Self Defense and the Law

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Self Defense and the Law

In the old days, the Chinese believed that a trained martial artist should never use his skills, for fighting an untrained opponent is unfair and unethical while fighting a trained warrior will result in one fighter being killed and the survivor being maimed for life.

The Japanese warrior Yagyu Munenori writes in his “Book of Family Secrets on the Art of War” that, “Weapons are instruments of ill omen, despised by the Way of Heaven. To use them only when unavoidable is the Way of Heaven.”

Every martial arts student is obligated to consider the ethical and practical consequences involved in using his training in a combat or self defense situation. There is absolutely no excuse for not having done so. If you’re skilled enough to spar in class, you should be mature and aware enough to have carefully considered the circumstances under which you’d use your training, how far you are willing to go in various situations, and the potential consequences of your decisions.

What the law says about self defense

I’m not a lawyer; just someone who has done research and reading into this subject for my own knowledge. U.S. laws regarding self defense vary from state to state, even city to city. Now, I’m not necessarily saying that your actions have to be limited by the law. Nor, since this paragraph is rapidly turning into a CYA disclaimer anyway, am I advocating that you break the law. What I’m suggesting is that you must know what you can do under the law in order to consider the potential consequences of using your hard-earned combat skills. It is entirely possible that there are circumstances in which you would decide that you are willing to pay whatever legal penalties are imposed on you for going too far. But at least you’ll know as you’re acting what will come next.

It should be obvious that the law is never, ever, EVER going to be on your side if you’re the aggressor and you use those neat new moves you learned in Kick-Butt Jutsu class to beat the crap out of that annoying guy sitting down the bar from you. Never. No matter how much you insist he deserves it. Not even if he said nasty things about your wife, sister, and mother.

I have a friend (who shall remain nameless) who once talked himself out of being arrested after a brawl by politely and sincerely telling the officer that, in a nutshell, “he had it coming.” (He did.) However, this kind of reaction is extremely rare, and even if you look like a nice, clean-cut, all-American taxpayer, it’s far more likely that the cop will tell you that he’s heard THAT story before and haul you in anyway. Nice guys start brawls too, and cops know it.

When self defense laws apply

In general, in the United States, physical violence is only legally justifiable if used for self defense or the defense of a loved one. It’s self-defense if you are actually being attacked – i.e. someone is actively punching you or trying to stab you or hit you with a chair or … well, you get the idea. The law is pretty clean cut in regards to whether or not you are being attacked or not.

[Editor’s note: In general, “a loved one” means someone in your direct family – a parent, child, sibling, or spouse. Some states are more lax with this definition and will allow you to come to the aid of a friend. For clarity, let’s just assume that when I say “you” in this section, I generally mean “you or a loved one.” Again, check with local authorities as to what kinds of relationships count as close ones for self-defense purposes.]

You are also allowed to defend yourself from imminent attack. The law is a bit trickier on this point. It seems pretty simple on the surface: you can act if and when you know you’re about to be attacked, right? The problem is whether a jury agrees, after hearing you, your (imminent) attacker’s, and the police officer’s side of the story, that you were about to be attacked. You don’t have to be able to convince your friends or family about this, and it doesn’t matter how obvious it seems to you. What matters, in the eyes of the law, is whether you can convince a jury of your peers – 12 strangers.

Sometimes it’s pretty clear: the guy is charging toward you, screaming at the top of his lungs, swinging a machete, or he’s put up his fists and is dancing around you trying to “fake” you out.

But sometimes it’s not so clear. A jury will be asked to judge either subjectively or objectively whether or not an assault was imminent. By objectively, I mean that the jurors will decide whether the average, ordinary, reasonably sane person, if he was put in the same situation at the time of the incident, would have also believed that he or she was about to be attacked. Many legal experts believe that there is quite a bit open to interpretation in this case.

Your lawyer may also choose to persuade the jury subjectively. Each juror will be asked to pretend he or she is you and guess as to your state of mind: did you really honestly think or fear that you were about to be attacked? This will vary according to who you are. For instance, my mother is 70 years old, 4 feet 11 inches, and 80 pounds soaking wet. If a large, unshaven man wearing ripped leathers lumbers threateningly toward her, and she responds by whipping out her can of mace and spraying him and then kicking him in the groin (go Mom!), a jury might decide that my mother was being reasonable in fearing for her safety – especially if she had previously been the victim of a violent crime. On the other hand, if my former college roommate – 6 foot 3 inches, a former football player who is still in fairly good physical shape – responds similarly, the jury might subjectively decide that John (not his real name) was not being reasonable in assuming that he was about to be attacked.

It is NOT self defense, even if the other guy swung first, if the reason the guy was trying to bash your brains in was because you called him a racial or religious epithet and proceeded to suggest that you have intimate knowledge of his mother’s sexual habits. You cannot provoke someone into taking a swing at you just so you can apply a flying arm bar and stomp on his ribs, then protest that it was only self defense since he attacked first. To be sure, the other guy will be arrested. But so will you.

What you are allowed to do in defending yourself

The law generally only allows a proportional response in self defense. You must stop your counter once the immediate threat of attack has been stopped – even if you know that it’s only temporary. The key word is “immediate.” If a guy takes a swing at you, you can block it and counter punch. If it stuns him, you must stop and back away, even if he’s still snarling and yelling that you’re a dead man and it’s obvious he’s going to take another swing at you once he figures out where you are. (Backing away might not be the smart or correct thing to do if your goal is to make sure you aren’t injured or beaten, but it is nevertheless only legal action you can take. Like I said, it’s a judgment call as to whether you prefer to be a law-abiding citizen or whether you want to get a broken jaw and eat your meals through a straw for the next month.) You can’t follow up by kicking out his knee and elbowing him into unconsciousness. Likewise, if you duck under his punch and shove him away, that’s all you are allowed to do, even if you know he’ll try again. You cannot pick up a convenient shovel and try to cave his skull in.

You are allowed a little more leeway if you are attacked while at home. The key word here is “attacked.” If you surprise a burglar and he immediately starts running out the door, you can’t shoot him, or tackle him and pound on him, or anything like that. Even if he has your stuff in his hands. You may only hurt him (or try to hurt him) if he decides to use violence against you or your family. However, while he remains on your property, you can certainly pound him until he’s unconscious or he manages to get off your property. (Once he’s off your property, that’s it, however. You may not chase after him and tackle him to administer more chastisement, nor can you shoot him as he’s running down the street.)

Editor’s note: Much of the material contained in this article is taken from the website of Marc “Animal” Macyoung, one of the foremost experts on violence, criminal behavior, and self-defense — especially as it relates to martial artists. I highly recommend Marc’s web site.

To use another example, if he punches you in the jaw, you may punch him back, but you are not allowed to pull out a knife and stab him, then claim self defense. This is far beyond a proportional response. If he attacks you with a weapon and you are miraculously able to disarm him (this is much more difficult than the movies would have you believe), you may not continue to attack him; your options at this point are to stand there and see what he does next, or run away.

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Kent Fung

Kent Fung is a freelance writer, concentrating on financial writing. He was previously the business editor at a Boston daily newspaper and he worked as a freelance political and commercial writer and as a graphics specialist. He has a undergraduate degree in economics from the University of Chicago. Much of his spare time is devoted to learning and practicing the martial arts. He has been training, in one style or another, for over 20 years. This includes intense study in two styles (He holds instructor ranking in one) and dabbling (less than one year instruction) in a handful of others.