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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 theft, robbery, or theft from 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 When Use of Force is Justified

Especially if you carry a handgun, knowing the law on the justified use of force and deadly force to prevent a crime will help you develop a plan before an incident takes place. Theft and robbery are all too common around the holidays. We don’t want you to become a victim, so let’s address each of these.


Theft is best described as the unlawful appropriation or control of property with the intent to deprive the owner of that property. 18 Pa. C.S. § 3921. Generally, theft alone with no other aggravating factors does not justify the use of deadly force.


Robbery occurs when a perpetrator, in the course of committing theft “inflicts serious bodily injury upon another; threatens another with or intentionally puts him in fear of immediate serious bodily injury; inflicts bodily injury upon another or threatens another with or intentionally puts him in fear of immediate bodily injury; or physically takes or removes property from the person of another by force however slight.” 18 Pa. C.S. § 3701.

As you can see, robbery, as opposed to theft, often does create a risk of serious bodily injury or death. Because of this risk, deadly force may be justified in response to a robbery. Among other situations that may justify the use of deadly force, Pennsylvania allows the use of deadly force in response to the imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury if no opportunity for safe retreat exists. 18 Pa. C.S. § 505 (b).

Theft From a Vehicle

Theft from a vehicle is another crime that is common in parking lots around the holidays. Theft from a vehicle occurs when someone “unlawfully takes or attempts to take possession of, carries away or exercises unlawful control over any movable property of another from a motor vehicle with the intent to deprive him thereof.” 18 Pa. C.S. § 3934. In this situation, where someone is breaking into your unoccupied motor vehicle, deadly force will not be justified as a response. However, pursuant to 18 Pa. C.S. § 507, reasonable force may be employed here if you reasonably believe it to be immediately necessary to terminate the “unlawful carrying away of tangible movable property” in your possession.

Should someone attempt to break into your motor vehicle while you are inside it, deadly force may be justified. Here, Pennsylvania’s Castle Doctrine would likely apply to someone making unauthorized and forcible entry to your occupied motor vehicle. If the Castle Doctrine applies, the law presumes you had a reasonable belief that deadly force was immediately necessary, which is a critical element of the deadly force standard.

Armed with situational awareness and an understanding of the self-defense laws in Pennsylvania, 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.