gun and bullets


I’ve heard it repeated dozens of times and so have you: “It’s better to be tried by twelve than carried by six.”  What does this cliché really mean anyway?  And, is it true?

Personally, I don’t like cliches too much.  They’re boring, they usually aren’t accurate and, by definition, they show a  lack of creativity; but even more importantly, cliches lack depth.  There’s so much information left unspoken in a phrase like “It’s better to be tried by 12 than carried by six” and when it comes to taking a life, there is no room to leave anything unexamined.

If you’re unfamiliar, this phrase essentially means that killing someone is preferable to being killed.  The insinuation is that the person doing the killing would live and be tried by a jury—made up of 12 people—while the number six references the number of pallbearers who would carry the coffin at their funeral had they decided not to draw their weapon.

Now you’ll get no argument from me that living is preferable to dying, but, I do propose that there’s a lot of misery associated with picking the first option too–tragedy that’s perhaps lost in this simplistic motto.  In kind, I think that if you are going to quote this cliche as justification for anything, it’s important to actually ask yourself would you really want to live through the mental and emotional anguish, not the mention the cruel uncertainty, of having to be tried before a grand jury?

The truth is that most cases don’t go to trial. Often a defendant will take a plea bargain because if the case has made it that far up the legal food chain, there’s a chance something was wrong about the shooting, which is enough for the state to pursue to the bitter end. In fact, even if a deadly force situation is fully justified, you will be advised to seek legal counsel. That costs money, not to mention other social damages.

In the realm of hypothetical situations, it’s one I want desperately to avoid (and I’m sure you do too). Not only would you have to deal with the emotional survival wounds, including stress, nightmares, anxiety and increased vigilance, but now depression, loss of sleep, and shame and guilt might also accompany your legal fees. There is enough emotional pain accompanying a lethal encounter, that the last thing that anybody is going to want to do is have to pay someone to live through it all again.

Only the shortsighted, or those who are entirely ignorant of my work, will take this as some suggestions that people should hesitate when their lives are on the line.  That is not the case at all–if it’s honorable and morally and legally justifiable to defend yourself and your family, I feel it’s your obligation to do so.  However doing so comes with a cost and that cost isn’t set in stone.  It’s situation dependent and, ask those who have been in these situations, before and you’ll begin to see that perhaps for some there are times that a coffin would seem better than survival.

There have been up to 22 veterans taking their own lives each day in this country.  That tells you something about the stress that comes from trauma, and something I highlighted in my book Warrior SOS.

In the documentary film, That Which I Love Destroys Me, former Delta Force operator, Tyler Grey says, “Take anyone in the world … no one can hold out forever.  Take enough things to happen to a person at one time—enough negative things—and anyone, and everyone, can be broken.” These words need to sink into the brains of everyone who carries because if you do go to the trigger too fast and shoot an innocent person, you too might end up considering the coffin a welcome relief.

I guess the bottom line is, be careful and be prepared.  Be careful of being too eager to pull the trigger.  False bravado is destructive.  Be prepared for all aspects of a potentially lethal encounter (the premise explored in Marine Corp General James Mattis’ famous rule “Be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everybody you meet”). This doesn’t mean that we can be prepared for things we’ve yet to actually experience, but we can learn about the aftershock of lethal encounters and we prepare emotionally, spiritually, legally and tactically for them.

This article or a version of it was originally published by the author, Jeffrey Denning, on 

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Jeffrey Denning

Jeffrey has written award-winning articles for the Washington Times,, and other publications. He is the author of seven books, including Warrior SOS: Military Veterans’ Stories of Faith, Emotional Survival and Living with PTSD. He teaches courses on peer support, suicide prevention, and other mental wellness and resilience to public safety professionals. If you would like Jeff to speak at your event or training please contact him HERE.

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