The Dangerous Myth of Hierarchy of Lethality


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Ignorance of the Law Excuses No One

One of the most crucial components of an armed encounter is what happens after the actual event. Maintaining an awareness of self-defense laws – not just in your home state but others as well – is crucial in order to avoid possible arrest, trial, and even conviction or sentencing via the justice system. Ensure a well-rounded understanding of your right to self-defense with this four reference exclusive collection. Arm Yourself with Knowledge

Far from popular perception, a knife or baseball can be as or more deadly than a firearm.
Far from popular perception, a knife or baseball bat can be as or more deadly than a firearm.

We live in a world where the entertainment media and the news media alike have demonized the firearm as a frightening, high-efficiency killing machine. A myth has arisen that I call “hierarchy of lethality.” It is the false belief that the firearm represents the nuclear level of hand-held weaponry, and is somehow more lethal than other deadly weapons.

The general public sees the knife as something less: after all, they’ll open their mail in the morning with something very much like your opponent’s knife, and will slice the roast at dinner tonight with something virtually identical to the blade your opponent wields.

Because it’s an accoutrement of everyday life, they just don’t see the knife as a weapon, even though they know cognitively that it can be turned from culinary aid to murder weapon in a heartbeat. An impact weapon, a “club”? Well, they may see that as even less deadly.

Now, the night comes when you are attacked by a homicidal perpetrator wielding bludgeon or blade. You are forced to shoot him in self-defense. I can almost guarantee where the subsequent attack on you is going to come from:

“He only had a knife!”

“He only had a baseball bat!”

Opposing counsel may attempt to paint you as the bully and coward who used a deadlier weapon than your assailant, and will attempt to convince the jury that your shooting of a man with “a less than lethal weapon” is unfair and therefore improper.

Of course, this flies in the face of the legality of the matter, which is that within their range, the club and the knife are every bit as deadly as the gun…and, in some situations, can be deadlier.

Knife Lethality

A knife never jams. A knife never runs out of ammunition; you rarely see a gunshot murder victim who has been shot more than a few times, but any homicide investigator can tell you how common it is for the victim of a knife murder to bear twenty, thirty, or more stab and/or slash wounds. “A knife comes with a built-in silencer.” Knives are cheap, and can be bought anywhere; there used to be a cutlery store at LaGuardia Airport, not far outside the security gates. There is no prohibition at law against a knife being sold to a convicted felon. Knives can be small and flat and amazingly easy to conceal.

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Impact Weapon Lethality

Common tools turn into remarkably efficient death weapons, some more readily than others. Police batons have rounded surfaces in hopes of reducing fractures to underlying bone and minimizing lacerations, while still delivering a stunning impact to stop the recipient’s physical assault. Many common tools and other objects have rough, irregular edges which are conducive to shattering bones and splitting flesh. The common claw hammer is a particularly deadly murder weapon. In blows to the head, it often punches completely through the skull wall and into the soft, vulnerable brain tissue beneath. Hammer murderers have told in their confessions how the hammer became stuck inside the victim’s skull so deeply that they had to step or even stomp on the head to break the hammer free for the next blow. Crowbars are also associated with particularly destructive blunt force injuries. The list goes on.

The “Unarmed Motorist”

Unarmed? A full-size automobile traveling fifty miles an hour generates approximately half a million foot-pounds of energy. Far from being unarmed, the violent man who turns his automobile into a guided missile has armed himself with the most crushingly powerful of bludgeons. Deliberately driving at a person on foot is a serious crime, delineated in some jurisdictions as “assault with a deadly weapon, to wit, a motor vehicle.” That angry spouse who runs over the significant other is culpable for murder in every jurisdiction.

Less Lethal Weapons

Over the years, the terminology changed from “non-lethal” to “less-lethal” or “less than lethal.” The reason was simple: in real world application, intermediate force weapons weren’t always non-lethal. A fight is generally a rapid swirl of movement involving at least two people. Sometimes, for example, a swing of the baton intended for a suspect’s shoulder or upper arm might hit the rounded deltoid muscle and skid off into the head as the suspect simultaneously tried to duck away from the stick. The result could be a blow to the temple with enough power to fracture the skull, and/or cause permanent or even fatal brain injury.

Editor’s Note: This article is excerpted from Massad Ayoob’s book Deadly Force: Understanding Your Right to Self Defense.


Deadly Force: Understanding Your Right to Self Defense

In this timely rewrite of the world’s most authoritative work on the topic, In the Gravest Extreme, Massad Ayoob utilizes an extra thirty years of experience to discuss the ideas and issues surrounding the armed citizens’ rules of engagement. Mas explores the evolution of gun laws within the last three decades, discussing the recognition of permits in different states, magazine capacity limits, and how best to keep abreast of these ever-changing laws.


  1. I was an Air Force policeman in the 1970’s, and I recall the training we received. When the instructors were teaching the use of deadly force (when to draw a pistol or use a rifle), they stated that just about anything an opponent had, be it a baseball bat, a knife, or a golf club, was considered by the courts a deadly weapon, and that the use of a sidearm was appropriate to defend oneself. The media and Hollywood may consider such weapons as ineffective, but recall a number of years ago in Canada when the mentally deranged individual attacked all those people on a bus, with a knife. That was an effective attack. I believe something similar happened again just a few short weeks ago. Regardless of the popular mythology that the media tries to drum up against firearms as defensive tools, I most certainly want my sidearm with me in the event of such an attack.

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