Self-defense is serious business, and accordingly, there are many laws defining and governing what self-defense is, and what it isn’t.
Luckily for citizens of the United States, compared to many other civilized, western nations around the globe the right to self-defense is more or less enshrined at all levels of society, though some places are better than others.
Generally, if you are attacked in America you have a right to defend yourself with an appropriate level of force.
Increasingly, many states are passing statutes that codify a defender has no obligation to retreat from a place that they have a legal, lawful right to be if they are attacked, and these statutes are colloquially known as stand your ground laws.
Contrary to the screeching of detractors, stand your ground laws do nothing to encourage violence but simply remove potentially serious legal stumbling blocks from the path of a would-be victim, increasing the likelihood that they can act in time to save their own lives or someone else’s from a violent assailant.
But these laws are a little different everywhere you go, and their interaction with existing self-defense laws at the state and local level can make for a confusing patchwork that is difficult to decipher.
We are here to make that task a little easier for people who are new to self-defense concepts and law.
Read on for a thorough overview and primer on stand your ground law and procedurals throughout the country…
***DISCLAIMER: This article is not to be treated as legal advice. The author is not an attorney. Neither survivalsullivan.com, its principals, owners, operators, contractors or employees, or the author of this article, claim any criminal or civil liability resulting from injury, death or legal action resulting from the use or misuse of the information contained in this article. Any comprehensive self-defense plan will include preparing for the legal aftermath of any self-defense encounter. The reader should hire and consult with a competent attorney as part of your preparations. ***
Considering Federal, State, and Local Laws
The first thing you must understand when considering self-defense laws is that you will be held accountable to a massive construction of laws at various levels of government.
It isn’t just federal or state law that you’ll be worried about, though it is those two sets of laws that are most often restrictive of our choices and behavior, but you also have to worry about local laws where applicable.
A full and thorough discussion of the interaction and interplay of laws practically and procedurally in the legal system for any given place in the US is an article or series of articles unto itself, and is something that you should only approach with the strictest care and guidance of a legal professional.
To get you started, we’ve detailed each state’s Stand-Your-Ground Laws in an article linked below:
|Nevada||New Hampshire||New Jersey|
|New Mexico||New York||North Carolina|
|South Carolina||South Dakota||Tennessee|
Making a mistake in your own preparations concerning these matters could have dire consequences down the line if you’re ever forced to defend yourself.
This article is definitely not a totally comprehensive overview of self-defense and stand your ground laws, but is only a primer to help you quickly and accurately make sense of what you are reading when you go to review state statutes in particular.
Keep in mind that there are other factors at play at the federal or local level, and they might even be contradictory though you can typically rely on significant overlap for the most important concepts.
Understanding Statutory Definitions
Another critical element for understanding self-defense law. Words mean things, but a given word might not always mean the same thing and the same context to the same people.
I can hear some of you groaning already, but it is essential that you never take for granted the definition of a given word, particularly a word used to define the use of force or self-defense from state to state.
Yes, words have common meanings but they might have additional meaning, or lack of meaning, beyond the common one.
For this reason, it is imperative that you establish the strict, contextual definition of words as you read state statutes.
Many states will hopefully have lists of definitions included in the statutes or appended to them but others do not, and even though they may make a note that all words possess their common meaning you can’t necessarily rely on that in totality.
Case law and precedent are integral to the ongoing meaning and interpretation of many words in law and subsequently the effect of the laws themselves.
This is what separates the legal groupies from the legal professionals, understanding precedent as it applies in the jurisdiction where it has effect. Even now some of you are probably feeling a little dizzy.
Don’t fret, and even though I am not a lawyer and I do not play one on TV my “craftsman” understanding of self-defense law is adequate to guide you to attaining a better working knowledge of the topic.
This is enough to orient yourself in whatever state you happen to live in, so long as it is a place that is even passingly amicable to the concept of self-defense.
