Fact-based Decision Making
An Interview with Attorney Peter Georgiades
Interview by Gila Hayes
Pennsylvania attorney Peter Georgiades was one of the earliest attorneys to join forces with the Network, and has proven himself a staunch supporter, being available to Network members as their go-to attorney after self defense, and contributing regularly to our monthly Attorney Question of the Month column. In discussing a recent question column, Mr. Georgiades expressed concern about the scare tactics used in defensive firearms training, and elsewhere, to convince students that any defensive gun use results in criminal prosecution. That is not true, he emphasized, and said he believes indoctrination of that sort creates hesitation and an attitude of helplessness. “Almost no firearms training with which I am familiar addresses the decision-making process in a manner I find to be consistent with the law and the practicalities of proving a case. Many do not address the issue at all.”
Mr. Georgiades told us if armed citizens are taught to base use of force decisions on what is reasonable under the factual circumstances, as opposed to “tactically expedient or politically fashionable,” their training would do them a “great service by making people understand the gravity of the decision, while maximizing the chances they will make a good decision.” Good defense decisions require the armed citizen to “scrub away all of one’s socio-political prejudices, theories and beliefs, replacing those with analysis of specific facts,” he added.
It was apparent that this attorney has put considerable study into the issue of use of force decision making, and that piqued our interest. He agreed to explore this issue with us, and we are very pleased to share the resultant conversation with Network members.
eJournal: You’ve raised several very interesting topics of discussion around the false expectation that using a gun in self defense is sure to end in being prosecuted for a crime. How should armed citizens be taught good use of force decision making? What skills are needed?
Georgiades: Distinguishing articulable facts from impressions and personal prejudices is the skill. This requires one to remain calm, which is certainly not easy. But observation skills and the ability to remain calm can both be enhanced through training, particularly force-on-force training, carried out in real time.
I don’t like it when trainers pronounce that one will not have time for thinking before shooting. Although one can rarely deliberate over the options, one can rather reflexively assess a situation and take appropriate action. Firearms trainers implicitly recognize this ability to assess a situation very quickly.
For example, we train people to “make distance” in some circumstances, and “close” in other circumstances. Students are also routinely advised to seek cover, or move laterally. So how do we expect them to know which to do? Obviously, it is not a blind guess. Rather, we expect them to consider their situation and act accordingly, notwithstanding the fact there is a lot going on and very little time. In other words, we recognize people do have the ability to assess situations very quickly, even reflexively, if they stay calm and know what to look for.
In fact, the decision to draw, aim and fire a weapon follows some conscious recognition of threatening circumstances. If there is literally no time at all to perceive one’s circumstances and react, there will be no time to defend at all. Of course, if one panics, they cannot think. Practice making decisions on short notice and under stress minimizes the chances one will panic. Just as you have to practice getting the pistol on target and practice sight alignment and trigger press, making decisions has to be practiced.
After basic firearms training, people who’s training has moved up through shoot house simulators to force on force will tell you that when they did their first simulator it was a mess. They made mistakes and their hearts pounded, but after a dozen times through the simulator it became fairly mundane.
Then when they added force on force training, the training became much more challenging again. In one’s first force on force exercises, one becomes more excited and more agitated, and makes mistakes. You do that for a while, and you get better.
What makes people think it takes any less practice to evaluate circumstances and make a decision while under pressure, under a compressed time frame, than it does to make a difficult shot under pressure? These are both skills that can be learned and practiced. Some will be better at either or both skills than others, but everyone will benefit from training and preparation.
eJournal: How can we learn to make self-defense decisions based on analysis of facts?
Georgiades: First, one has to recognize their judgment, their perception, and even their physical responses, are influenced by their preconceived notions. Then one has to train oneself to distinguish hard facts from assumptions and illusions, and disregard all but the hard facts.
Preconceived notions are an enemy of this process. For example, we have all heard about people who have been shot, but not seriously injured, falling down because they “believe” that is what happens when one is shot.
