Short answer: Never.
Recently the Florida state legislature passed a bill making warning shots legal for self-defense (but it is not yet law) in response to what I believe is the media storm that surrounded Marissa Alexander after the Trayvon Martin case. I summarize her case in this post from last July.
I am of the belief that is a bad idea of biblical proportions for the following reasons…
#1. Self-defense is an affirmative defense.
If you are unfamiliar with the term “affirmative defense” it simply means… “What I did would normally be against the law, but due to the situation my actions were justified, so I shouldn’t be punished.”
In an affirmative defense you are saying “Yes, I did it… I meant to do it… You would have done the same thing.”
With the addition of the warning shot law the prosecutor now has 2 additional avenues to attack a valid self-defense claim.
First… “Why did you shoot him? He was just a 17yo kid and a warning shot would have made him stop the attack. A reasonable person would have just fired a warning shot.”
How do you know that it would have stopped the attack? Pistols aren’t all that good at stopping a threat anyway.
Second… “The defendant didn’t shoot his attacker… he attempted to fire a warning shot and missed, accidently striking the victim.”
I’m going to call this the missed, missing tactic.
You see with an affirmative defense you have to say that you meant to do what you did and it was justified. There is no negligence defense.
This is why I don’t like single action triggers on self-defense guns (specifically revolvers). It can be claimed that based on the facts of the case that you were justified in shooting the attacker, BUT you shot him on accident due to the sympathetic reaction of gripping the gun and therefore it was negligence.
You’re Guilty of Negligent Homicide.
This is of course in addition to the fact that actually shoot someone you already have to show the attacker had the ability, immediate opportunity and intention to cause death or serious bodily injury.
Explain to me how you felt the attacker had the ability, immediate opportunity and intention to cause death or serious bodily injury if you had the time to waste ammunition?
There is NO WAY to use a firearm or an edged weapon that is not lethal force.
Warning shots are never advised and firing a pistol into the air is criminal negligence. Similarly a pocket knife is not a lower level of force.
In the heat of a critical incident you will not be able make a level of force decision and using too little could result increased injuries or death, while using too much force could result in legal issues.
In general to use lethal force you need to remember…
- Your use of deadly force requires the attacker to have ability, immediate opportunity and intention to cause death or serious bodily injury, and in some locales it has to be unavoidable.
- Your level of force must be appropriate to the threat.
- It must stop when the threat ceases.
#2. Guns are deadly weapons (That is why they are so good for self-defense)
In the controlled environment of a shooting range guns can be fun, but the are always dangerous and they always have the capacity to cause death.
We minimize the risks through the use of the 4 rules (warning you might not like those 4), back stops, training, muzzle discipline… but every year someone still shoots themselves in what should be a safe environment.
Add to that the stress of a critical incident and now you have to not only know where the threat is, what is around the threat, but also what is currently a safe direction to fire your pistol in.
Good luck with that. If you don’t kill or injure someone it will be dumb luck.
#3 What’s the point?
People say that the reason for a warning shot is to create a creditable threat of force that changes the actions of the threat.
Have you ever heard a parent say… “I’ve told you 3 times already, if I have to tell you again I am going to spank you here in front of everybody!”
No they won’t and the 4 yo knows it. Why because if they were going to they would have done it already.
A warning shot gives up any potential tactical advantage of concealed carry and tells the threat with a loud bang that you can’t or you’re not ready to shoot them yet.
That is not a credible threat.
I actually played this song for my son this morning to illustrate a similar point.
Since the law was passed a Florida security guard was arrested for firing a warning shot when confronted by 15-20 people and claims he was in fear of death or great bodily injury.
The fact is that if they wanted to kill him, they could do it short of him having an armored car or maybe belt-fed machine gun.
He fired 2 rounds into an occupied apartment building. Negligence.
He couldn’t have found a better backstop? No… He was facing 15-20 attackers, he did not have the mental bandwidth to find a better backstop.
And did it work?
After firing the rounds there was still a woman close enough to him for to arrest (illegally) and another stuck around to film the event… I’d say that didn’t work as well as he had hoped.
Don’t fire warning shots.