the robber hit Willie Lee Hill more than 50 times with a can of
soda, knocking him unconscious. Later, the 93-year-old victim awakened,
covered with blood, to find his 24-year-old assailant ransacking the
bedroom. When Hill pulled out a .38-caliber handgun from near his bed,
the robber lunged at him. Hill stopped his attacker with a single
bullet to the throat. “I got what I deserved,” the robber told police
That episode happened in Arkansas last July, but similar acts of self-defense occur by the thousands all across America
every year. Overwhelming historical evidence and common sense
demonstrate that guns--often called the “great equalizer,” for obvious
reasons--are a powerful method of self-defense in the precious minutes
before police can arrive.
In the District of Columbia,
however, citizens may not lawfully possess a handgun for self-defense,
even in the home...at least, not yet. The Supreme Court has heard oral argument in D.C. v. Heller,
which is expected to determine whether such a blanket ban violates the
Second Amendment. But regardless of how the Court may interpret the
Constitution, citizens deserve a legal right to own a handgun for
the Declaration of Independence recognizes, governments are created to
protect our individual rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of
happiness. The right of self-defense is included and implied in the
right to life. In forming a government, citizens delegate the task of
defending themselves to the police. But to delegate is not to
surrender. Each citizen retains the ultimate right to defend himself in
emergencies when his appointed agents, the police, are not available to
what constitutes an emergency? What acts of self-defense are
permissible in such a situation? And what tools may private citizens
own for emergency self-defense? The law’s task is to furnish objective
answers to such questions, so that citizens may defend their lives
without taking the law into their own hands.
emergency, properly defined, arises from an objective threat of
imminent bodily harm. The victim must summon police, if possible. An
emergency ends when the threat ends, or as soon as police arrive and
take charge. During that narrow emergency interval, a victim may defend
himself, but only with the least degree of force necessary under the
circumstances to repel his attacker. A victim who explodes in
vengeance, using excessive force, exposes himself to criminal liability
along with his assailant.
objects commonly owned for peaceful purposes can be pressed into
service for emergency self-defense. But unlike kitchen knives or
baseball bats, handguns have no peaceful purpose--they are designed to
kill people. The same lethal power that makes handguns the most
practical means of self-defense against robbers, rapists, and
murderers, also makes handguns an essential tool of government force.
Handguns are deadly force and nothing but--a fact that gives rise to
legitimate concerns over their private ownership in a civilized society.
concerns can be resolved only by laws carefully drawn to confine
private use of handguns to emergency self-defense, as defined by
objective law. Such laws must also prohibit all conduct by which
handguns might present an objective threat to others, whether by intent
to an often expressed worry, therefore, a right to keep and bear arms
in no way implies that citizens may stockpile weaponry according to
their arbitrary preferences. Cannons, tanks, and nuclear weapons have
no legitimate use in a private emergency, and their very presence is a
threat to peaceful neighbors.
If handguns are confined to emergency self-defense, no legitimate purpose is served by an outright ban such as the District of Columbia
enacted. Even if such laws actually deprived criminals of guns (which
they don’t), they would infringe upon a law-abiding citizen’s right in
emergencies to repel attackers who are wielding knives, clubs,
fists--or cans of soda.
the aid of his handgun, Willie Lee Hill survived that violent home
invasion last July. Self-defense was his right, as it is ours. A proper
legal system recognizes and protects that right, by permitting private
ownership of handguns under appropriate limits.