Guest column: On ‘Dry Gulching’ w/Video



Lee’s note: Here’s a great column from Peter Burlingame, AKA VIGunfighter,  president of the Self Defense Initiative on St. Thomas. Peter’s  work is highly recommended.

You can access his You Tube Channel here.

On ‘Dry Gulching’

by Peter Burlingame

Is it Ever OK to Shoot Someone in the Back?

Dry Gulching. That’s what it was called back in the Old West when a no good, claim jumping, sidewinder shot some poor sodbuster in the back from ambush. It’s always been considered low down, dealing from the bottom of the deck, no good cheating, type of despicable behavior.

Shooting someone in the back flies in the face of ‘being a good sport’, it goes against our sense of fair play. But, are there times when it can be justified? Not only legally, but morally and ethically?

The short answer is yes.

When? The same as any other time you are justified to use lethal force. Let’s review that. When I took Mas Ayoob’s LFI I class back in ’92, he taught us that “you can use lethal force if there is an immediate, otherwise unavoidable, threat of death or grave bodily injury, to the innocent. “ The threat has to be happening right now, you can’t get away from it, the attacker has the capability to hurt you, and you or the person you are protecting has done nothing to provoke the attack.

If those conditions are met, then you are justified, not just legally, but morally and ethically, to use lethal force. Now, let’s go back to our original question, “is it ever OK to shoot someone in the back?” Can you think of situations where someone’s back is towards you, yet they meet the ‘immediate, unavoidable, threat of death, to the innocent criteria’?

Is it possible for a bad guy to shoot at you while they are running away? A police officer, three months out of the academy, answered an armed robbery call. She pulled up to the scene just as the robber, gun in hand, exited the store. Seeing her, he took off on foot. She pursued. The robber thrust his pistol over his left shoulder and whipped off a shot.

Which struck the officer between the eyes.

Could she have justified shooting him? Not while he was just running away. But as soon as that pistol appeared, pointing in her direction, all the conditions for justification were met.

You come home to find the front door broken in. You draw your pistol and enter your house, seeing evidence of violence. Coming to the bed room, you find a strange man, your wife’s throat in one hand, a knife raised in his other hand, yet his back is to you.

Can you shoot?

Obviously, we have the Rule 4 concern of your wife being in close proximity to where you are shooting. But can you justify shooting the attacker in the back?


What if you came home to find your wife (or other loved one) already dead? You hear a noise in the back of the house and run that way, in time to see the bad guy dropping out the window and running away across your backyard. Can you shoot him under these conditions?

No. He’s no longer a threat to you.

I’m prompted to write this article by the recent situation in North Charleston, South Carolina, where a police officer shot a citizen in the back as the citizen ran away. There is sure to be a flurry of chairborne experts opining on this, and similar uses of force, so I wanted to shed some light on the dynamics of this aspect of lethal encounters.

The Supreme Court ruled on when cops can shoot fleeing suspects, and shooting them solely to prevent their escape is not acceptable. I shouldn’t have to mention that shooting someone running away because you are furious at what they’ve just done is not justifiable either.

The standard set forth in Tennessee v. Garner, 471 U.S. 1 (1985) is that the officer must reasonably believe that the suspect constitutes a significant danger to the officer, other officers, or the community at large.

Picture this: You come to a scene just as a blood spattered man hacks a pedestrian down with multiple blows of a machete. His victim down, he looks around, spying a playground filled with children and runs toward them. He is no threat to you. You don’t know anyone at the playground and he doesn’t know you are there. Can you justify shooting him in the back?

You’re damn right you can, Skippy! It’s not a stretch that you can reasonably believe that he is an imminent threat to the people at the playground, so articulating why you shot this man running away from you, in the back would be easy.

Will it look bad if you shoot an attacker in the back? Yes. Our society is programmed towards ‘fairness’ and ‘good sportsmanship’, and shooting a person in the back seems to go against these dearly held beliefs. There is a chance you will be charged in the shooting. The press may pillory you and your good name in their mistaken belief that you did something illegal and/or immoral.

But, as this article shows, it can be quickly shown that yes, indeed, there are times when it is not only legal, but moral and ethical to shoot somebody in the back.

Disciplina Remumenor Fidelis!

Peter Burlingame


About Author

Lee Williams can’t remember a time in his life when he wasn’t shooting. Before becoming a journalist, Lee served in the Army and worked as a police officer. He’s earned more than a dozen journalism awards as a reporter, and three medals of valor as a cop. He is an NRA-certified law enforcement firearms instructor, an avid tactical shooter and a training junkie. When he’s not busy as a senior investigative reporter, he is usually shooting his AKs, XDs and CZs. If you don’t run into him at a local gun range, you can reach him at 941.284.8553, by email, or by regular mail to 1777 Main St., Sarasota, FL 34236. You can follow him on Twitter: @HT_GunWriter and on Facebook @The Gun Writer.


  1. Pingback: Guest column: On ‘Dry Gulching’ | pistolponies

  2. Martha (Marty) Dover on

    I lived in St. Thomas in the late 1960s, when the peaceful island atmosphere was changing from not having to lock your doors to needing to arm yourself for your safety. I continued to visit for many years and watched the deterioration of lawfulness on the island, including the shooting death of the owner of Pineapple Beach Resort where I had worked. A fleeing burgler shot wildly toward her car, at night, and his bullet hit her in the head. (He was later caught, still in possession of the weapon.) I was close friends with the late Joe Vogel, SCUBA instructor and ex-Navy UDT member, who was known to be armed at all times (except underwater). I was with him on at least two occasions when simply having the gun potentially saved our lives; and he told me of many occasions when showing the gun, and/or firing a warning shot, got him out of dangerous situations (which he reported to the police). Eventually his home was burglarized (it’s not a matter of IF, it’s a matter of WHEN), but his spare firearm was not found by the robbers. It is no surprise to me that there is a need for a self-defense expert to teach in St. Thomas, in a time when tourists are robbed on Back Street in the middle of the day, and the police force, in general, is less than efficient. I found this article to be very interesting and I would like to meet this Peter Burlingame. But I am now afraid to return to St. Thomas alone and stay at my favorite spot, Hotel 1829, because it is in town and I am an older unarmed lady, an easy mark.

    • Lee Williams on

      Thanks for sharing, Marty. I worked at the VI Daily News for two years. That’s when I met Peter. I couldn’t agree more about the dangers on STT and STX.

      We had a photog who was shot in the leg while I was there. It’s a dangerous place that most cruise ship touristas don’t see.

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