Once you finish this article, you’ll be ready to start brushing up on your state’s specific laws concerning self-defense.
Common Concepts of Self-Defense Law
Below are common concepts that you’ll find universally throughout state laws concerning self-defense and particularly stand-your-ground statutes or statutes that are a stand your ground equivalent, even if they do not use that specific verbiage.
As I just mentioned above, keep in mind that these concepts may be identical in function but defined using different words throughout your state’s law books, and that is why it is so important that you familiarize yourself with the concept so that you can recognize it wherever you are reading it.
Without further ado let us begin.
1. Permissible Weapons
You might be in the most self-defense friendly state in the union, in the most gung-ho, criminal-hating town that has ever been, and I can guarantee you there will still be weapons that are considered permissible and not permissible for the purposes of self-defense.
At the very least, there are firearms that are strictly regulated at the federal level that you cannot generally employ lawfully for self-defense outside of the most extraordinary, edge-case circumstances.
And most other instances, this could be something like brass knuckles, a particular kind of knife, or concealed carrying something like a long gun which might be regulated even if handguns are broadly permitted.
This can put you into a murky and decidedly unpleasant legal gray area where you might have defended yourself completely within the confines of the law, a defender who would have been a victim, only your actions and your character can be brought into incisive focus by the prosecution if you choose to use or carry a weapon that is not permitted.
Don’t get sucked into discussions with strict libertarians or pseudo-anarchists on the matter.
You might have acted completely lawfully minus a weapons transgression, but that transgression might see you charged with something considerably more serious if the judge or jury is not sympathetic to your plight.
Spoiler warning: it is likely that they will not be in most places.
Don’t assume that your seemingly mundane defensive weapon of choice is okay in a particular locality or at the state level. Make sure, and make damn sure.
Where you are as a defender when an attack takes place may have a significant impact on whether or not you are allowed to stand your ground.
Generally, places with stand your ground statutes or equivalently worded statutes state that a defender or would-be victim may meet force with force so long as they are in any place they have a legal, lawful right to be.
As a rule, this includes any public place and any place where you are a legal occupant, as a renter for instance.
It is worth mentioning that certain states are considerably stricter regarding where you may stand your ground, that is, a place where you have no duty to attempt retreat if you are attacked.
States with restrictive, location-based statutes governing self-defense usually only permit you to forgo a duty to retreat in your own home or domicile, in your vehicle, or in any setting or circumstance where even attempting retreat is impossible or would put you at extraordinary risk of harm.
Never, ever make the mistake of assuming that just because you see a statute that seems to imply that a defender may meet force with a force you do not have a legal obligation to at least attempt retreat prior to using said force.
Making that mistake could prove disastrous. Read the law, and the entirety of the law, before reaching a determination.
3. Duty to Retreat
Duty to retreat, or obligation to retreat, is a term that means exactly what you are probably thinking.
When confronted with the illegal use of force the defender has a legal obligation to attempt to extricate themselves from the encounter or to escape by any means necessary before they resort to the use of force in self-defense.
This concept might be buttressed by words like reasonable, practicable and others that imply retreat must be attempted if it is possible within a certain amount of time or if it will put the defender in no unnecessary risk.
Unfortunately, this is something that is extraordinarily difficult to figure out at the instant and under the pressure of a potentially life-threatening encounter.
Invariably, and all but the most peripheral circumstances to a violent encounter escape without putting yourself or someone else with you and even greater peril is often impossible.
This is nothing to take lightly when considering the self-defense laws of your state.
Come hell or high water you might very well have an obligation in most circumstances outside your home, and in a few states even within your home, to attempt to get away from an attacker before resorting to force.
Although the practical concerns are many and you are right to be worried about them, you should not brush off subsequent legal concerns lightly.
4. Trespass and Right of Occupancy
Self-defense under conditions of trespass or in places or settings where right of occupancy and legality overlap can make figuring out whether or not you have a right to defend yourself from an aggressive act tricky, to say the least.
