When is a private citizen within their rights to use deadly force to stop a fleeing felon?
On February 20, 2021, Joshua Williams entered the Jefferson Gun Outlet, a combination gun shop and indoor shooting range. He was visibly armed with a pistol and extended magazine, according to surveillance camera footage released by the Jefferson County Parish (Louisiana) Sheriff’s Department. When asked by store employees to go back outside and unload the pistol (as was store policy), Williams moved to the door, fired one shot outside the store, and then turned the gun into the store and shot and killed 59-year-old Veronica Billiot, a store customer.
Williams then left the store for a moment, but quickly re-entered and shot and killed a store employee, 47-year-old Noah Fischbach. He then left the store again, and at that time several store employees confronted Williams and, engaging in a shootout with the suspected murderer, killed him. Two of those store employees were injured in the final gunfight.
Where Are The Lines Drawn?
This shooting perfectly illustrates the issues surrounding when a private citizen is within his rights to use deadly force to stop a fleeing felon.
First, there must’ve been a heinous felony involved. There’s little that would qualify quicker as a heinous felony than a killing spree of innocent persons. In this case, if you witnessed the initial shooting, you knew for sure this was an evil person killing innocents. Just about all active shooter incidents that were interdicted by armed citizens fall into this category.
Secondly, the heinous felony must have been witnessed by you, or you must have a reasonable belief that the subject had just committed that heinous felony. Whether or not the remaining store employees actually saw the first two shootings, they certainly had a reasonable belief that the subject escaping had done the shooting. But one cannot take the word of a third person, they must develop their own facts to make this assessment. Even if a police officer yells at you to “shoot him,” don’t shoot based only on his command.
A third criteria would be that the escape of the felon must be open ended, meaning it’s unlikely he’d immediately be captured if not confronted (and, in this case, killed). And that standard of knowledge would need to be to the standard of the reasonable and prudent person. Would a reasonable and prudent person believe he was going to escape without capture?
Additionally, you must believe (again to that standard of a reasonable and prudent person) that if he was to escape, additional innocent lives would be endangered. Perhaps this point would’ve been a little more difficult to reach, but in this day and age of active shooters and witnessing an active shooter event unfold before your eyes, this belief would likely be reasonable on its surface. The history of the actions of random killers is they keep killing when confronted and ultimately killed.
Lastly, no reasonable alternative to using deadly force to capture/apprehend him must exist.
Know Your Rights:
The Fine Print
As a firearms trainer for more than 30 years, I don’t know how many times I’ve been asked about shooting fleeing felons, typically under the example of someone breaking into your house or car and when confronted, the felon runs. “Can I shoot him to stop him from getting away?” Well, no, you cannot under that example.
“OK, how about if someone sticks a gun in your face and demands your money and car keys?” You comply and when he turns to leave, you draw and blast him. This would be considered a “violent felony,” but it wouldn’t fall into the realm of a heinous felony. A heinous felony most certainly involves bloodshed, whether that be by gun, knife or some other weapon. The mere threat of bloodshed doesn’t make the grade.
Now, that doesn’t mean you must simply let the armed robber get away with your money and your car keys. Pursuing and confronting him (a citizen’s arrest) is certainly within your rights as an American citizen. If you do that and he again threatens deadly violence against you, then a classic armed confrontation would likely ensue. Can you be assured of winning that confrontation? I’d say those odds are about 50/50—not the kind of odds I want to bet my life on.
But if I have witnessed that heinous felony as described above, and I can stop the killer from leaving and endangering others’ lives and I can stop him without endangering other’s lives, I might just intervene. I hope I never have to make that decision.
Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the May 2021 issue of Gun Digest the Magazine.
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