Most of us have seen news stories about potential victims killing “unarmed teens,” implying that shooting an unarmed assailant cannot be justified. But that’s just plain wrong. “Unarmed” does not mean “not dangerous,” and it does not mean that lethal force is never justified.
In recent years young urban predators have gained national attention for “The Knockout Game.” The object of the Game is a one-punch knockout—or at least knockdown—of an unwitting “player.” Multiple deaths have resulted from The Knockout Game and other one-punch assaults. Here’s a brief sampling:
Las Vegas, July 2011. A former football coach was convicted of involuntary manslaughter after a single punch to a 46-year-old tourist. The visitor from Utah died when his head struck the floor.
St. Cloud, Minnesota, September 2012. The 20-year-old victim, accompanying two women late at night, was attacked by an 18-year-old driver who exited his vehicle for unknown reasons. The assailant delivered one blow, knocking the escort to the ground where he landed on his head. He died the next day.
During 2013 at least three people were killed in deliberate Knockout Game attacks: a 78-year-old woman in New York; a 32-year-old woman in Washington; and a 46-year-old man in New Jersey.
Lakeland, Florida, May 2014. A 43-year-old man was engaged in a gas-station argument with a hothead who punched the man in the face, knocking him down. The victim struck his head on the pavement and died two weeks later.
Two soccer referees were killed by single blows just this year. In Salt Lake in April a 17-year-old player punched a 46-year-old referee in the face; he died comatose. Three months later a 44-year-old Michigan referee was struck one time by a 36-year-old player who disagreed with the ref’s call. The victim died without regaining consciousness.
Around the nation other victims were murdered or crippled in Knockout Game and similar attacks. A Syracuse, New York, incident involved a failed one-hit knockout so the predators stomped the man to death. Another was found with his head jammed through a metal fence, his neck broken.
Frequently the juvenile assailants are given light sentences owing to their youth. The two who beat the New Yorker to death received 18 months and may serve less.
The problem is not limited to the U.S.
Northern Territory, Australia, December 2010. A 39-year-old off-duty policeman was harassed by a pub patron on New Year’s eve, resulting in a scuffle. The patron struck the policeman once in a fatal “king hit.”
Northern Territory reported two other lethal one-punch incidents that summer. But according to news reports, some Western Australia juries did not believe that a single punch could be lethal, and ruled some deaths “accidental.” The territory then passed a law addressing “unlawful assault causing death.”
The phrase “causing death” is important. Frequently—perhaps usually—the victim dies not from the direct effect of the fist but from striking his head on a hard surface.
In February 2012 a national frenzy embroiled Florida neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman. His shooting of Trayvon Martin focused attention on “unarmed” attackers. The 17-year-old Martin had no weapon when he smashed Zimmerman in the face with his fists, then pounded Zimmerman’s head against the sidewalk.
In August 2014 another racially-charged incident occurred in Missouri when policeman Darren Wilson fatally shot teenager Michael Brown. The grand jury stated that Brown—a 290-pound 18-year-old who had just committed a strong-arm robbery—struck Wilson at least twice in the head and tried to seize his pistol. Subsequently Wilson said that he feared for his life as the assailant charged him, resulting in Brown’s death.
None of the foregoing are isolated incidents. According to the FBI Uniform Crime Reports for 2012, 682 people were killed by assailants using hands and/or feet. The figure was even higher in 2011, with 726 “unarmed” killers.
So: what is “unarmed” and how are potential victims to respond to physical assault?
In most of the cases noted above, the victims were in their twenties to forties. Thus, they were not aged or frail such as the 78-year-old New York woman. In short, anyone in decent health can be killed or crippled by one blow from an “unarmed” assailant, including teen attackers.
In other cases, an assailant “only” armed with a knife has killed or injured people armed with firearms. The first instance I knew of occurred in my home county in Oregon in 1976. A policeman was confronted with a knife-wielding youth who inflicted a fatal wound. The officer’s last words to a partner, “I couldn’t shoot him. He was just a kid.”
Arizona Revised Statutes Section 13-105(14) defines deadly physical force as “force that is used with the purpose of causing death or serious physical injury or in the manner of its use or intended use is capable of creating a substantial risk of causing death or serious physical injury.” It says nothing about weapons or the age of the attacker. It only says “capable of creating a substantial risk of causing death or serious physical injury.” Case studies show that “unarmed teens” are entirely “capable of creating a substantial risk of causing death or serious physical injury.
Despite media and cultural antipathy against lethal responses to “unarmed” attackers, the pattern is crystal clear: the empty-handed assailant bearing down upon an intended victim is fully capable of killing or crippling that person. The situation is especially of concern to older people who are far less able to defend themselves mano a mano. It’s a concern that we Baby Boomers increasingly will have to face.
The pacifist crowd follows a predictable script: if you must have a weapon, use a non-lethal method. But a taser is a one-shot weapon: what do you do against two attackers, let alone a pack? Mace or pepper spray is only useful at arm’s length, when effective at all. Police training demonstrates that often it fails to deter an assailant, and again—how do you handle multiple attackers?
Recently I was recalling what most of us learned in kindergarten:
1. Be nice.
2. Don’t hit.
3. Share the toys.
We nice folks follow those rules, but when others do not, the solution is clear: carry a sidearm you have learned to use safely and well. Do not hesitate because the predator attacking you is “unarmed” or is “just a kid.” Check your laws and base your decision on whether you face substantial risk of death or injury. If you believe not, then don’t shoot. If you reasonably believe you are at risk, then you might shoot to stop the threat.
The life you save may be your own.