Any instructor who has run simulation training using “realistic” paper targets or live actors in force-on-force training will tell you that if the antagonist (the potential target) in an ambiguous situation responds to a command or a question with profanity, a poorly trained individual will open fire four times out of five, without more actual information being made available. Then they would get to explain to the deceased victim’s attorney, in front of a judge and jury, why they thought being rude was grounds to kill somebody.
People almost routinely make presumptions about the severity of the threat that a potential adversary presents based upon the antagonist’s race, how they are dressed, whether they are clean or dirty, or the language they use. But these are only very weak indications of a person’s intentions, if they are indications at all.
eJournal: What are the facts that need to be present in order to justify a self-defense response?
Georgiades: Most educated gun owners understand the basic requirements are that one reasonably believes that the use of deadly force is immediately necessary to prevent serious bodily injury or death to another human being. Today we are talking about being able to support one’s belief these conditions were met by reference to things we saw or heard or knew at the moment we decided deadly force was necessary, so that no prosecution follows a shooting. Examples of things one can observe and articulate in support of their decision to shoot include:
- Can you see they are armed, do they claim to be armed, or do you have other reason to believe they are armed (such as someone trustworthy telling you they are armed)?
- Have they uttered threats?
- Are they close to you or far away?
- Are there obstacles between you and them that would prevent them from easily reaching you to do you harm?
- Are they in the company of anybody who has actually threatened you or actually assaulted you?
- Are their hands visible or concealed?
- Are they moving toward you or away from you?
- Are they large and powerful looking, or small and weak looking?
- Do you have a clear and safe pathway out of the situation?
These are not presumptions or assumptions, they are factual observations. There are either good, objective reasons to believe an antagonist is armed or there are not. The antagonist is either close to you or far away. They are either approaching you or they are not. It matters very little, if at all, if they learned to speak English after coming to this country or they disrespected you.
Distinguishing fact from presumption is a skill. We can train to this skill.
Most firearms trainers start with the presumption one is being threatened, and then instruct as to the fastest way to disable one’s attacker. This is understandable, for once the decision to use deadly force is made one would be foolish to use half-measures. But in real life we cannot simply presume a mortal threat exists. The law demands that one’s belief be reasonable under the circumstances, and “circumstances” is just another word for “facts.” If one can articulate facts that justified a shooting, prosecution is not inevitable, or even likely.
eJournal: How can “reasonable” be defined to fit the many varying circumstances under which people use force in self defense?
Georgiades: There is no set definition; it will vary from case-to-case. But in every case the belief that deadly force is necessary must be based upon articulable facts, not bromides.
For example, reciting that one would “rather be judged by twelve than carried by six” is snappy, but it suffers from the illogic of a false choice. Being judged by twelve or carried by six are not your only choices: one can have good reason to use deadly force, and never be judged or carried. Only if one screws up the decision-making process will they be judged by twelve, and it is not fun.
eJournal: That is a great amount of wisdom in a few brief words! Acknowledging that a large array of choices exists between being killed and killing another person to avoid that fate, how are decisions like using command voice, non-deadly physical force or perhaps pepper spray judged by the “reasonableness” standard? Can any of those options also have adverse legal consequences?
Georgiades: It is hard for me to imagine that one would ever be faulted, in the eyes of the law, for employing measures short of the use of deadly force. I suppose your question is whether such non-lethal measures are required in order to stay out of legal trouble. The answer is “it depends.”
Whenever one is trying to predict whether a particular course of conduct will be regarded after-the-fact as lawful or unlawful, the prediction, from a lawyer’s perspective, will always depend upon what the facts are in any given situation. From the perspective of one confronting a sudden emergency, however, that prediction is greatly complicated because one will virtually never know all of the relevant facts. All one generally knows is what they can see and hear, maybe augmented with some additional information they happen to know about their antagonist (for example, that he is a neighborhood bully, or that he has been telling people he intends to hurt you). One cannot know there is a hidden confederate off to one side, that the gun is not actually loaded, or that one’s antagonist has mistaken one for someone else. One can only be charged with making a reasonable decision based upon what is evident, taking into consideration the lack of time for deliberate reflection, and the prospect of dire consequences if one fails to act, and fear.
