If you’ve decided that you’re willing to protect yourself or a loved one, one of the most important things you need to understand is when Pennsylvania law justifies the use of force and when Pennsylvania law justifies the use of deadly force.


Pennsylvania law defines deadly force, but it doesn’t define force. The law defines deadly force as any type of force which, under the circumstances it is used, is readily capable of causing death or serious bodily injury. Keep in mind that it doesn’t have to actually kill somebody. It just has to be readily capable of doing so. So, force that falls outside of that category—force that is not readily capable of causing death or serious bodily injury—is just called force. Plain old force.


What does the law say about the justified use of force in self-protection? It’s a fairly simple standard. Force is justified when you have a reasonable belief that force is immediately necessary to prevent unlawful force from being used against you.

So if someone who’s roughly the same size, age, physical condition, is about to punch you, you can grab their arm, you could swat their fist out of the way, you can even punch them to prevent them from hitting you.


Knowing that, when is deadly force justified? Under Pennsylvania law, deadly force is justified when you have a reasonable belief that deadly force is immediately necessary to prevent death, serious bodily injury, kidnapping, or intercourse by force or threat. When we talk about the last one, we commonly call it rape for the purposes of discussion, even though it’s a little more specific than that, because it specifically must include force or threat. And serious bodily injury includes severe prolonged physical impairment of limb or an organ—think crippling or blindness—these are serious injuries.

A couple of other quick points: deadly force will not be justified if the person using it provoked the use of force against themselves with the intent of ultimately using deadly force. In other words, it’s not legal to pick a fight with someone and hope that it escalates to a scenario in which you “get” to use deadly force. We also generally have a duty to retreat if we can do it with complete safety. And although we usually have no duty to retreat in our home, we won’t have that advantage if we’re the initial aggressor.

Two other quick points: The use of force must be immediately necessary. Not just necessary. We have to be facing a threat that is imminent. Think of that “no choice” type scenario.


Pennsylvania law demands you have a reasonable belief. Not just a belief. Someone can be in fear of their life, yet not be justified in using deadly force. How? If their belief was unreasonable, the law won’t stoop to their level. If someone is in fear of their life because they think someone’s about to shoot lightning bolts out of their fingers, they will have a very hard time convincing a jury that their belief was reasonable.

This is not everything you need to know about the use of deadly force and the use of force. U.S. LawShield of Pennsylvania routinely puts on seminars covering this topic that last roughly two hours. Come out to one of these seminars, because these laws can’t be fully covered in just a few minutes. If you’ve already been to a seminar, come to another seminar and bring a friend. We talk about the justified use of deadly force, the Castle Doctrine, stand your ground, defense of others, and much more.

If you have any questions about the legally justified use of force or deadly force, or anything related, call U.S. LawShield and ask to speak with an Independent Program Attorney.