Will My Gun Hurt Me in Court?

One of the most important ways we can protect ourselves legally is to make sensible choices before we find ourselves in a self-defense situation. And asking ourselves, “What will a jury think?” is an excellent way to ensure decisions that give us the edge. From mock jury trials to psychological studies, there is substantial research on the psychology of juries, especially where self-defense is concerned. We should take advantage of it.

We’ve all heard the urban myths spouted by legal “wannabes” in gun stores and on the Internet, usually pontificating with absolute certainty something like, “As long as you do (X) they can’t prosecute you.” Uuuh, not so fast. Unfortunately, the harsh reality is that self-defense is one of the most complex, uncertain, and difficult cases to win. And the outcome is always unpredictable. As noted criminal prosecutor Peter Hobart explains:

“There is no simple formula for the legal application of force in self-defense under American law. Case law varies widely among jurisdictions, and is constantly modifying and reinterpreting the rules of law.”

So, absent a “bench trial” (i.e. before a judge rather than a jury) your fate will be in the hands of ordinary people, most of whom do not own guns. They often lack even a basic understanding of firearms and get most of their beliefs about guns from television. As a result, in a case hinging on the use of firearms, they can be easily manipulated by a skilled prosecutor.

One thing that can have serious ramifications is the kind of firearm we choose for self-defense. Now, I agree that it shouldn’t matter what kind of gun you used to defend yourself from a violent attack, but the cold hard fact is that it does.

From firearms experts like Massad Ayoob and Gary Kleck to the Journal of Applied Social Psychology, the influence that the type of weapon used has on the outcome of criminal prosecutions has been well documented.

In “Will it Hurt Me in Court?” author and researcher Glenn Meyer explores this phenomenon in great detail. His findings show that the defendant’s firearm can sway the jury against him or her:

“Clearly, some [jurors] believe the decision to use a certain weapon type may be an indicator that a user’s mindset is more aggressive than simple self-defense.”

So, what to do?

Well, keep it simple. Research shows that your carry gun should be any standard, off-the-shelf, unmodified pistol or revolver in a typical self-defense caliber (.38 Special, 9MM, 40 S&W, .45Auto, etc.). And stick with the vanilla models; no “Super Combat Tactical Ranger” versions or “tricked out” custom guns. Likewise, you do not want a prosecutor holding up a .44 Magnum or Desert Eagle 50 caliber “hand-cannon” in front of a jury.

In home defense situations, handguns are surprisingly less threatening to juries than shotguns or rifles. But if you do opt for a home scattergun, a “plain-jane” model with a wood stock and fore-grip is far less problematic than one with a black pistol grip stock and fore-grip. And be advised, the more “accessories” on your gun, the worse the reaction of the jury.

Also, no buckshot or slugs – they can blow right through walls and hit neighbors, potentially exposing you to a negligence lawsuit for any death or injury to innocent bystanders. Besides, even target or birdshot loads (which will NOT penetrate most walls) are still like a single blob of lead at typical home defense distances.

Rifles have the highest “negatives” with juries, with “military style” guns at the top of the list. So for home defense, don’t even think about using an AR-15 (or, God forbid, anything with the letters “AK”). These are virtually “radioactive” to juries.

I’m not saying don’t own any of these guns; I have quite a few sexy pistols and military style carbines myself. But I never use my Sig “Nightmare” for daily carry, and except for the “Zombie Apocalypse” (or the real world equivalent), I will not be grabbing my FN-LAR battle rifle.

And remember to load ONLY name-brand, factory ammunition labeled “self-defense” or “personal protection.” NO “extreme” or hand-loaded ammo. Ever. Imagine your jury hearing that you had “Demon Devastators” in your gun, rather than standard ammo.

Naturally, there will be those who proclaim that they “aren’t going to worry about what gun I pick up to defend my family” usually followed by the now macho cliche, “I’d rather be judged by 12 than carried by 6.” But this simply underscores my point – don’t wait to be in the middle of an altercation to decide what gun you’re going to use. Make that choice now, before the “moment of truth” arrives, and you’re far more likely to make a better decision.

Now, make no mistake, I am not saying that having a “scary” gun is going to necessarily result in you being convicted, anymore than I can guarantee you that using a “jury-friendly” firearm will result in you being acquitted. You could do everything wrong, and still, theoretically at least, win a self-defense case. And you can do everything “right” and yet lose. Both have happened.

But why not do everything we can to at least tilt the odds in our favor?