I love this blog.
It is my opportunity to spout off about intricacies of law, social policy, tactics, guns and, occasionally, really important stuff like my daughters and my wife.
Then there are the times that the subject is directed by you, dear readers. Typically, you ask me to write about my thoughts on current events. Occasionally, you ask me to deconstruct fairly complex legal cases. Other times, you ask me more prescient questions: When can you shoot a dog?
So… let’s get into it then, shall we?
All joking aside, this is a legitimate question. People are concerned with their personal safety, and while we typically think of scenarios where multiple attackers are trying to overtake our fixed position, most engagements are far more… pedestrian.
Animal attacks are a real thing. There are many law enforcement officers who have had to experience the unfortunate necessity of shooing an aggressive dog, and even wildlife officials who have had to put down non-domesticated animals.
The question that was posed to me in an email last week was essentially two part: What are the circumstances in which you could use your firearm to protect yourself or your family from an attacking dog, and what are the circumstances in which you could use your firearm to protect your own dog from an attack from another dog?
So… to begin with, we need to establish exactly what a domesticated animal is.
While many of us pet owners consider our dogs, cats, goats, chickens and horses, to be members of the family, in reality they are our property. To be even more specific, they are personal property, or chattel (not to be confused with real property, which is real estate). While there are some states that do allow for the use of deadly force for the protection of real property (holdover laws from our pioneer days), and even personal property when the personal property is an absolute necessity for survival… (a cattle rustler could be engaged with deadly force during the commission of the crime, and you couldn’t steal a horse back in the days of the Old West due to the unique nature of the horse to the cowboy’s survival)… most of those laws are antiquated, if not fully repealed.
Since we must equate a pet… say a dog… with non-unique personal property, we must analyze a fact pattern consistent with the dog having the same legal standing as any other form of personal property, be it a pen, a watch, a wallet, or a refrigerator.
We cannot use deadly force to protect against the destruction or theft of a refrigerator, no matter how imminent the threat or destruction is. We can only use deadly force for the preservation of human life. To protect against the loss of property, we use insurance.
So, with that analysis in place, let’s go back to the first hypothetical posited by the questioner: When could you use deadly force to protect yourself, or your family, against an attack from an aggressive dog? (We can also expand this to include aggressive cat, aggressive coyote, aggressive bear, or aggressive narwhal.)
Essentially, the answer turns on the operative law: Is there a reasonable belief that there is an imminent likelihood of death or great bodily injury? If the answer to that question is yes, then the doctrine of necessity kicks in. While it may be illegal to discharge a weapon within city limits, or use a firearm to take a protected species, the results of following the law will cause the imminent death or serious injury of the victim. As such, the victim now has an affirmative defense against the imposition of the prohibition of the use of deadly force.
Now… that being said, this is also a fact-dependent analysis. If the pit bull is about to chomp down on the head of the vicim, that is considerably different than the “victim” climbing to the top of a cinder block wall and taking careful aim at a sleeping pit bull 20 feet away.
What if the “victim,” though, is not a person but the family pet, as the second part of the question suggests? When can you use deadly force to protect what is essentially personal property?
The answer is, for the most part, never.
Remember, you can only use deadly force to preserve life, not property… and we have already defined a family pet as property.
Again though, this is somewhat fact dependent.
“Why did you shoot that coyote?”
“Well, officer, I shot him because I was in fear for my life! He was about to attack me! I was cold and afraid! I want some water, and I need to change my pants.”
“Okay, where was your pet poodle during this?”
“Fifi? She was in the coyote’s mouth.”