As mentioned above, most places that are pro self-defense generally allow you to protect yourself if you are in any place you have a legal, lawful right to be, either as an owner, someone with a real interest or as an invitee or renter.
This gets sticky if you happen to be trespassing, even accidentally, when an aggressive act takes place.
For instance, if you accidentally wander onto someone else’s property, or just so happened to be on someone else’s property when an attack takes place you might have an obligation to attempt retreat, especially if it is the owner of that property who is trying to run you off.
Another instance is in the case of something involving a family member or relative in their home or domicile.
One classic and infamous example involved a brother-in-law invited to live with a married couple under a roof who then got out of hand when confronted about nefarious behavior.
Although the brother-in-law did not have any legal or real interest in the property he was living in, it was still technically his domicile under the circumstances.
When the husband of the brother-in-law’s sister “put the hammer down” and tried to run off the increasingly aggressive brother-in-law at gunpoint, he did not act lawfully under the circumstances even though he was in his own, legally owned, and legally occupied home.
Other conflicts can arise if you are legally evicted from property that you otherwise legally own and occupy.
Meeting city or state officials with violence or resistance when they try to evict you would not be considered self-defense under the circumstances.
5. Justification of Self-Defense
Self-defense as an affirmative defense is only met when certain conditions or contextual factors are proven in court.
Namely, the defender had a reasonable, rational belief that they or another or an imminent peril of bodily harm or death before acting to stop the infliction of that harm with a proportional level of force.
In the case of meeting the use of lethal force, defensive lethal force may be used.
Absent any of those factors, self-defense cannot be claimed as a defense and the use of force on account of the defendant may be ruled unjust with all of the consequences that entails.
For that reason, it is imperative that all students of self-defense understand these factors and how they interact with the law as written.
What qualifies as unlawful force? What does “imminent” mean exactly? What metrics are used to define a proportional or reasonable amount of force and what are the consequences for exceeding them? I say this in no uncertain terms.
It is absolutely vital that you are able to articulate precisely what you perceived as threatening, and why you took the measures you did to stop the threat at that moment.
If you cannot do that you will be rolled through the muck in court.
Learning to fight is only half the battle in self-defense; the other half is developing the awareness and the presence of mind to explain the details of the situation to others.
6. Proportional Force
Proportional force is the concept of using only the amount of force necessary to stop the unlawful use of force against you or someone else, even if you are in a situation where you may stand your ground and meet force with force.
It is entirely possible to use excessive force in an otherwise justified self-defense situation and still incur felony charges as a result.
For instance, if someone pushes you, what is considered simple battery in many jurisdictions, you would not be justified in whipping out your pistol to shoot them absent any other factors that would lead a reasonable person to believe that their life was about to be in danger.
On the other hand, you might be justified in pepper spraying or punching them in response.
Similarly, if someone is presenting an immediate threat to life or limb, with or without a conventional weapon, you are justified in most jurisdictions to respond immediately with lethal force in like kind.
Note that this concept has nothing whatsoever to do with fair play or any such silly notions, but is instead intended to ensure that defenders act reasonably under the circumstances and use only the amount of force necessary to stop the unlawful use of force against them.
7. Lethal Force
Lethal force is exactly what it says, a force that will or is highly likely to result in death or great bodily injury.
This is most typically produced or present when a weapon, designed or improvised, is used in an altercation but can result from sustained physical attacks or specific attacks intended to cripple, maim or kill.
Lethal force is always a sign that a defensive encounter is going to go big or enter an entirely new and awful realm concerning both the stakes and the aftermath.
When you’re confronted with lethal force you are justified, not necessarily obligated, in responding with lethal force in kind if it will stop the imminent use of that lethal Force against you.
Keep in mind that even if someone is unarmed or is armed with any mundane object and still capable of or attempting to inflict death or great bodily harm, then the defender is justified and using lethal force and response just the same.
