I'm curious what explains a number of decisions to abandon all prosecutions in mass gunfights in the USA, e.g. Waco 2015.

While "mutual combat" has been sometimes used to describe these situations (including by the police), it seems like an abuse of the term given how it's actually defined in most state laws (although some state supreme courts have used vaguer wording of combat on "equal terms").

On the other hand, it seems to me that it's very hard to reject self-defense in a situation like:

  • X and Y hate each other. (This hate can be documented. The mutual hate may be simply because of the groups they belong to.) They both bring guns to an encounter.

  • X shoots a Y but misses. Y shoots back at X but misses.

  • Although X intended to outright murder Y on his first shot, he now has a self-defense claim if he kills Y on his 2nd shot, because Y just shot at him.

  • Further, even the first shot of X becomes debatable, because what he was supposed to do if e.g. he (claims he) saw Y raise his gun at him? After all, Y did fire his gun so that makes it more likely he might have fired first anyway.

Basically, is something like that that explains most prosecutorial decisions to abandon charges in such mutual gun fights, e.g. between rival gangs?

  • If X attacks Y, X does not have a valid self-defense claim, in general. Both partes cannot have a valid self-defense claim. Commented Nov 11, 2021 at 13:17
  • @DavidSiegel: so then it's down to the ambiguity of who shot first from unclear/contradictory evidence (esp. witness statements) in such gang fights? Commented Nov 11, 2021 at 13:43
  • Self-defense is an affirmative defense. It is up to the defendant to present evendece showing nthat s/he acted in self-defense as the law defines that. Only then need the prosecutor bring evidence to defeat this claim. But such confusion may be one reason why some prosecutions are not pursued. Commented Nov 11, 2021 at 15:42

1 Answer 1


In a situation with two suspects where one of them committed a crime, the prosecution has to prove which one is guilty. They can't just prosecute both. If they can't identify the guilty party then both have to go free.

In the case of a gunfight where both parties claim self defence, one of them is probably lying, but unless the prosecution can bring evidence to prove that one of them started the fight they can't prove that either is guilty.

And of course there might be situations under some legal frameworks, especially in "stand your ground" states, where both of them might have acted in self defence.

Statement by Mr Bloggs:

Smith was walking towards me, shouting in an aggressive manner. I saw he had a gun, and I was afraid he was going to shoot me, so I drew my gun and fired at him in self defence.

Statement by Mr Smith:

I was angry with Bloggs, so I went to talk to him to demand [whatever]. However he drew his gun and started shooting at me. I was forced to return fire in self defence.

In the specific case that you cite, the article contains the explanation:

With the video evidence and the forensic evidence that's available, it's simply not possible to establish proof beyond a reasonable doubt [of] who fired the shots that killed people."

  • "They can't just prosecute both." Apparently they can at least file charges against both: massachusettscriminallawyer-blog.com/… Although as that page discusses, these seem to be mutually defeating. Commented Nov 11, 2021 at 15:57
  • 1
    Prosecuting both could be a good move if one of them is really stupid.
    – gnasher729
    Commented Nov 11, 2021 at 16:00
  • I also have to wonder how reasonable the last claim/quote is. Unless they all used identical weapons (a bit unlikely) and even then guns have ballistic fingerprints, albeit these can be unreliable if e.g. the bullets exit the person. I guess the added reason is that the weapons were probably not recovered. Commented Nov 11, 2021 at 16:07
  • The killers probably threw their guns away once they saw the police arriving. So proving who was holding a particular gun is going to be another challenge. Commented Nov 11, 2021 at 16:15
  • In the Waco case, some 320 "weapons" (not clear how many were guns though) were dumped in various places and recovered by police, but I guess matching them to shooters would have been hard. theguardian.com/us-news/2015/may/20/… Commented Nov 11, 2021 at 16:16

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