Today’s post is prompted by a strange and horrifying knife attack—strange because it happened on a public street, and horrifying because it involved slashing attacks to the faces of two small children.
As you might imagine I’ve been inundated with a single question: would deadly defensive force be lawful against such an attack. Naturally, the answer is both “yes” and ‘no.”
If you haven’t yet seen the video of this attack, here it is– there’s no blood or gore, but if you have small children (as I do) the act itself is horrifying enough.
Context and Caveats
First, a caveat: The only information I’ve seen on this event is this video, so that’s all I’ll use in this analysis. I’ve read other information about this event on the internet, but what I’ve read has been unsourced, is therefore unverifiable, so I’m going to ignore it for purposes of this post.
Second, a second caveat: It certainly appears that the attack here involved the use of a sharp-edged weapon, as seen in this screen capture of the attacker departing the scene:
That said, the video does not show the kinds of horrific harm one would expect to a child slashed across the face with such a sizeable edged weapon—and if you’ve never seen real edged-weapon injuries, I can assure you that they are horrific—and the parents don’t immediately display the kind of reaction one would expect upon seeing their child’s face carved open.
Nevertheless, for purposes of this analysis, I’m going to treat this as an edged-weapon, meaning deadly force attack. There are two reasons for this.
One, is the video evidence itself, as already shown above.
Second, is the legal reality that it doesn’t matter if this was actually an edged-weapon attack. For self-defense/defense-of-others purposes what is controlling is not the actual nature of the attack, but the reasonably apparent nature of the attack. Certainly given the object in the attacker’s hand and the manner in which it is used, a perception by the parents of an edged-weapon attack would be reasonable, even if it was mistaken.
Based on such a reasonable perception of the attack as one involving an edged-weapon, the response of the parents to it as such would, therefore, be reasonable, even if it were later turn out that the attacker was using a blunt-edged weapon not capable of serious harm, a rubber knife, etc.
Third, these events apparently take place in a country other than the United States. I claim no legal expertise in use-of-force law outside the US and its territories, nor do I claim any expertise in the laws governing the carrying and use of defensive weapons by law-abiding citizens in other countries.
For purposes of this analysis, then, I will treat this event as if it occurred in the United States, and in one of the jurisdictions of the US that recognizes the Second Amendment and allows for law-abiding, mentally sound citizens to carry firearms for lawful use in defense of themselves and other innocents.
Fourth, I’m going to limit this analysis to the use of force for purposes of defense of self and others, and exclude any considerations of use-of-force for other purposes, such as for making a citizens arrest, for example.
(Pro-tip: We are currently developing a new Law of Self Defense course on citizens arrest, so if that subject is of interest you’ll want to be sure you’re signed up as a member of our blog so you’re informed of the launch sale for that citizen’s arrest course. Bronze-level membership is still, for the time being, free. Join here.)
The core question being asked about this knife attack on children is: Would deadly defensive force be lawful in the face of this event?
Or shorter: “Can I shoot this b**ch?”
The answer is both “yes” and “no,” because as is often the case in use-of-force events the facts and circumstances here are dynamic and changing, rather than static. There are intervals here in which deadly defensive force would be lawful, and intervals in which no defensive force would be lawful at all.
I’m prone to saying that this use-of-force law stuff isn’t really rocket science, as it only consists of a maximum of five elements, those being the up to five elements of a justification claim for self-defense or defense of others.
Those elements are innocence, imminence, proportionality, avoidance, and reasonableness. For purposes of this analysis, we’ll assume that we’re in a duty-to-retreat jurisdiction such that all five elements (including avoidance) are applicable.
The analysis, then, is straightforward. The parents use of defensive force against the attacker would be lawful when every one of those five required elements is present. If any one required element is missing at the time the parents use force against the attacker, then whatever the parents’ use of force was—retribution, vengeance—it was not lawful self-defense or defense of others.
Whether those required elements are present, however, is not a constant over even the short duration of the video of the attack. At some points of the video all five are present, and the use of defensive force would be lawful, and at other points of the video one or more elements are missing, and the use of defensive force would not be lawful. (Alternatively, the degree of defensive force that would be lawful might change with the circumstances.)
So, let’s step through the video of the attack.
Certainly, no defensive force can be lawful until one is aware that an attack is occurring. Given the surprise nature of this attack, which no normal human being could anticipate—in particular, slashing a small child across the face, twice—so for all practical purposes the initial attack could not reasonably be predicted.
As a result, there would be no reason to know there was a need, or a justification, for the use of defensive force until that attack on the first child, which occurs about 3 seconds into the video.
Once aware of the potential need for defensive force, the use-of-force analysis is straightforward: are the required legal elements necessary for the contemplated use of defensive force present—in which case that use of defensive force would be lawful—or is a required element missing—in which case the use of defensive force would be unlawful.
