Any good Star Wars fan knows that Han shot first, right? That’s the way it was when the movie was released, and the Special Editions changed that by having Greedo shoot first, taking Han from being a cold-hearted killer to a simpleton reacting to Greedo’s aggression. And a debate emerged between the original gunslinging cowboy and the new watered-down Han.
But what if they were both wrong? What if Han did shoot first, and even that isn’t a sign that he’s a devil-may-care desperado? What if he shot first, and it would stand up in a court of law?
The Law of Self-Defense
This is when we would turn to the five elements of self-defense, as laid out in Andrew Branca’s excellent book.
You don’t know the five elements off the top of your head? Sheesh. Take it away, Mr. Branca.
So there you have it: innocence, imminence, avoidance, proportionality, and reasonableness.
If Han’s case were brought to trial, how would he fare? First, a review of the facts.
Han was peaceably minding his own business while open carrying* his blaster, when Greedo, with blaster in hand, accosts him and leads him at gunpoint to a booth. There they discuss the debt Han owes to Greedo’s boss while Greedo continues to keep his blaster pointed at Han. The conversation turns to Jabba taking away Han’s ship, as Han reaches under the table and draws his blaster. As the conversation turned to homicide, Han shot once:
Han: Over my dead body.
Greedo: That’s the idea. I’ve been looking forward to this for a long time.
With the facts established, let us begin. First, Han was clearly the innocent party, having not been the person to initiate deadly force. He didn’t shoot Greedo after having picked a fight, even a non-lethal one that evolved in to a deadly one.
Second, Greedo’s threat was clearly imminent given that he currently had a lethal weapon pointed at Han. He wasn’t threatening violence at some later time, especially as the conversation escalated and Greedo began to hint that he was going to enjoy killing Han. At that moment, it was clear the bounty hunter would not let the smuggler live, and the threat became direly imminent.
Third, Han’s use of deadly force — to wit, a blaster — was entirely proportional and symmetrical to Greedo’s own threat. He didn’t shoot Greedo after being grabbed by the arm, he had been accosted at blaster-point and forced to stay.
Fourth, the issue of avoidance. On its face, Mos Eisley does not seem like the kind of tightly-controlled, liberal place that tends to maintain a duty to retreat on its citizens, so I find it likely that the cantina falls in a stand your ground jurisdiction, meaning Han had no responsibility to pursue a safe avenue of retreat before using deadly force. Even if he had, however, Greedo deliberately interposed himself between Han and the door so that had he tried to escape, he would have had no safe avenue to do so.
Finally, reasonableness. Would a reasonable person with similar knowledge and skills have come to the same conclusions as Han? A reasonable person would know that Greedo is a bounty hunter who is in the business of capturing and killing people who owe money to his employers and would therefore be a credible threat. A reasonable person would understand the seriousness of having a blaster pointed at your chest since a single shot, as we saw, would be spectacularly fatal. A reasonable person would also be secure in thinking, as the tenor of the conversation grew more deadly, that this was very quickly escalating and deadly force was justified.
In short, despite the cavalier attitude the scene portrayed, Han Solo actually applied good judgement in his use of justified self defense in a deadly encounter. He only did one legally indefensible thing, which modern prosecutors (this was “a long time ago”, remember) would label as consciousness of guilt, and that thing is fleeing the scene after flipping the bartender a coin. Here in the US, we are expected to reach a position of safety and call the police in the aftermath of a shooting, but on that day in Mos Eisley, Han would likely have only gotten a detachment of storm troopers who would be rather uninterested in fairly adjudicating self-defense and probably just harass him or arrest him without charge anyway.
*It must be noted that although Han was open carrying, he was doing so in a retention holster. Smart move. Even when he needed to stealthily access the gun.