in self-defense, while legal under certain circumstances, can still result in serious legal consequences. An investigation will likely follow to determine whether your actions were indeed justified. 

If it's determined that your actions fell outside the legal parameters of self-defense, you could face criminal charges. Because there is so much at stake if you utilize a firearm in self-defense—even if you're completely within your legal rights—it's best to seek counsel from an experienced California criminal defense attorney who can help you demonstrate the elements required to prove lethal force was necessary to your self-defense.

Contact our law firm for more information. Eisner Gorin LLP has offices in Los Angeles, CA.

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About the Author

Dmitry Gorin

Dmitry Gorin is a licensed attorney, who has been involved in criminal trial work and pretrial litigation since 1994. Before becoming partner in Eisner Gorin LLP, Mr. Gorin was a Senior Deputy District Attorney in Los Angeles Courts for more than ten years. As a criminal tri...

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