So, if there was plenty of time to issue a warning, and giving a warning would not increase the danger to oneself, it may well be the failure to warn would be used against the defensive shooter in a legal context. Conversely, I cannot see how giving a warning would be used against a defensive shooter in a legal context, but issuing warnings presents some serious tactical issues.
Similarly, if one is threatened by another who can easily be overpowered without resorting to deadly force, it presents a serious legal problem. But how does one make that decision, in the heat of the moment? Is the antagonist an eight year old neighbor boy with a softball bat, or an eight year old neighbor boy with a revolver? What is one’s own physical capability? All of these facts figure into a decision made in a matter of seconds, and analyzed for months after-the-fact.
Initially, some official will decide if you were reasonable in your belief that the use of deadly force, and not some lesser level of force, was necessary to avoid being seriously injured or killed. If one’s attorney (not you, at the scene) can point out a number of factual observations one made that gave rise to a plainly reasonable belief there was an immediate threat of serious bodily injury or death, and that deadly force was immediately necessary to avoid that outcome, it will likely end the inquiry without further proceedings. Only if that official decides one’s professed belief was not reasonable will the matter be tested before twelve jurors (or a judge if you waive a jury trial).
The reasonableness of one’s belief is supposed to be based upon the information one had available at the time one made the decision. The good news is we are not charged with knowledge of all the facts in the world, and one is not going to be held to the same standard as one who had the opportunity for long reflection. Keeping these ideas straight in the minds of the fact finders is part of the lawyer’s job.
eJournal: An excuse sometimes offered after using force without justification is that there was “no time to think” so a frightened person resorted to lethal force immediately. How do you balance the need for immediate action against the need to choose a reasonable response to the threat?
Georgiades: How does one know there is a need for immediate action if they have not assessed their situation? Assessment necessarily involves observation and the processing of information. All I am talking about is getting better at making the assessment.
Of course, not everyone can look and assess effectively at speed. One who is not used to the process and who is surprised will likely either stand there and die or make a very bad decision, resulting in potential legal action. Observation skills and reflex must be trained in. And among the things people should train to recognize are facts that indicate a threat, facts that indicate there is no real threat, and signs that one can escape the situation altogether. It is not impossible; at least most of the time. Lots of people have done it.
Here’s an example I use when I teach. Let’s say I see a bad car accident in which somebody has suffered life-threatening injuries, and I get there at the same time as an experienced EMT. I’m not likely to know what to do, and therefore more likely to dither. But the training of the EMT, who is no less fearful for the accident victim, will prompt him to get right to work. Knowing what to do shortcuts the decision making, and going to work gives your mind something more constructive to focus upon than fear.
Someone who is used to being grabbed because of their training in sports, judo, or wrestling, for example, is much less likely to panic or freeze when they are grabbed. Because of my judo background, if someone grabs me, I will more likely go to work than freeze. Once I have gained control of the situation, I can assess what I need to do next. What can I do? Mostly likely release and flee! But whatever I do, I will later be able to explain what it is that caused me to do what I did.
I am trained to resort to different options based mostly upon what I see and feel, even without deliberation. One doesn’t have time to deliberate. But if one has been grabbed hundreds of times in practice, one is more likely to make a good decision and do what one has been trained to do, and not get excited.
eJournal: Perhaps you would allow me one, final “what if.” An aggressor makes convincing verbal threats and has an object hidden in his hand. If his actions and words together indicate intent to kill or cripple, does the reasonableness standard require us to wait until seeing a gun or at close quarters, a knife? How does one explain the reasonableness of shooting before use of a weapon against you is underway?