Certainly, while the first child is being slashed, all the required elements of self-defense (or, here, defense of others, the elements are effectively the same on these facts) are present to justify the use of defensive force against the woman attacker:
Innocence: Clearly, the woman attacker is the aggressor.
Imminence: The attack is actually in progress.
Proportionality: It reasonably appears to be a deadly force attack, thus justifying a deadly force response.
Avoidance: There’s no avoiding the attack actually in progress, and in any case even if the parents could safely flee the adult attacker, the children could not, and likely even the parents could not if burdened by carrying the children, and further an attacker with a knife already in contact distance is unlikely to be fled from with complete safety, thus relieving the victim of an otherwise existing legal duty to retreat.
Reasonableness: Already touched upon above, but certainly it would be reasonable to perceive this attack as one involving an edged weapon on innocents.
The initial attack on the first child occurs at about 3.25s in the video:
The difficulty here is that this initial attack is very fast and very brief, and so the circumstances described above—particularly the element of imminence—exist only briefly. Indeed, from the moment the woman initiates the attack on the first child to the moment she is withdrawing from that attack is less than a second (from about 3.25s to 4.20s).
Would it have been legally justified for the parents to use deadly defensive force against the woman attacker during this one second, initial attack? Legally, yes, but probably not practically. There are some people who can deploy a handgun from concealment and effectively engage a target in 1 second, but there aren’t many of them.
In any case, it is first necessary to recognize that an attack is taking place at all, and that the nature of the attack is deadly force, and that recognition alone can easily take a second or more by itself in this kind of surprise setting.
Immediately following this attack on the first child, for the next two seconds (from about 04.20s to 06.20s in the video) the attacker begins to stroll away from the scene. Although the edged weapon is still in the attacker’s right hand, at this point she is arguably no longer an imminent threat, as there is an apparent lack of the jeopardy requirement of imminence.
Absent imminence the use of any defensive force, much less deadly defensive force, would not be lawful. While it would certainly be understandable that a parent might want to shoot this woman in the back as walked away having slashed a child twice across the face—I’ve four children of my own, so I get it—that would be retribution or vengeance, not self-defense or defense of others.
In short, without the element of imminence, meaning in the absence of a threat actually happening or about to immediately happen, there can be no lawful use of defensive force.
Of course, all that once again changes very quickly, as the attacker suddenly turns back to the bewildered parents who are still processing what’s happened, at about the 6.20s mark of the video:
At this point the woman initiates a second attack upon the family, and in particular upon the second child in the yellow shirt:
After apparently (or at least hopefully) being foiled in this second attack, the woman once again disengages and begins to walk away, at about 10.20s in the video:
During this ~4 second period of this second attack, from about 06:20s to about 10:20s in the video, would the parents have been legally entitled to use deadly defensive force against the attacker, and would it have been practical for them to do so?
From the legal perspective, the analysis is the same: innocence, imminence, proportionality, avoidance, and reasonableness. The only element that’s changed since the last analysis when the woman attacker was walking away is the element of imminence, which was previously lacking, making defensive force by the parents unlawful, then.
Now, however, the attack is actually in progress, which obviously meets the requirements of imminence. Along with the other required elements being present, legal justification for the parents to use force—and against an edged-weapon attack under these circumstances, to use deadly defensive force such as a handgun—are all demonstrably present.
So could, say, the father (or the mother, or both parents simultaneously) simply draw a handgun from concealment during this four-second window and shoot the knife-wielding attacker in the face—and be lawfully justified in doing so?
Well, that’s a good question: Could he? Legally, the necessary conditions for either (or both) parents to use deadly defensive force against the attacker, both in defense of themselves (self-defense) as well as in defense of their children (defense of others), are all present during this second attack in this 4-second window.
But just because one is legally permitted to present that concealed handgun and engage a knife-wielding attacker doesn’t mean that one has the practical ability to do so in a manner that effectively stops the threat.
Indeed, I would suggest that these circumstances, in particular, involving a close-quarters knife attack on small children in a very tight time frame, presents a tactical problem that would require a very high level of situational awareness, on-the-spot decision making, and efficient execution of the defensive action in order to be effective.
All three of those abilities—the awareness, the decision-making, and the execution—likely require weeks or months or years of practice in order to be available on demand.
As the cliché puts it, the gunfight (or any fight, really) isn’t generally won in the moment, unless one is just lucky. Rather, it’s won in the weeks and months and years of training and practice that (hopefully) occurred prior to the moment.
In this instance, of course, the parents take no tactical measures against the woman attacker, limiting themselves to the rather instinctual reactions of pulling themselves and their family back from the edged weapon. Needless to say, had the woman attacker been determined to sink the blade into any of the family, she could easily have done so by being more aggressive and following through on her attack—a call within her control, not the family’s control.