The presence of a purpose-designed weapon, a knife, gun, bow, spear, ax, or something similar, is not required for the attacker to be considered to employ lethal force.
Similarly, just because you are unarmed and we’re not intending to seriously name or kill someone does not mean that you didn’t employ lethal force unlawfully.
Good, old-fashioned stand-up fisticuffs can and do result in lethal injuries, and claiming it was an accident will do nothing whatsoever to ameliorate those charges.
That is something to keep in mind before you engage in a public stand-up slap around over something meaningless.
8. Great Bodily Harm
Great bodily harm or sometimes called great bodily injury is any harm or injury that is liable to result in the loss of function of an organ, a sense, a limb, or any injury that is likely to be greatly disfiguring or crippling.
Put simply, these are life-changing injuries, and you know they aren’t going to change your life or anyone else’s for the better.
Simply stated, you’ll usually see great bodily harm lumped in with lethal force when qualifying the use of unlawful force against a defender as well as the defender’s reciprocal force to stop the imminent use of said unlawful force.
Any force that is liable to result in death or great bodily harm escalates a self-defense situation to a higher level.
This is something else to keep in mind when considering the disparity of force.
If someone were trying to douse you in a flammable liquid and then set you on fire, that might not necessarily kill you if you can put it out in time no it would gravely burn you and certainly disfigure you.
That sort of attack would warrant lethal force in defense.
Similarly, if someone was trying to bludgeon you with a chain it is unlikely, barring a strike to the head, to kill you but is more than capable of breaking bones and inflicting substantial damage to your limbs.
That is another instance that would likely warrant the use of lethal force in response if the chain was large and heavy enough.
9. Forcible Felony
A forcible felony is anyone that is likely to result in death or great bodily injury to victims during its commission, and many pro self-defense States allow citizens to use lethal force in response to the imminent or ongoing commission of a forcible felony the same they would as a direct attack against themselves.
Note that each state defines forcible felonies slightly differently, and not all felonious crimes, even ones of a heinous nature, qualify under the statutes for self-defense, so read the fine print and read it well.
Typically classified forcible felonies include things like robbery, home invasion, kidnapping, arson, sexual assault, carjacking and so forth.
For the use of force to be justified in self-defense and the use of lethal force and self-defense in particular, the threat against the defender must be imminent.
A threat that is not imminent likely does not warrant the use of force at all in self-defense except in the most extraordinary circumstances.
For instance, and it sounds a little silly but it illustrates the point, if someone were to calmly inform you that, at some point three months hence, they would return to this spot, meet you there and then proceed to beat the crap out of you, you would not be justified in defending yourself at that point, assuming of course that they were not actually threatening you or appearing threatening at the time.
That is because the unlawful use of force against you, despite the terroristic threatening, was not imminent.
Similarly, someone who is threatening to shoot you but is currently in the process of slowly and laboriously assembling a firearm from a bag of bits, springs, and pins is not an imminent threat no matter how sincere they are about their desire.
Imminence is an important concept and self-defense because if a threat is not imminent but you suspect or are afraid of a threat you still have other options, options you should be employing.
The more imminent a threat is the less time you have to implement other solutions except for counterforce in an attempt to ameliorate it.
11. Reasonable Belief of Peril
Another precept that is important for self-defense and in particular stand your ground qualification where such laws are enforced is a reasonable belief of peril, sometimes called a reasonable belief of danger.
This means that the defender must have a sincere, though not necessarily accurate if considering imperfect knowledge, belief that they are genuinely in danger of harm, particularly in fear for their life or in fear of great bodily injury or death.
This dovetails with the reasonable person convention that is used to instruct most juries.
In short, juries are instructed to assess a person’s actions based on what a “reasonable” person would do.
The term reasonable is unfortunately nebulous and has very few objective metrics for judgment, and this has often led to trouble for otherwise well-intentioned and honorable defenders.
