Is Han Solo Legally Justified in Shooting Greedo First? A Lawyer Explains


You may have heard that the Force will be awakening on December 18. To provide an outlet for our excitement, we've assembled another Vulture Advent Calendar — in this case, 25 Star Wars–themed stories, one per day until Christmas. None of them will involve midi-chlorians.

This article originally appeared on It's being reprinted here, in slightly edited form, with permission.

Han Shot First. There is no question about it. And in 1977, no one questioned it.

However, the legal question remains, was Han Solo legally justified in killing Greedo (provided the Empire’s Doctrine of Fear had similar common-law traditions)?

For those who do not have the scene memorized, view it here (starting at 5:04):

And here's the dialog from the original version via IMDB:

Greedo: [In Huttese; subtitled] Going somewhere, Solo?
Han Solo: Yes, Greedo. I was just going to see your boss. Tell Jabba I’ve got his money.
Greedo: It’s too late. You should have paid him when you had the chance. Jabba’s put a price on your head so large, every bounty hunter in the galaxy will be looking for you. I’m lucky I found you first.
Han Solo: Yeah, but this time I’ve got the money.
Greedo: If you give it to me, I might forget I found you.
Han Solo: [stealthily going for his blaster] I don’t have it with me. Tell Jabba …
Greedo: Jabba’s through with you! He has no use for smugglers who drop their shipments at the first sign of an Imperial cruiser.
Han Solo: Even I get boarded sometimes. Do you think I had a choice?
Greedo: You can tell that to Jabba. At best, he may only take your ship.
Han Solo: Over my dead body!
Greedo: That’s the idea … I’ve been looking forward to this for a long time.
Han Solo: Yeah, I’ll bet you have.
[Han blasts Greedo, then heads out, tossing the bartender a coin]
Han Solo: Sorry about the mess.

Here are the basic facts: Han is stopped at gunpoint by Greedo. During the entire conversation in the bar, Greedo has his weapon pointed directly at Han. There is a dispute over money, with Han saying “Over my dead body,” to which Greedo replies, “That’s the idea. I’ve been looking forward to this for a long time.”

(The 1997 re-release of Star Wars has Greedo firing his blaster before Han. Moreover, Greedo wildly misses in extremely close quarters, if not point-blank range. This made Greedo not just a horrible shot, but an extremely bad bounty hunter. Greedo should have been a Nerf Herder.)

Let’s review the Model Penal Code on using deadly force in self-defense. The MPC states (and I've bolded significant in-line terms or phrases):

§ 8.02   Use of Deadly force

[A]  Common Law – Deadly force is only justified in self-protection if the defendant reasonably believes that its use is necessary to prevent imminent and unlawful use of deadly force by the aggressor. Deadly force may not be used to combat an imminent deadly assault if a non-deadly response will apparently suffice.

[B]  Model Penal Code – The Code specifically sets forth the situations in which deadly force is justifiable: when the defendant believes that such force is immediately necessary to protect himself on the present occasion against:

1. Death;

2. Serious bodily injury;

3. Forcible rape; or

4. Kidnapping. 

The Code prohibits the use of deadly force by a deadly aggressor, i.e., one who, “with the purpose of causing death or serious bodily injury, provoked the use of force against himself in the same encounter.” [MPC § 3.04(2)(b)(i)] 

The issue under common law is whether Han reasonably believed that deadly force was necessary to prevent imminent and unlawful use of deadly force by the Greedo. Did Han feel that he needed to fire first in order to protect himself against: 1. Death (in the event Greedo fired first); 2. Serious bodily injury (a blaster wound likely do serious injury if not fatal); or 3. Kidnapping (Greedo arguably only intended to take Han to Jabba the Hut.)

The next question is whether Han was required to “retreat” from Greedo. The rules state:

§ 8.03   Retreat Rule

[A]  Common Law – If a person can safely retreat and, therefore, avoid killing the aggressor, deadly force is unnecessary. Nonetheless, jurisdictions are sharply split on the issue of retreat.  A slim majority of jurisdictions permit a non-aggressor to use deadly force to repel an unlawful deadly attack, even if he is aware of a place to which he can retreat in complete safety. Many jurisdictions, however, provide that a non-aggressor who is threatened by deadly force must retreat rather than use deadly force, if he is aware that he can do so in complete safety.

A universally recognized exception to the rule of retreat is that a non-aggressor need not ordinarily retreat if he is attacked in his own dwelling place or within its curtilage [the immediately surrounding land associated with the dwelling], even though he could do so in complete safety.

[B]  Model Penal Code – One may not use deadly force against an aggressor if he knows that he can avoid doing so with complete safety by retreating.  Retreat is not generally required in one’s home or place of work.  However, retreat from the home or office is required: (1) if the defendant was the initial aggressor, and wishes to regain his right of self-protection; or (2) even if he was not the aggressor, if he is attacked by a co-worker in their place of work. However, the Code does not require retreat by a non-aggressor in the home, even if the assailant is a co-dweller.

Finally, we must consider whether Han had a “reasonable belief” about Greedo’s threat. The Model Penal Code states:

§ 8.04   “Reasonable Belief” 

The privilege of self-defense is based on reasonable appearances, rather than on objective reality. Thus, a person is justified in using force to protect himself if he subjectively believes that such force is necessary to repel an imminent unlawful attack, even if appearances prove to be false.

Courts are increasingly applying a standard of the “reasonable person in the defendant’s situation” in lieu of the “reasonable person” standard.  Factors that may be relevant to the defendant’s situation or circumstances include:

 1. The physical movements of the potential assailant; 2. Any relevant knowledge the defendant has about that person; 3. The physical attributes of all persons involved, including the defendant; 4. Any prior experiences which could provide a reasonable basis for the belief that the use of deadly force was necessary under the circumstances.

Now we can consider the entirety of the situation as the laws apply to it. Without a doubt, having a blaster pointed directly at Han put his life in danger. Additionally, Greedo’s statement, “That’s the idea. I’ve been looking forward to this for a long time,” communicated Greedo’s intent to kill Han. Shooting first was seemingly the only way to prevent Greedo from using deadly force himself.

Regarding the retreat issue, Han was already at gunpoint and cornered in the booth when Han shot Greedo. It is unlikely Han could have retreated with his back to the wall and in a seated position. Shooting his way out appeared to be his only option. Finally, reasonable belief wouldn't be hard to prove. Han was in Mos Eisley Spaceport, a wretched hive of scum and villainy. Greedo had his weapon pointed at Han the entire time, with Han cornered in a booth. This should be sufficient to show the reasonableness of the threat to Han’s life.

Applying the facts to the Model Penal Code and Common Law, then, it's clear that Han was justified in shooting first and killing Greedo.

Now, Malcolm Reynolds shooting the Alliance pilot in Serenity? That's less cut-and-dry.