Scenario: Your car is two more aisles over. There are footsteps behind you; he's walking in the same direction, and getting nearer. Something doesn't feel right. You cut between cars to the next aisle. A few seconds later, so does he. You glance back, and you get the feeling he had had been mostly intent upon you, but he quickly averts his gaze without slowing down or moving off. You move to the other side of the aisle, so does he. You run through the details; he's bigger than you are, you believe he's purposefully following you, and he's getting too close. You're carrying a concealed handgun. Short of using deadly force, what are your options?
I'm not an attorney. I read the Revised Code of Washington (RCW), but I'm not fluent in case law, precedents, and other matters and decisions that may well impact its interpretation and applicability to you and the situations you may encounter. I encourage you to do your own research to confirm and supplement what I've presented here, and to consult a qualified attorney when appropriate.
There must be a real and present threat to life for you to lawfully use lethal force in self-defense. A valid threat requires four elements: means, opportunity, intent, and you. You need to be in the right on every element, or you should not shoot. Let's consider each of these four elements.
The potential attacker must have the immediate means to actually inflict serious bodily harm upon you. Perhaps he's holding a weapon. Maybe there's more than one attacker. Maybe the attacker is significantly bigger than you, or stronger. Maybe you're significantly older, or you have a medical condition that the attacker will exploit.
The potential attacker has the immediate opportunity to use those means to hurt you. Is the threat actually close enough to use their weapon effectively? Is the threat free to move or otherwise act to cause you harm?
The threat has demonstrated that he wants to seriously hurt or even kill you. By his threatening words, his aggressive actions, or his clear behavior, he intends right now to use his means and his opportunity.
As someone carrying a concealed pistol, you are responsible for acting reasonably, and for knowing when and when not to use deadly force. It's only a valid self-defense situation if you know, before you act, that your attacker has the immediate means, the immediate opportunity, and the immediate intent to seriously hurt you. You also must be an innocent party in a self-defense situation: if you contributed to the conflict, it's not self-defense.
In the scenario I've described, you're missing one crucial element: being certain of the threat's intent. You can't yet be certain of that follower's intention to harm you, and until you're certain, going straight for your gun will likely cause you more problems than it'll solve. You must have and be certain of all four elements for it to be a real deadly force self-defense situation: the threat has the means to harm you, the threat has the immediate opportunity to do so, the threat is demonstrating the intent to do so, and you haven't been part of the problem.
But waiting until the potential threat actually acts to hurt you isn't a good option, either. You're in reasonable fear; you need to take control of this situation and be certain of the threat's intentions. You need to be prepared for each of three possibilities: maybe it's a misunderstanding, and he doesn't intend you harm; maybe the threat is real, he intends you harm, but will run once you stand fast; or maybe that guy does intend to seriously hurt you, and was hoping you wouldn't do anything until he got you where he wanted you.
Turn and face the threat, square on in a ready stance, with both hands raised in front of you and your palms firmly forward in a universal, no-holds-barred 'stop' gesture. Use your no-nonsense glare, and with your save-your-child voice, yell forcefully, "Stop right there!"
What's a save-your-child voice? That's the forcefulness and tone of voice you use when your six-year-old is about to unwittingly chase a ball out into the street, and there's a car coming: your voice must brook no argument and make clear you will accept nothing but immediate compliance.
You've done several things. You've made clear to the threat who you're talking to, because you're now glaring holes through him. You've made certain that the threat knows you are aware of him. And you've made clear you are prepared to act -- you are going to be a very, very hard target.
What will the threat do?
In all likelihood, he'll stop. You've surprised him. If he's innocent and never intended you harm, or wants to pretend that way, he'll probably mutter or mumble an apology, and might even turn or back away and go off in a different direction away from you. Watch him, but be looking around you, too -- he might have friends. Wait until you're certain he's too far away to become a threat again, and stay ready for other threats that may be with him. Get to an area of safety, and call 911; report what happened.
But what if he keeps coming?
The threat has ignored your first warning, and is continuing to come at you. Did he misunderstand your warning? Is he talking on his phone and doesn't realize that you meant him? He's now far too close for comfort -- he's within twenty feet of you, and still advancing.
Draw your gun.
Efficiently present your gun and aim towards his feet, maintain your stance, and try to shift towards the nearest cover that you can put between yourself and the threat. Check what's beyond the threat, and position yourself so that if you need to shoot, your bullets will be safely stopped beyond the threat. You have both hands on your gun, you're in a firing stance, the barrel is pointed low between you and the threat, and your finger is outside the trigger guard. In that same voice, you now yell forcefully, "Stop, or I'll shoot!" You mean it.
You have unequivocally drawn the line; you consider the threat real, you know he has the means and the opportunity to harm you, and he has demonstrated intent to do so by continuing to advance. You now have your weapon out and clearly displayed, and you've put your attacker at a disadvantage -- you're ready to immediately shoot him if you must.
What happens now?
An attacker with a sense of self-preservation will probably turn and run. Let him go. Watch the surrounding area for other threats, call 911, and help witnesses understand what happened. In most cases, displaying your weapon like you did to prevent an imminent attack is permitted under Washington's laws. You kept your weapon pointed low to keep you and everyone else around you safe, demonstrating readiness but due consideration.If the attacker continues to advance aggressively, his intent to harm you is clear: raise your gun and put two shots into his chest, and be prepared to follow up with additional shots if that fails to stop him. Move to the side, get behind cover. Change your position. Return your gun to low ready and look around for other threats. Reassess the original threat -- is he getting back up or still coming at you?
You've discharged your gun to protect your life. Several things will happen, now, and that's a topic for another article, but the most important things to remember are to maintain your awareness of your gun, watch for other threats, stay in the area, call 911, and help witnesses understand what happened.
Carrying a gun gives you more tools to stop violence against you. But before you use your gun, you need to be certain the threat is real: the attacker has the means, the opportunity, and the intent to do you serious bodily harm.
You have no duty to warn if you are already certain of the threat's means, opportunity, and intent. If the threat already has a gun or a knife and is coming at you, or if a group of people are aggressively advancing upon you, or if the threat has broken into your home, there's no need to delay using your weapon -- their intent to do you serious harm is already clear.
If you're uncertain if a potential threat intends to harm you, using these techniques gives you an opportunity to confirm his intent without drawing your gun, and an opportunity for the threat to decide that this was a bad idea. If the threat didn't intend you harm and now looks stunned and innocent, no harm done. If the threat runs off, you did great. If the threat confirms intent, you are already mentally prepared to respond with appropriate deadly force to save your life.