By Andrew Branca
January 14, 2014

Hey folks,

In the tenth and final chapter of “The Law of Self Defense, 2nd Edition,” and in the concluding portion of every LOSD Seminar, I talk about crafting a legally-sound self-defense strategy.  Such a strategy merges sound tactics with practices that foster your compelling narrative of innocence while complicating the prosecution’s efforts to build their own compelling narrative of guilt.

To guide the crafting of a legally-sound self-defense strategy, I offer five basic rules:

  • Keep out of trouble in the first place
  • Minimize your legal exposure if trouble does start
  • Foster the confidence to act decisively when necessary
  • Diminish your perceived legal vulnerability
  • Facilitate acceptance of events

I know what you’re thinking:  what’s with that first rule about “keeping out of trouble in the first place”?  I don’t need to be told that, I’m the good guy, I don’t go getting into trouble.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of cases I see where an otherwise law-abiding armed citizen finds himself in legal trouble for having used force against another person, it is precisely because they failed to simply keep out of trouble in the 1st place. In talking with such folks I always ask, “looking back, were there any warning signals early on, that if you’d heeded them might have allowed you avoid the fight entirely?”  The almost invariable answer, is “yes.”

(I’ll take a moment now to once again plug Gavin de Becker’s excellent book on such warning signals, and the importance of heeding them, “The Gif of Fear.”  If you haven’t read it, you’re doing yourself a disservice.  Click here to get it from Amazon.)

Sadly, yesterday the Christian Science Monitor reports on a story where what started as the most minor of conflicts ended up with 71-year-old Curtis Reeves, a former police officer in the area who had retired 20 years ago as a Captain, shooting and killing 43-year-old Chad Oulson, a fellow movie goer. (Movie theater shooting: Did a retired cop shoot a fellow moviegoer for texting?)

Both men, each accompanied by his wife, were attending the movie theater to view the just-released movie “Lone Survivor.”  Naturally, before the movie itself began the audience was “treated” to s series of trailers for other upcoming movies.  While these trailers were being run, Oulson was texting on his phone.  Reeves, sitting behind Oulson and presumably disturbed by this activity, told Oulson to stop texting.  Oulson replied that he was checking on the status of his 3-year-old daughter.

Reeves then became sufficiently upset that he sought out the manager of the movie theater.  Either he had no luck or the manager disinclined to enforce the “no texting” rule while only previews were running, because he returned alone, apparently even angrier than when he left.  No sooner had he taken his seat than the argument between the two men began again.

Oulson stood up and turned to face Reeves.  Their voices got louder, and at some point popcorn was being thrown.

Witnesses then say Reeves drew his sidearm.  Oulson’s wife placed her hand on her husband’s chest, and Reeves fired.  The bullet penetrated her hand and Oulson’s chest.  Blood began to come from Oulson’s mouth, suggesting the wound was effectively mortal.  Taken to a Tampa-area hospital, Oulson died.

Reeves was quickly stripped of his gun by a person beside him, and was promptly detained by an off-duty deputy until police arrived.  Reeves has been charged with second degree murder. (Early reports make no mention of Oulson possessing a weapon of any sort, but of course these are “news” stories, and as such their grasp of “facts” is always suspect.)

It wouldn’t surprise me if nobody was more surprised than Reeves how things escalated and concluded.

Yet there were surely several steps in the progression to firing a fatal bullet.

Does one really need to get all that bent out of shape if someone is texting during previews?  During the movie, sure, I can understand seeking out a manager if texting was ongoing.  But even if texting is ongoing, is a loud, direct verbal confrontation the right way to go?  A simple request seems fine–either it will be complied with, or not.  If not, one seeks out a manager.

What if, as here, a manager wasn’t immediately to be found, or if found, wasn’t responsive?  Were it me, and the texting was truly destroying the movie-viewing experience, I’d simply leave the theater and obtain a refund of the ticket price–then take the wife out for dinner, instead.

Certainly if things had escalated to childish and provocative level of  throwing of popcorn, it’s time to exit the area.  Clearly nothing good is going to develop from that stage forward.

As for the fired shot, who knows?  Did Reese perceive an object–the cell phone?–in Oulson’s hand as a weapon? Did Oulson verbalize a deadly force threat and reach into a pocket, as if to retrieve a weapon?  But really, that’s hardly the point.  By that stage, things had already spun so far out of control that everybody–including Reese–likely felt more as if they were being carried along by events than in charge of their destiny.

No, the key questions are not around the shoot/no-shoot decision point, but much earlier–when Reeves, and Oulson, could both have kept out of trouble in the first place simply by standing down and leaving the area.

So why didn’t either man do so?  We know little about Oulson, but one would expect Reeves, who retired as a police Captain, would be unlikely to be a hot-head prone to confrontation and violence.  Likely as not, he was just having a bad day, made some bad decisions, and is now experiencing a very bad outcome.  After all, we all have bad days, right?

As an armed citizen, however, Reeves–and all of us who arm ourselves in public–don’t have the luxury of having “bad days,” nor acting childishly.  I never had a proper religious upbringing, but my wife is a good Christian lass, and when through her I cam across this passage from Corinthians I thought it really fit my philosophy of CCW:

When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child. But when I became a

[n armed] man, I put away childish things.

1 Corinthians 13

To put it another way, too many people when first arming themselves feel as if, “Hey, now that I carry a gun, I don’t have to take BS from anybody.”

The truth could not be more the opposite.  For those of us who carry a gun, we have to take BS from everybody.  Except the felony aggressor.  He we can defend ourselves against.  But the merely obnoxious, bullying types that roam this earth–well, my advice is to simply avoid them.

In closing I’ll suggest another book, the classic work on the issues I’ve discussed here, Mas Ayoob’s “In the Gravest Extreme.” It was published way back in 1980, but the issues it addresses are, of course, timeless.  (Click here to get it at Amazon.com)

–Andrew, @LawSelfDefense


Andrew F. Branca is an MA lawyer and the author of the seminal book “The Law of Self Defense, 2nd Edition,” available at the Law of Self Defense blog, Amazon.com (paperback and Kindle), Barnes & Noble (paperback and Nook), and elsewhere.

In addition to the book, Andrew also conducts Law of Self Defense Seminars all around the country. Seminars for 2014 are currently being scheduled, if you’d like to see one held in your area fill out the comment box on the LOSD Seminar review page, where you can also see reviews of recently completed seminars in New Hampshire, Maine, Texas, Massachusetts, Ohio, Virginia, Florida, South Carolina, Georgia, and elsewhere.

Andrew is also a contributing author on self defense law topics to Combat Handguns, Ammoland.com, Legal Insurrection, and others.

You can follow Andrew on Twitter at @LawSelfDefense and using #LOSD2, on Facebook, and at his blog, The Law of Self Defense.