Without delving too far into a long list of bad outcomes, a person would be said to be acting reasonably when faced with an obvious, imminent threat of death or great bodily injury, such as that posed by a charging psychopath holding a machete.
However, if that same psychopath was threatening them from across a river and then placed the machete between their teeth before jumping into the river to slowly swim over to them, growling and threatening them all the while, the defender would not be justified and using force in defense.
Why? Well considering that the attack was in no way imminent and that a swimming attacker and the middle of a river carrying a machete is in no way a threat until they reach the near shore a person would be far better advised to retreat and summon help in such a case.
Additional examples could go on for some time, but stated most succinctly a threat must be genuine and realistic to qualify for the claim of self-defense.
12. Initial Aggressor
Except in very rare circumstances, a person who is an initial aggressor in a conflict or confrontation can never make a claim of self-defense.
Basically, if you start the fight or antagonize another person in such a way that they could make a reasonable claim that you were the assailant you will be denied a claim of self-defense.
Think of it this way. Let us say you are a big, strong, burly person and pick a fight with a much smaller person.
This person could make a reasonable assertion that a great disparity of physical power existed between the two of you and, fearing that they may be killed or greatly injured by a huge brute such as yourself, pulls a pistol on you and holds you at gunpoint while telling you to back off.
You then, as the initial aggressor in this encounter, could not claim to a court, judge, and jury that you were threatened by a man with a gun immediately prior to pulling your gun and shooting them.
You started the whole thing! You do not get to assert that you did not intend at all whatsoever to use lethal force, only non-lethal force, and were so justified in responding in kind.
13. Mutual Combat
Mutual combat is a situation that is somewhat related to the initial aggressor entry above.
Mutual combat, also known as combat by agreement, is a fight where two parties agree to engage it, simple as.
In a social display of violence, this typically occurs when one person takes offense to the words or actions of another and asks them if they want to step outside without aggressing them further at the instant.
When the other party agrees, the two meet at an agreed-upon location and settle things in the old ways. That is mutual combat.
If the fight then started going badly for one or the other, another could not make any claim of self-defense if escalating with a higher level of force or even later claim that they were attacked out of hand by the other party.
The fight, whatever format took, was mutually agreed upon and joined.
Social violence, the kind used to maintain or improve the status, settle grudges, get revenge on flights, and other such nonsense is highly typical of mutual combat and should always be avoided, especially by those who carry weapons for the purpose of self-defense.
Involving yourself in any sort of mutual combat for any reason makes a legitimate claim of self-defense extraordinarily remote if not completely impossible.
14. Furtherance of a Crime
I would hope it would be obvious to anyone, but you cannot claim self-defense if someone uses Force against you justly while you are in the commission of a crime.
By way of “for instance”, a bad guy who is caught climbing through someone’s window in the middle of the night cannot attack a homeowner and claim self-defense because the homeowner attacked him first.
Of course not: the homeowner was well within his rights to use lawful force to repel the commission of a forcible felony, namely home invasion robbery.
That is a very clear-cut example, but others may not be so simple.
Just remember that if you are committing a crime, any crime, even one that you might think is inconsequential, will likely impact your ability to claim self-defense should an encounter arise as a result of it.
Self-defense is serious business, and that means that laws governing self-defense are many, intricate and difficult to decipher without a foundational understanding of the terms and concepts codified by them.
You don’t need to be a lawyer to understand the basics of self-defense law, but you definitely need a good lawyer on your team as part of a well-rounded self-defense plan.
Nonetheless, it is helpful to know what you are talking about and understand the subject matter.
This article will serve as your primer for understanding the dense and intricate wording of various state statutes concerning self-defense and stand-your-ground laws.
Tom Marlowe practically grew up with a gun in his hand, and has held all kinds of jobs in the gun industry: range safety, sales, instruction and consulting, Tom has the experience to help civilian shooters figure out what will work best for them.