With Star Wars: The Force Awakens coming to theaters soon we wanted to take a moment here at Vidar to address one of the oft-contested issues with Star Wars.
Yes, we’re setting aside discussions of business formation and commercial litigation issues in the law and other concepts we regularly address to talk about Han Solo shooting first. Or more accurately, the legal and by association moral implications of that action.
In a recent article on Entertainment Weekly’s website, Star Wars creator George Lucas defends his changing of the scene where Han and green-skinned Rodian bounty hunter Greedo shoot it out in the cantina in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. Particularly he says he changed it because Han shouldn’t be a “cold-blooded murderer” and should be more like John Wayne in various Westerns, giving people a chance to shoot him first before he shot back.
George Lucas seems to believe that John Wayne, Han Solo, or any other movie hero must wait to take a shot until the bullets or blaster bolts are already flying. To do otherwise, according to Mr. Lucus, would be “cold-blooded“ murder. Setting aside the questionable cinematic scholarship of Mr. Lucas’ accounting of the actions of John Wayne’s movie cowboys[i], this belief really doesn’t match up to what people consider “self-defense” and justifiable homicide.
The US Model Penal Code, used as a model for criminal statutes in many states has this to say about self-defense:
“Use of Force Justifiable for Protection of the Person. Subject to the provisions of this Section and of Section 3.09, the use of force upon or toward another person is justifiable when the actor believes that such force is immediately necessary for the purpose of protecting himself against the use of unlawful force by such other person on the present occasion.”[ii]
In other words you don’t need to wait until someone tries to shoot you. It’s not heroic or “good”, it’s just really risky. Instead you’re allowed to use force to defend yourself if it’s reasonable to believe that such force is necessary to save yourself. But that’s just regular force, what about killing?
Well…the Code goes on to say:
“b) The use of deadly force is not justifiable under this Section unless the actor believes that such force is necessary to protect himself against death, serious bodily harm, kidnapping or sexual intercourse compelled by force or threat; nor is it justifiable if:
(i) the actor, with the purpose of causing death or serious bodily harm, provoked the use of force against himself in the same encounter; or
(ii) the actor knows that he can avoid the necessity of using such force with complete safety by retreating or by surrendering possession of a thing to a person asserting a claim of right thereto or by complying with a demand that he abstain from any action which he has no duty to take…”[iii]
In other words, you can’t provoke someone into an action just so you can kill them first and claim self-defense. Also, if there was something you could give up that the other person wanted that you knew would end the conflict without violence? You shouldn’t kill them over it and expect to claim self-defense. Similar definitions exist in various states and in nations worldwide. People may define things differently, but generally if you think someone is going to kill you, you didn’t start it, and you took reasonable steps to avoid not getting killed? You’re considered to be acting in self-defense.[iv]
Now, let’s look at the scenario. Greedo has a gun on Han, Han has his pistol out under the table but hasn’t shot yet.
After saying if he’s lucky Jabba[v] will only take his ship, Han quips “Over my dead body.”
Greedo says “That’s the idea. I’ve been looking forward to this for a long time.”
Han then replies “Yes, I bet you have.”
Now at this point two things happen depending on which version of the film you’ve seen. In the original, Han shoots Greedo. In the special editions this scene is changed so that Greedo fires wildly (despite being two feet away) and Han shoots him after.
This distinction is important to Lucas, who maintains the former scenario makes one a murderer, while the latter is self-defense. In his view, you need to give someone a chance to shoot a hypersonic or near-light projectile at you before you can return fire with moral and legal authority.
Yeah, that difference? Not so much for most people.
Greedo has a gun on Han and is waxing poetic[vi] about killing him and making it clear he’s going to do just that. If Han shoots him instead of getting shot? That’s justifiable. If he for some strange reason decides to let Greedo shoot at him first and then shoots him? Still justifiable, but not very sensible as that extra step of getting shot at is wholly unnecessary.
In other words, when a green alien shoves a blaster in your face and says how much he’s looking forward to killing you? It’s okay to shoot him before he pulls the trigger. There are a lot of gray area cases with self-defense in real life and the movies—this really isn’t one of them.
So with all respect to Mr. Lucas, his view just doesn’t hold up, legally speaking. He might not have liked that Han shot first, he might have wanted to change it, but the justification for why it had to be done? Doesn’t really fly, even in a galaxy far, far away.