A Doctor's Right of Self Defense and the Law

July 29, 2014
Ike Devji, JD

Carrying and using a weapon for self defense while in a professional environment can bring grave consequences; both for physicians and their institutions. Be aware of legal provisions in your state.

Last week psychiatrist Lee Silverman was forced to do the unthinkable and shoot a psychiatric patient, Richard Plotts, who allegedly shot and killed his mental health caseworker during a meeting in Silverman's hospital office. The hospital is a "gun-free zone" and there is still some question as to what will befall Silverman professionally for his violation of the hospital's gun policy, but police, so far, seem to be treating this as a legitimate self-defense shooting. Given that Silverman's skull was actually grazed by one the patient's bullets, I'm going to go out on a limb and agree.

I've previously examined issues of personal security for doctors including the article on medical practice crisis management plans. This discussion is explicitly not meant to be a second amendment debate, but rather an objective look at the issues surrounding the use of deadly force of any kind, after it's actually happened. It also assumes that any doctor who uses a firearm is trained in both the laws of self defense (nearly every state in the U.S. requires that you have some immediate, reasonable fear of death or grave bodily injury to yourself, or another, to justify the use of deadly force) and the use of his weapon, and is explicitly aware of the potentially life-changing civil and criminal liability for doing so. This is especially true if that doctor is in a part of the country that does not predictably defend a victim's use of deadly force when required, or if the doctor has questionable judgment about how and where to handle a weapon.

What should you do if involved in self defense situation?

For specific legal advice on this issue, I turned to my colleague, criminal law expert Russell B. Richelsoph, a partner at the Arizona law firm of Davis Miles McGuire Gardner. Here are his sobering tips on what to do if you have been involved in a self-defense shooting:

• Get to a safe place if you fear there may be other assailants who could attack you.

Then call 911 or have someone call 911 for you. Make sure you give a good physical description of yourself and clearly state that you feared for your life, that you acted in self-defense, and give the dispatcher the location of where you defended yourself, as well as your current location. This is all you should say with regard to what happened.

• If you are involved in a situation involving deadly physical force, do not be surprised if the police come to your location with their guns drawn and aggressively handcuff you. This is routine.

• When the police arrive, immediately place your weapon on the ground where they can clearly see it and cooperate with the police commands. This may involve lying on the ground with your hands placed away from your body.

• Do not place your firearm back in your safe before police arrive, unless you want the police to confiscate every weapon you have in the safe.

• Do not try to explain yourself or what happened. You should not answer any questions until you have had an opportunity to consult with an attorney.

• Politely inform the police that you are not going to answer any questions until you have had a chance to speak with an attorney. Even police officers involved in a shooting speak to an attorney from their union before they agree to be questioned about it.

• Exercise this right even if it means you have to spend the night in jail. Richelsoph says it is far better to spend one night in jail than to spend years of your life in prison (and six figures in defense costs) because you did not consult with an attorney before trying to explain your actions to police.

If you carry or own a weapon, make sure you've considered all these issues carefully, and are aware of your local laws.

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