The Duty to Intervene

“That’s not my job!”

How many times have you heard that? If you’re like me, you’ve worked with whiny people who think that only those things that come on a pre-printed job description make up what they have to do. Those of us who served in the military are familiar with the term “other duties as assigned.” We know that not all our duties can be written down on a piece of paper.


But today I want to talk about that word, duty, in a different way.

When military people think about duty, they think in terms of duty, honor, country. Those three things are all closely related.   We do our duty, to honor, our country. We don’t need a rule book to figure out what’s real and what’s not. We don’t need someone to tell us what our duty is.

But there is another kind of duty. That is called a “legal duty.” It arises in the law in terms of foreseeability. If you look out your window after a rain and see that a large piece of pavement is missing from your front sidewalk, it is foreseeable that someone walking on the sidewalk could fall and be hurt. You have a legal duty to warn of the danger and, in most cases, to fix the sidewalk. This prevents you from being negligent.

But the common law makes a distinct difference between a duty voluntarily assumed (for example, undertaking CPR), and a duty that arises out of your moral code. Under the law once you assume a duty to someone (by starting CPR) you have a duty to perform that competently. If you do not perform competently, you could be sued for negligence (although good Samaritan laws generally protect volunteer rescuers).

Protecting Others

But let’s say you stop at the Friendly Local Market at about ten minutes to closing time, and you find your good friend Mr. Signh with his hands raised being held up by a robber. Do you have a legal duty to intervene to prevent harm to Mr. Singh? The answer is no. At common law, and in most jurisdictions, you have no obligation whatsoever to interfere in the robbery. If the robber shoots Singh and runs out the back door, you are not responsible. No one can claim you should have stopped the robbery. Even if you are an armed CCW holder, you have no obligation to stop a robbery in progress. The only exception, of course, is if you’re a sworn law enforcement officer, but even then your duty is to the general public, and not any person specifically.

But let’s say, even though you do not have a legal duty to do so, you do intervene. You yell for the robber to drop the weapon, and when he sees you, he accidently pulls the trigger and shoots off Singh’s arm. Are you liable? The plaintiff would argue that but for your intervention Singh would have been fine. The robber will testify he was trying to get money for his grandmother’s bunion operation and never had any intent to hurt poor Mr. Singh.   The jury appeal of this kind of case is pretty weak, but do not think for a minute that simply because you intervened to protect Mr. Singh means everything works out well. It may not.

What about poor Delores who is married to Herman, and who Herman uses as a punching bag on days that end in “y.”

Domestic violence is another matter where you have no obligation to intervene. Frankly, it’s a matter that is better left alone. If Dolores is stupid enough to stay with Herman in spite of Herman’s constant and repeated abuse, it’s up to Dolores to figure out there’s a better way. Until she wants help, she won’t benefit from your help. It is a sad fact in life that more people want your help than will benefit from it. And a classic line from an Eagles song comes to mind: so often times it happens, that we live our lives in chains, that we never even know we have the key.

But suppose you just can’t take it any more. Herman has been punching on his wife for an hour, and all you can hear are screams and moans, and the police have done nothing. You strap on your firearm and you go to confront Herman, on his property, about something that is, frankly, Herman’s business.

Let’s say you interfere, and Herman picks up a kitchen knife or baseball bat to brain you. You draw your weapon. “Get back,” you say. “Get out of my house,” he says. Herman continues to advance. Dolores is screaming “don’t hurt him,” but you don’t know whether she’s talking to you or to Herman. Herman swings, and you fire. Herman falls.

Instead of thanking you for shooting Herman it provokes hysteria from Dolores. She screams at you as the police arrive and find you at Herman’s house, standing over Herman’s lifeless body, with Delores swearing on a stack of bibles that, her broken nose notwithstanding, Herman was never going to hurt her and you barged in and killed him for no reason.

Your Duty Runs to Your Family and Yourself

Your personal firearm is for your personal protection. That extends to your home, your property, and your family. It does not extend to your next door neighbor under normal circumstances. You are not a police officer. You have no legal duty, and possibly not even a moral duty, to intervene.

The fact is that, absent some real indication that a robber is going to kill someone, it’s far better to get license numbers and descriptions and pass these along to the police than it is to intervene. Your defensive firearm is there to protect you and your family and loved ones. It is not there to turn you into a junior G-man with a mission to stomp out evil. Let’s face it, given the status of the world today, you’d be stomping a long time.

The point of this narrative, in case you can’t tell (in which case I have done a very bad job of explaining) is that before you involve yourself in someone else’s problems, you need to understand those problems, know who is in the right, and who is in the wrong, and be certain that what you do is going to end up with the law on your side.

Before intervening outside the home, you have to ask yourself these questions:

  • Do I know everything that’s going on? (it could be the man holding the gun is an undercover cop)
  • Are there lives clearly in danger (someone could be shooting something for You Tube)
  • Are bystanders in the way?
  • Will my intervention make things better (or will I get someone else or myself killed)

Several weeks ago in San Antonio a pair of men tried to stop a jewelry store robbery. One of the men was an ex-marine and unarmed. The other was a CCW permit holder. The unarmed man got shot, and died. He took on armed thugs without a weapon. He left a widow and children.

Having seen the other man killed, the CCW holder got involved and shot one of the men, while the other ran off. But importantly, he did not intervene until shots were fired and he needed to protect his own life. This was excellent decision-making on his part. The mall was full of people, several of whom were shot by the escaping felon. Once the man ran away, there was no reason to chase him.

Simply put, your moral duty to protect others aside, there is no mandate that you use your skill, training and expertise with a weapon to protect anyone other than yourself or your family. If you choose to do it, you need to make sure you know who is involved, why they are there, and what the consequences of intervention will be.

And even if everything stacks up in favor of intervention… think again. The life you save will be your own.

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