Georgiades: The “what if” game is a good exercise, in that it causes us to think out problems in advance of facing any real danger, and deliberately draw lines and make decisions about what we are prepared to do, outside the context of a sudden emergency. But the “what if” game should not be used to give one answers to questions which will necessarily depend upon more facts and circumstances than one can cram into a “what if” scenario.
The answer to this particular question depends upon whether one always has to see a weapon to reasonably believe one is present. The answer, of course, is “no.” I can imagine a lot of scenarios where a reasonable person would be convinced a weapon is present without actually seeing one. Examples of objective facts that would lead one to reasonably conclude the antagonist has a weapon would be:
- He claims he has a weapon;
- He displayed a weapon a few minutes ago, and now he refuses to show you his hands;
- You know he usually carries a weapon from prior association with this person;
- You have received credible reports of someone in the area carrying a weapon;
- One hears the metallic click of a pistol being cocked.
Obviously, it is easier to justify one’s conclusion if one actually sees a weapon. But being able to articulate other facts sufficient to lead to a reasonable conclusion one’s antagonist was armed should also work, even if it ultimately turns out that belief was mistaken and he was not actually armed.
eJournal: I’d like to wrap up this discussion by returning to an idea that you originally expressed. Why is using fear tactics about inevitable prosecution a bad thing when training people to use lethal force in self defense?
Georgiades: Once one has good reason to believe they must shoot, then they should not hesitate because they fear potential legal consequences. Telling people they will necessarily be criminally prosecuted and sued civilly if they are forced to defend their lives introduces more irrelevant considerations into the already difficult decision of whether to use force to defend oneself.
It is also inaccurate. It is essentially a declaration either that people are incompetent to make a good decision, or that our legal system is innately unjust and illogical. Neither is necessarily true. But even it were so, if one is thinking about legal consequences in the face of a deadly threat, they are focused on the wrong thing. They should be thinking about more important things: like how to get out of the situation, whether they are actually in mortal danger, or the tactical issues presented in the situation.
I will add that nobody, not even the most experienced attorney, is in any position to do a legal analysis while their life is in danger. One will never know enough facts, or have enough time, to make a legal judgment. One must train to focus on the existence and the severity of the threat, and how to deal with it if necessary. The best anyone can do is to act in good faith, and reasonably, given what they actually know in the moment.
eJournal: From the beginning of our discussion, I have thought you had a roadmap for training better self-defense practitioners. Much of what is trained focuses on being better shooters. What is your vision?
Georgiades: After teaching the basics of marksmanship, training should always be carried out in the context of making a good decision. One should understand what constitutes justification, and what does not, and how that can be shown.
“Situational awareness” means being aware of what is going on around you, and includes the ability to sort out the relevant from the irrelevant in terms of one’s personal safety. If one can do that, articulate what they saw and heard to lead them to conclude it was necessary to use deadly force, and make prudent and reasonable decisions based upon that information, they have done all any human being can do to avoid legal trouble in the wake of a defensive shooting.
I wish there was a simple resolution of the conflict between the legal (and, to some, moral) requirement of due restraint and the tactical desirability of shooting first and asking questions later. There is not. I believe one can and should train to take quick and deliberate action, without training oneself to shoot faster than one can process information and think. I think it is a mistake to train for speed at the expense of awareness.
eJournal: Thank you for sharing your experiences and knowledge with the Network and its members. We’ve valued your contributions to this journal’s Attorney Question of the Month for years. It truly is a pleasure to talk one-on-one with you to learn more from you.
Peter Georgiades is a trial attorney licensed to practice in Arizona, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C. He regularly lectures on legal aspects of civilian self-defense, and he has authored a number of articles about firearms tactics and technique. He has attained a third-degree black belt in judo, earning medals in state and national competitions. He is the Executive Director of the Firearms Instruction, Research and Education (F.I.R.E.) Institute, a non-profit organization dedicated to the promotion of firearms training and education. To learn more about Mr. Georgiades and his work, see http://www.pnglaw.us, and see http://www.fireinstitute.org/index.html for training opportunities through F.I.R.E.
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