self-defense laws in California

The time for holiday shopping and family get-together preparations is about to reach its summit. People are rushing to and from their vehicles with hardly a second glance at their surroundings. One distracted moment is all a criminal needs to get into your vehicle to steal your belongings, or worse, make you the victim of an assault or robbery. Situational awareness is key: be mindful of your surroundings, gravitate toward lit areas in parking lots, scan the area for any possible threat, and have a plan in mind for retreat or cover. But what happens when a law-abiding gun owner finds themselves in the sights of a criminal?

During the holiday season, many holiday shoppers are caught unaware by larceny, robbery, or burglary of their vehicles. It is critical that you, as a law-abiding gun owner, understand what legal response is allowable and justified for each of these criminal actions before you find yourself in the middle of one of these terrifying incidents.

Understanding Justified Use of Force

If you carry a handgun, it is particularly important to know the law on justified use of force and deadly force to prevent a crime. You should develop a plan before an incident takes place. Larceny, robbery, and burglary are all too common around the holidays. We don’t want you to become a victim, so let’s address each of these situations.


You are in a store, shopping for gifts, and you place your purse in a shopping cart. You grab an item off the shelf and when you turn around, you realize someone has taken your purse from the shopping cart. This is “larceny” under California Law. Larceny occurs when a person feloniously steals, takes, carries, leads, or drives away the personal property of another. Cal. Penal Code § 484.

Larceny alone with no other aggravating factors does not justify the use of deadly force.


Now, let’s change the facts of the prior scenario. This time, you are pushing your shopping cart to your car in the parking lot. A masked man quickly approaches with his hands in his coat pockets.  The perpetrator says he has a gun and orders you to hand over your purse. This is “Robbery” under California Law. Robbery occurs when a person feloniously takes personal property in possession of another, from his or her person or immediate presence, against his or her will, and is accomplished by means of force or fear. Cal. Penal Code § 211. As you can see, robbery, as opposed to theft, may create a risk of great bodily injury or death. In California, a person is justified in the use of deadly force in self-defense if used to resist an attempt by another to murder any person, commit a felony, or cause great bodily injury to any person. Cal. Penal Code § 197(1). However, the use of deadly force will not be justified to prevent the commission of any felony. Instead, the felony must be one which California courts have recognized as a “forcible or atrocious crime.”

For the purpose of California Penal Code 197, the crime of “robbery” is considered a “forcible or atrocious crime” because “human life (or personal safety from great harm) either is, or is presumed to be, in peril. People v. Don Louis Ceballos (1974) 12 Cal.3d 470, 478. The analysis does not end there, however.  For a person to be justified in the use of deadly force, all of the following must be present:

The person must have:

  1. Reasonably believed he/she, or someone else, was in imminent danger of being a victim of robbery (or other “forcible or atrocious crime”); and
  2. Reasonably believed that the immediate use of deadly force was necessary to defend against that danger; and
  3. Used no more force than was reasonably necessary to defend against that danger. Cal. Jury Instruction 505.


Burglary of a vehicle is another crime that is common in parking lots around the holidays. Burglary of a vehicle occurs when a perpetrator “enters any vehicle, when the doors are locked, with intent to commit grand or petit larceny or any felony.” Cal. Penal Code § 459. However, an owner, or possessor of personal property may use reasonable force to protect that property from imminent harm. Cal. Jury Instruction 3476. Reasonable force means the amount of force that a reasonable person in the same situation would believe is necessary to protect the property from imminent harm. (Id.). Again, although every situation is different, it is the rare case that deadly force may be used simply to stop or prevent theft of property.

However, California law still places a focus on the level of threat to the person, as opposed to the property itself, when determining what degree of force is justified.  Deadly force is justified only if the following exists:

  1. The person reasonably believed that the danger was imminent; and
  2. The person reasonably believed that the use of deadly force was necessary to defend against that danger; and
  3. The defendant used no more force than was reasonably necessary to defend against the danger. Cal. Jury Instruction 506; Cal. Penal Code 197(2).

The takeaway here is that deadly force is justified in circumstances that create an imminent risk to human life or are likely cause great bodily injury. As such, deadly force will likely not be justified solely in defense of property. If force is used to defend property, however, and the situation develops to present a grave danger to a person, the principles of self-defense may kick-in and deadly force could be used, if reasonable and justified by the circumstances.

Armed with situational awareness and an understanding of the self-defense laws in California, you can protect yourself from the criminal element and keep yourself on the right side of the law this holiday season.

For any further questions regarding self-defense over the holiday season, call U.S. LawShield and ask to speak to your Independent Program Attorney.

The preceding should not be construed as legal advice nor the creation of an attorney-client relationship. This is not an endorsement or solicitation for any service. Your situation may be different, so please contact your attorney regarding your specific circumstances. Because the laws, judges, juries, and prosecutors vary from location to location, similar or even identical facts and circumstances to those described in this presentation may result in significantly different legal outcomes. This presentation is by no means a guarantee or promise of any particular legal outcome, positive, negative, or otherwise.