Legal Thoughts On Rimfires For Self-Defense

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Rimfires for self-defense can work, but they have certain limitations and you need to have a plan.

I started teaching armed citizens how and when to use firearms for self-defense back in 1988. One of my first students, Patricia Newman (not her actual name), was one of my first to use a gun to save her life. She had been singled out for a brutal rape, with her rapist (in her apartment) raping and sodomizing her over the course of several hours. He didn’t need a weapon to threaten her; he used his hands to choke her repeatedly.

At one point in the evening, she was able to convince him that she needed to use the bathroom, which had two doors, one to the living room (where the attacks occurred) and one to the bedroom, where she kept her Smith & Wesson Kit Gun (.22 rimfire Mod. 34). She was able to get her gun, and when her rapist realized that she had gone into the bedroom, he followed her, and met her in the bathroom, where she shot him repeatedly with the kit gun. He then left the apartment, stumbled down the hallway, knocking on doors and yelling for assistance, at which time he then passed out and died. She had shot him five times in the chest with .22 hollow points.

Learning From Tragedy

A lot can be learned from this incident. First, why was she using a .22 LR? For a couple of reasons. One was that she was initially trained as a new shooter with a .22 LR revolver. She was comfortable with the gun and, being petite, could handle the .22 LR recoil very easily. Secondly, she wasn’t wealthy, so she had that one gun for both practice and home defense.

Another lesson has to do with the aftermath issues. She told the police when they were investigating, “He raped me five times, so I shot him five times.” That quote made it into the story the newspaper ran a few days later. As it turned out, she didn’t face any criminal or civil legal repercussions, but you’d be advised to choose your words carefully, if you talk to the police after an incident.

Because of the injuries she suffered during the attack, she spent several days in the hospital. She called me from the hospital one evening (my business phone was also my personal phone) and related the story. She asked if she could borrow a gun, as the police had confiscated hers while the investigation was being conducted. I told her to come visit me when she was released from the hospital. When she did, I loaned her a Smith & Wesson .38 Special.

She kept the gun for several weeks, as she had repeatedly called the police to ascertain the status of the investigation and to get her own gun back, but the detective wasn’t returning her calls. She eventually called me again because she had convinced herself that she was going to be arrested since the detective wouldn’t call her back when she left messages.

So, I did what every well-meaning firearms instructor would do—I got an attorney involved. Another student of mine was an attorney, and I called him and asked if he’d intercede on her behalf. He agreed. One phone call from the attorney and the detective called her back, apologizing for not returning her calls and letting her know that there were no charges to be brought, and she could come pick up her gun. It turns out he had been on vacation for a while, and that was his excuse. OK, I guess.

Key Takeaways

This story illustrates the primary legal issue in using rimfires for self-defense, that being lack of instant stopping power and the likely need to shoot multiple times, if at all.

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No one wants to get shot, even with a .22 LR. That being said, if a person chooses to employ a .22 LR, they need to work out some issues ahead of time. First, they need to develop command presence, so they can effectively communicate with the criminal suspect that if they’re going to continue their criminal activity, they’re likely to be shot. Most reputable schools can teach you this, and before you sign up for a class, you need to make sure the curriculum covers taking criminal suspects at gunpoint. And once you learn how, you need to practice.

Second, you should use a “serious” handgun. Handguns that come to mind are Ruger and Smith & Wesson revolvers, and medium-sized semi-automatics, like the Ruger series of semi-autos. The reason for this recommendation is two-fold. First, for the most part, doctrine across the United States amongst the instructor cadre is that if you use a .22 LR, shoot for the head. And, you must hit the soft parts of the head (eyes and temple area). You need to get that small bullet inside the cranium where it can do its job disrupting the central nervous system. Having to wait for the person to collapse from internal bleeding isn’t likely a successful strategy, if he’s bent on killing you. Patricia was lucky.

Also important is the psychological factor when facing a criminal suspect. If the person cannot even see the gun in your hand, they’ll likely not be impressed. But a stainless or blued gun, which looks like a .357 Mag. or 9mm, might just stop them dead in their tracks without a shot being fired. If I were to recommend one .22 for self-defense, above all others, it’d be the Glock 48. A .22 rimfire that’s the size of a Glock 9mm. And it’s superbly easy to shoot. It has replaced our Ruger Mark 2’s in our training for new gun owners.

Also, look into the .22 Magnum, if you want a gun that doesn’t recoil much but still has a large bark. Rock Island Armory has recently come out with a .22 magnum 1911-style pistol, which should be good for 1911 aficionados (like me). I was a big fan of the AMT .22 Mag., which while not currently made, suitable used ones are around for good prices. And, they fit nicely in Browning Hi-Power holsters. There are also .22 Mag. revolvers. Do your homework.

The .22 Magnum offers a better bullet at higher velocity, but at more cost and noise. (Recoil is still pretty minimal.)
The .22 Magnum offers a better bullet at higher velocity, but at more cost and noise. (Recoil is still pretty minimal.)

With the likelihood of needing to shoot for the head, if you use a .22 for self-defense, you’ll need to be able to articulate exactly why you took what most would call “a killing shot.” You had better be able to explain why you targeted the head (not difficult, but you better think it through ahead of time).

That’s it for the legalities of using a .22 for self-defense. While certainly justifiable, it comes with limitations.

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the 2021 CCW special issue of Gun Digest the Magazine.


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