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What It’s Like to Kill Someone in Self-Defense—According to These Horrifying Stories

The myth persists that a “good guy with a gun” is the answer to any threat of violence. But this fantasy is just that.

As the war over firearms in America rages on, Second Amendment sectarians continue to parrot the endlessly debunked myth that a “good guy with a gun” is the answer to any threat of violence. But this fantasy is just that.

In the real world, people armed with concealed weapons are likely to kill themselves or someone else than a perpetrator, and justified homicide hardly feels like a triumph to those who have been forced into committing it. They don’t see themselves as heroes — they even mourn the event.

Case in point: a recent Reddit thread that compiled personal accounts of killing in self-defense. The stories are tough to verify, but they illustrate a specific effect we’ve long known—that incidents of violence can leave the survivor haunted and traumatized for years.

Psychologists say that after killing, feelings of isolation and depression are not uncommon, with the individual replaying the moment again and again, wondering if they could have done something differently. As one redditor recounted, the shock and terror of accidentally killing an intruder with a makeshift blade while a young teenager reverberated for many years afterward:

A woman who said she was viciously assaulted while walking at night says that the memory of choking her attacker to death still gets to her, even though it’s a struggle to recall the details.

Then there are people who, allegedly, accidentally kill while trying to stay alive at their day jobs:

Or while protecting their kids:

Someone who spoke of military experience in the Middle East described how hard he had tried to keep from shooting a would-be mugger, calling it “the most horrible experience I’ve ever had,” and adding that whether in war or at home, taking a life “never feels right or good.”

Proving self-defense isn’t always easy, either. Many of these stories involved being arrested or jailed for a period of time. Here’s the story of a 12-year-old incarcerated for four years for trying to save himself and his mother from a violently abusive boyfriend.

And as this harrowing account reveals, wondering what might have happened in a fatal encounter can be as awful as reliving what actually did. It’s a nightmare either way.

Maybe, then, people eager to use deadly force on a criminal haven’t considered the long-term effects, or desperation, of such actions. Suffice it to say, it rarely involves any personal glory — or tossing off clever quips like John McClane in Die Hard.