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Book Review — Deadly Force: Understanding Your Right to Self-Defense, 2nd edition, by Massad Ayoob

Some background

Massad Ayoob and I go way back. We met in 1994, when my wife and I attended his Judicious Use of Lethal Force class, then known as LFI-1 (for “Lethal Force Institute”, the name of his company at the time.) In the years since, I’ve recommended that class to everyone who has a firearm for self defense. 

Today Ayoob still teaches that curriculum, now held under the auspices of the Massad Ayoob Group and called “MAG40”. It’s still a class I recommend to all gun owners; if you can only take one defensive shooting class, it should be that one. 

In addition to his teaching, Massad Ayoob is a prolific author and has published a number of books that directly address self defense with a firearm. Like his classes, his books are well reasoned and presented. 

His first book on the use of lethal force, In The Gravest Extreme, was groundbreaking and widely considered the standard reference work on the subject. Over the years it got a little long in the tooth, and he finally agreed to write, as he calls it, “an augment”: Deadly Force: Understanding Your Right to Self-Defense. It, too, received wide acclaim for its authoritative treatment of what can be a difficult subject. 

A few weeks ago he released the new second edition of Deadly Force [link], and I was privileged to receive a review copy. Given our friendship over the years, it would seem a foregone conclusion that I would like his new book — and I certainly do. 

It’s not because of our relationship, however, nor am I some fawning acolyte. It’s because I respect Mas and his work, and after much thought and research firmly believe this to be the most accessible work on the subject that has been printed to date. The issues he tackles in its pages are critical for all gun owners, and he explains them in a way that most people can understand.

I’d say that even if he and I didn’t happen to know each other.

What’s in the original

The first half of the new book is virtually identical to the first — and that’s just fine, because those chapters contain some of the most important information about the use of force. 

Ayoob starts by devoting chapters to what have come to be known as “the AOJs”: the criteria by which the danger necessitating a lethal force response is likely to be assessed. 

“AOJ” stands for Ability (the assailant possesses the power to kill or cripple); Opportunity (the assailant is capable of employing that power immediately); and Jeopardy (the assailant is acting in a way that would cause a reasonable person to conclude that he intends to do so.)

These are important to understand, because they describe the circumstances under which the use of lethal force is likely to be found justified — as well as the limits which define when its use is improper. 

Ayoob gives each of the criteria their own dedicated chapters, describing each in depth and giving needed nuance to concepts that are often widely misunderstood. There are many gun owners, for instance, who think they’re allowed to shoot a man through a locked door just because someone has a knife. That’s generally not true, and his explanations will make the “why” much clearer.

The next few chapters deal with misunderstood concepts and even complete myths in the use of lethal force. Ayoob spends a good deal of time breaking through misinformation as well as explaining some widely misinterpreted concepts, such as castle doctrine. 

If you read just these first nine chapters of the book you’d have a far better education in the legalities of self defense than the vast majority of gun owners, but there’s much more information in subsequent chapters.

Take, for instance, his chapter on “After the Shooting”. So many people on the internet promote the idea that, after a self defense incident, one should “clam up” and refuse to speak to police officers without an attorney. 

While there is some justification for that caution, there is a middle ground between being completely non-cooperative and spewing verbal diarrhea. Ayoob clearly explains what that middle ground is, why it’s vitally important to building a successful legal defense, and exactly how to go about doing so.

One chapter that some will find controversial gives Ayoob’s guidance on hardware issues that might affect a courtroom defense (should things get that far.) This is where his well-known admonition about the use of handloaded ammunition comes in.

Many will disagree with that advice, but after personally interviewing multiple attorneys who have actual experience in lethal force cases I’ve come to recognize the validity of his opinion on the matter.

What’s new in the second edition

The second edition has been significantly expanded — the original contained 237 pages, while the new version weighs in at 333. Much of the new material deals with incidents which happened after the original was written, but he also added several chapters giving substantial additional background on  controversial court cases, as well some of the trends he sees in armed self defense. 

My favorite of the new chapters, and one that I’ve wanted to see for years, is “Attorney Selection”. It’s not a long chapter, but in it Ayoob lays out what he sees as the most desirable attributes of a lawyer for a self defense case. He reflects on  his experience working with defense attorneys over the decades, and even uses some of those cases as examples to back up his opinions. 

He also goes into what he calls “post-self-defense support groups”, which include the Armed Citizen’s Legal Defense Network, of which he is a part.  (A very minor criticism: Ayoob could have been a bit more transparent about his involvement with ACLDN. He makes passing mention about being on their advisory board, but in the absense of a more prominent disclaimer a reader unfamiliar with the topic might perceive a conflict of interest. I don’t believe there is one, and careful reading of that part of the chapter raises no concerns with the information he provides. His explanation of the benefits of such companies/groups, and his admonition about always reading the policy or benefit statements carefully, are the important takeaways.) 

Some concluding thoughts

When reading this book it’s important to understand where Massad Ayoob is coming from. Throughout the chapters he focuses his attention on what happens in the heat of an incident; how the law and court decisions affect what you can and cannot do in those circumstances; and in the aftermath, how to explain what you knew and how your knowledge guided your actions.

His advice is formed from what he’s seen in the courtroom and from his deep, often privileged, investigation of those incidents. This is often overlooked by armchair critics.

Many people will criticize his stance on handloaded ammunition, for instance, without realizing that he’s seen how it has occasionally become an issue in court. His point of view isn’t that handloads are universally bad, or even that they necessarily result in unjust convictions — only that they have caused problems that defense teams had to work around.

His point is simple: why not avoid potential issues entirely, when it’s so easy to do so?

This isn’t a book about self defense; it’s a book about the legalities of exercising your right to self defense, and how to defend your exercise of those rights should it be necessary. Everything that comes before, including discretion, is up to you.

My verdict

This is an important book, and one that every gun owner should have on his or her bookshelf. It’s not often a pleasant read, but the lessons are applicable to all of us.

Read it and take notes, then go back and re-read for clarity. I’ve done that since I got my first copy of In the Gravest Extreme, and I’ll continue that habit with the second edition of Deadly Force [link].

Note: If you buy a copy of Deadly Force by using any of the links in this review, I earn a small commission. It’s an easy way to help defray the costs associated with maintaining this blog and its archive!

  • Posted by Grant Cunningham
  • On February 6, 2023