Part of the gun control debate in America centers on whether citizens should have the right to use deadly force in self-defense. Gun control advocates say tighter gun restrictions would mean fewer deadly incidents, like the Nov. 5, 2017, Texas church massacre that left 26 people dead.
But gun rights advocates say tighter restrictions simply would have meant more people dying in that Texas church because Stephen Willeford, the good Samaritan who shot at and tried to stop the crazed shooter, may not have had access to his weapon.
But if a defendant is required to show in a court of law that using deadly force was necessary, what's a good legal strategy? And how does that defendant pay for a pile of legal bills, and face a possible stint in jail — or worse?
That's where self-defense insurance comes in. Groups like the National Rifle Association (NRA), the U.S. Concealed Carry Association (USCCA), the Armed Citizens' Legal Defense Network and U.S. Law Shield offer insurance policies that protect gun owners who discharge their weapons in self-defense.
The NRA unveiled its new insurance product — Carry Guard — at its annual convention in April 2017. It offers four levels of coverage, including up to $1.5 million for civil protection and $250,000 for criminal defense costs.
In some of these plans, the policies cover the costs (to a point) of attorney's fees and bail bondsmen, even psychological help for just a few bucks a month. The NRA's Carry Guard covers 20 percent of legal costs up front if a member is charged, and the outstanding 80 percent is reimbursed — up to the coverage limit — but only if the member is acquitted or charges are dismissed. If they're found guilty, they're not eligible for anything more than the original 20 percent.
"Generally speaking, when your conduct falls within the bounds of self-defense, when you abide by the rules as the law sets them out, you have zero legal liability for that use of force, either criminal or civil liability," says Andrew Branca, an attorney who specializes in self-defense law and author of "The Law of Self Defense: The Indispensable Guide for the Armed Citizen."
Key here: There are strict laws when it comes to self-defense that gun owners must adhere to (more on that in a minute). When someone chooses to discharge a weapon, they may still have to hire lawyers and explain in a court of law why they did so. And that can get expensive, even if the judge or jury decides they did everything by the book.
Is Self-defense Insurance a Good Idea?
Dr. Mary Anne Franks, a professor of law at the University of Miami School of Law is against this type of insurance for many reasons. "The vast majority of self-defense situations are best handled with situational awareness and non-lethal force," she writes via email. "This kind of insurance not only normalizes the use of deadly force, but promotes it." She says the use of deadly force should be determined by legal authorities, not by the subjective feelings of gun owners.
Peter Kochenburger, an insurance expert at the University of Connecticut School of Law, told CBS News he thinks these types of self-defense policies could be beneficial if they force the gun industry to study ways to make gun ownership and storage safer, or if providers like the NRA give discounts on their policies to gun owners for taking training and safety courses. Currently the NRA doesn't require policyholders to take any courses before they can sign up for the Carry Guard policy.
It's hard to come by actual statistics, but people evidently are buying these policies. The USCCA says more than 250,000 people have signed up for theirs, though we couldn't find hard numbers on how many claims have been filed with any of the companies that offer policies. And despite reaching out to the NRA and USCCA, neither replied to our multiple requests for comments on this article.
Conditions That Allow for Self-defense
So what are these rules of self-defense? What is legal and what isn't? Was Willeford, the hero in the Texas shooting, justified in his actions?
The law, in most places, allows for the defense of others, Branca explains. And, when the shooter took aim at Willeford, self-defense laws kicked in. Even in the high-speed pursuit of the shooter that followed, Willeford and another man seem well within legal bounds, especially given that there aren't many laws governing mass shootings.
For people claiming self-defense in situations where they are personally threatened, things are a little clearer. Laws vary from state to state, as do those who enforce the laws. What seems an unlawful act to a prosecutor in Massachusetts may not be to one in Texas.
But generally, most states recognize a handful of conditions, up to five, that must be met to conduct a successful defense of self-defense:
- Innocence: You have to be the innocent party.
- Imminence: The threat can't be about something in the past or future; it must be now.
- Proportionality: The amount of force you use must match, and not exceed, the threat.
- Avoidance: In a number of states, but not all, you have a duty to retreat to avoid a deadly encounter.
- Reasonableness: Your conduct must be reasonable to the point that a prudent person would think it reasonable.
Since most states recognize self-defense as a defense for lethal force, Kristin Brown, co-president of the Brady Campaign, says that's why these policies a bad idea. "Shooting in self-defense is legal in most cases, so why would people need insurance for something that they are legally entitled to?" she says. "We should focus on solutions to those real problems that impact far too many families instead of emboldening the George Zimmermans of the world to shoot first and ask questions later — which is exactly what this insurance will do."
Maybe. Maybe not. "You could do everything legally correctly and face a disaster in terms of finances and emotional stress," Branca says. "By the same token, just because you have, say, defense insurance, that's not a 'Get Out of Jail Free' card. If your use of force was unlawful, they may pay your legal expenses, but off to jail you go nevertheless."