In any case, having apparently cowed the parents, the attacker then once again begins to walk away, at about the 10.20s mark in the video. At this point the apparent mother of the children appears to harangue the apparent father to “don’t just stand there, be a man!” and finally he jumps into aggressive action.
As often happens, however, especially to people who have not mentally prepared themselves for reacting to a fast-moving attack of this type, by the time the father gets into gear it’s really too late, on every level.
It’s obviously too late to save the first child from harm, but as noted it’s hard to blame the parents for failing to anticipate a really unpredictable and insane knife attack like this on their children.
It’s also too late, however, to neutralize the second attack. There was a window of imminence during which the use of defensive force, even deadly defensive force, would have been legally justified—but this window of imminence was transient, as such windows tend to be, lasting only about 4 seconds.
Once the window of imminence has closed, the required element of imminence is gone, and the justification for the use of defensive force is also gone.
At this point in the video the father begins to pursue the woman attacker, who is rather casually walking away with the first child’s backpack, the apparent knife still clasped in her right hand. As the father approaches, she points the knife in his direction, dissuading further action on his part, at about the 17.00s mark in the video:
The question here is, what is the father really doing at this point? He’s not protecting his family, because the woman attacker is no longer an imminent threat to the family as she starts walking away from them across the street.
As he rushes at the woman attacker, and she holds the rather lengthy edged-weapon out towards him, the man could easily impale his chest on that blade—it’s surprisingly easy for a sharp point to penetrate the chest cavity, and create havoc among the heart, lungs, and rather large and important coronary and pulmonary blood vessels to be found there.
In many cases victims of such a knife injury to the chest feel little more than a punching-type sensation, have no idea they’ve been mortally wounded, and over the next handful of minutes gradually hemorrhage internally, get dizzy, and die—in this case, the dying would be in front of his wife and two small already terrorized children.
For what? Are the stakes, at that point, worth the risks?
In theory, once the woman points the knife back at the pursuing husband he could argue that he’s once again facing an imminent deadly force threat, but it’s already clear that he’s neither mentally nor practically prepared to defend against such a threat, so the whole exercise of pursuing the woman seems rather pointless.
At that point, the woman attacker than walks across the street, and the video ends.
I’ve read that the woman has since been arrested and faces (as one would hope) serious criminal charges, although I’ve no way to verify such reports, nor do I have any particular interest in doing so.
Why no interest? Because, really, who cares? My concern in such a situation is the safety of my children, my wife, and finally myself.
My interest in the legal outcome for the woman attacker, once the safety of my family has been secured, is entirely theoretical and largely beyond my control.
In a technical sense, I hope she’s arrested, prosecuted, convicted, and locked away from normal people, and I’ll do whatever I can to facilitate such an outcome. On the “1-to-10” scale of what really matters, however, especially in the context of the safety of my family, all of that downstream procedural stuff ranks at maybe a 1.
And probably not even that high.
Lesson – Be Prepared
So, what’s the lesson here?
With respect to the initial attack, it’s not clear to me that there’s anything anybody could have done, other than identify the attacker’s psychopathy long before and have her already secured in a facility away from the public.
With respect to the second attack, however, there something could, in theory, have been done, and the use of deadly defensive force in the doing would almost certainly have been lawful.
But the doing takes preparation, both mental and physical, and quite a bit of it over an extended period of time. That’s really the sole difference between the father who in that 4-second window can effectively and lawfully and decisively defend his family, on the one hand, and the father who stands there bewildered with the wheels spinning pointlessly in his head, on the other hand.
The former prepared, the latter did not.
The lesson: Be prepared.
Physically, that means things like being sufficiently fit to engage another human being with defensive violence, and in the particular case of a defensive handgun having practiced enough with that handgun—and, of vital importance, recently enough—that you’ll have the technical skills to deploy such defensive weapons effectively in what may prove to be a very transient window of time during which such defensive conduct is lawful.
Mentally, being prepared means having thought through long before the moment of crisis the extent to which you are prepared to use defensive force, and particularly deadly defensive force, and under what circumstances. While we can’t predict every possible kind of attack—only the aggressor gets to pick the time, place, and manner of their attack—we can learn from the misfortune of other victims, just as pilots learn from other pilots’ crashes.
I also suggest that being able to act decisively in the moment is fostered by having the confidence to know that your defensive choices fall well within the legal boundaries for the use of defensive force, and especially deadly defensive force.
In the crises of the moment, you should already know that your defensive choices are as lawful as it’s possible for them to be, so that you can focus your stress-limited mental bandwidth on winning the physical fight with the confidence of knowing you’re already well-positioned to win the legal fight that follows.
Helping you make better informed, more confident, more decisive decisions in lawful self-defense, and thus helping make you hard to convict, is of course our mission here at Law of Self Defense.
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