Gun Digest

Knife Vs Gun: When Are You Justified To Shoot?

Knife vs Gun — when is the armed citizen on solid legal footing when using lethal force against an attacker with a blade weapon.

On October 26, 2020, Philadelphia Police shot and killed a man with a knife, 27-year-old Walter Wallace. YouTube videos show the shooting, and to this observer, the two police officers who fired a total of 10 shots were likely justified in the shooting.

Have you considered under what circumstances you’d shoot someone threatening you with a knife?

What Is The 21-Foot Rule?

Just about everyone who has ever attended a training course on lawful use of force has heard of the Tueller drill, referred in some circles as the 21-foot rule.

To bring everyone up to speed, in 1983, Salt Lake Police Sgt. Dennis Tueller, a firearms instructor for his police department, one day timed his officers on how quickly they could draw and hit a man-sized target with two shots from their service revolvers. The distance was 7 yards, and the times averaged 1.5 seconds.

He then timed the officers on how quickly they could run the same 7 yards, and found it also averaged 1.5 seconds. The conclusion was that an officer should have their gun drawn when facing a knife-wielding suspect if that suspect was within 21 feet, or the officer would have no chance to draw and get shots off before being stabbed. This fact does not, though, automatically guarantee the legal system will validate your shooting of someone threatening with a knife from less than 7 yards.

What The Jury Will Consider

All the facts and circumstances surrounding the incident will need to be analyzed, with the results of that analysis being filtered through the reasonable person doctrine. What would a reasonable and prudent person have done in the same circumstances, knowing what you knew at the time?

Did the person display obvious overt threatening acts? Were they verbally threatening to use the knife against you? Was there a past history of violence on the part of the suspect? Was there any other criminal activity being engaged in by the suspect? For example, a person who pulls a knife on you outside the convenience store and states he will kill you if you don’t give him your money, is a different threat than someone who simply is carrying a knife open, exposed and acting erratically.

I worked on a case where an individual (according to the defendant) had previously threatened the use of a K-bar knife, and then moments later, threatened him again and started toward the defendant. The defendant shot and killed the attacker, but the attacker never drew the knife—just had it in its sheath on his hip. There were other extenuating circumstances, which ultimately led the jury to convict (like the drunkenness of the defendant and the fact he fled the scene) and worked against his credibility. My analysis of the scene and testimony in court wasn’t enough to overcome these facts, although I do believe he was justified in taking the suspect’s life.

Knife Vs Gun: Is There An Advantage?

There’s still a tendency for some to discount a knife as being as dangerous as a gun. The old adage that a gun is more lethal than a knife is simply wrong, as a well-aimed and executed knife cut can disable and kill as quick or quicker than a similar wound inflicted with a gun. The phrase in the reasonable person doctrine “knowing what you knew at the time” will be extremely important when you’re looking into the jury box and trying to convince them you had a reasonable belief your life was in danger. That’s where documented knowledge and training will be your ace in the hole.

When I was a young rookie police officer, our tactical and legal training surrounding lethal threats didn’t sufficiently cover knife lethality, in my opinion. It was generally accepted that the officer, if he or she had a baton, should use that baton to disarm the individual with the knife. It was only later, after Tueller’s earlier work and the production and distribution of the 1988 officer survival video Surviving Edged Weapons by Calibre Press, that the current training in knife lethality became widespread. If you carry a gun and haven’t seen this video, you really need to see it.

Training As A Legal Aid

Additionally, receiving hands-on, documented training from a reputable instructor or school might be invaluable if you ever have to justify your actions in court. Under most circumstances, your instructor could be introduced to validate the concepts and training he taught you.

The concept of documented training is what allows most police officers who use deadly force against knife-wielding suspects to avoid prosecution or civil liability. And the same documented training could very well be used by your attorney to convince the prosecutor’s office not to press charges against you, even if the suspect “only had a knife.”

Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the March 2021 issue of Gun Digest the Magazine.

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