Many people have questions when they first become interested in learning self-defense and all too often those questions revolve around how to go about the defense of self rather than the law concerning that potential use of force. In this guide, we’ll address some of the most common questions people have about defense against threats and explore some things that aren’t always as obvious to someone just starting to research how to take responsibility for their own personal safety. It’s important to remember that personal protection and the steps to start building a robust self-defense practice will be specific to the individual and that the law can vary by location. It’s also important to remember that while it’s easy to focus on weapons, tools, and gear, use of force laws should probably be the first concern anyone has when they begin to ask questions and learn about personal protection and defense against attacks in general. Attempting to claim ignorance of the law isn’t a valid legal defense.
What Is Self-Defense?
Self-defense is the fundamental human right that allows for the use of physical force to protect oneself from unlawful injury by another. Many different situations can fall under the umbrella of self-defense, and not every violent or potentially violent encounter is, or needs to be, solved with a weapon. While self-defense is a basic human right, it’s crucial to know the law or laws that govern when someone is legally justified in defending themselves that are spelled out in self-defense laws. The law applies whether your defense plan involves using firearms, edged weapons, martial arts, or some other means of self-defense as a means of defense against an immediate, credible threat.
Is Self-Defense Legal?
Yes, if specific criteria are met according to the law, self-defense is perfectly legal. In legal terms, self-defense is what’s known as an affirmative defense—a defense where the defendant (the defender in this instance) introduces evidence that, if found to be credible, justifies the defender’s actions for what would otherwise be an illegal act. It’s important to familiarize yourself with the law about the use of force in your state, as there can be many subtle differences in what the self-defender must do to have a valid claim of self-defense. Part of a good defense is understanding the law related to defense against threats and use of force, and that does vary by where you live. It’s also important to familiarize yourself with the law regarding defense against threats in areas you intend to travel through or visit.
What Is Considered Self-Defense?
Self-defense is any level of physical force that you use in defense from a threat (to prevent force from being used against you). To make a successful claim of self-defense, several criteria must be met. (1) You should reasonably believe that the person you use force against must be able to cause bodily harm to you, a concept known as “ability.” (2) You should reasonably believe the person is able to cause bodily harm to you when the incident is occurring, a concept known as “opportunity.” (3) You must be in reasonable fear that the person you are using force against as a defense intends to use both their ability and opportunity to cause you bodily harm, right now, a concept known as “immediacy.” (4) Finally, you must not have acted in any way that would invalidate your claim of self-defense, such as attempting to bait someone into an encounter with the purpose of using force against them. It’s VERY important to keep in mind that you may not respond to an attack with lethal force unless you can reasonably articulate that the attacker has the ability and opportunity to cause you death or great bodily harm during the attack. If the attacker possesses only the ability and opportunity to cause you the lesser “bodily harm,” the law states you MUST utilize a proportional level of force.
Can You Go to Jail if You Defend Yourself?
Yes, if your defense claim of self-defense is found to be invalid or unreasonable, the way the law is written means you can absolutely be convicted and sentenced to jail or prison. Keep in mind that using physical force against someone else is generally illegal, and a claim of self-defense that’s found to be valid protects the defender from the consequences of what would otherwise be a criminal act. This is why it's vital to know the law where you are. It’s also important to remember that if you are involved in any defensive encounter where you use any level of force against someone else, there will be some form of legal process following the incident. This process generally begins with a police investigation and arrest, which is why many people interested in personal protection seek some form of self-defense insurance to help cover the legal fees associated with defense against threats. The law is nuanced and it’s wise to have a lawyer handle issues related to the law and defense against threats for you.
Can You Kill Someone to Defend Yourself from a Threat?
Yes, a valid claim of self-defense will protect you from any criminal penalty that would result from the death of the person attacking them so long as the defender's actions in defense are found to be reasonably, proportionally, and in compliance with all applicable laws. “Proportionally” means the person defending themselves must use only the level of force necessary to stop the imminent threat against them, and no more. Many of the self-defense tools in everyday use, especially a handgun or knife, have the potential to kill or seriously harm the person attacking the defender. Oftentimes, death is the unfortunate result of the force needed to stop someone who is actively attacking another person, but it’s never the intended outcome. The person acting in defense—the defender—must always use only the force necessary to stop the imminent threat and must never actively seek to kill someone else. Seeking to kill someone, even if they’re attacking you, can be used by a prosecutor to show malice, which could weaken or defeat the defender’s claim of self-defense.
Does the Law Let You Stab Someone to Defend Yourself?
Generally, yes, you can stab someone if forced to do so in defense against a threat to protect your life, but it may not be a good idea if you have any other option available to you. A legal claim of self-defense can be made no matter what the defender uses to protect themselves. However, there are other factors to consider if you’re carrying a knife for personal protection.
The first thing to consider is what the law says about carrying a knife where you live. Many states with some form of permitting process for carrying a handgun have very stringent restrictions on carrying the type of knife that might actually be useful in a defensive encounter. If you get into an encounter and use a weapon that is illegal to have on your person, it won’t automatically invalidate your claim of self-defense, but a prosecutor could use it as evidence that you acted maliciously, and it may weaken your self-defense claim in other ways. Familiarize yourself with the law in your area.
Another factor to consider is that a defense that involves stabbing someone requires you to be in close physical proximity to them. The closer your attacker is to you, the greater the likelihood that you may be severely injured during the attack. It’s almost always better to have as much distance as possible between you and your attacker. Relying on a tool for defense that requires you to be at close range with your attacker could have a very bad outcome.
Are Self-Defense Keychains Legal?
The legality of a tactical keychain for defense is going to depend on what kind of tool is attached to the keychain and the local law governing those tools. For instance, a cat self-defense keychain is likely to be illegal anywhere that bans brass knuckles or similar items. However, pepper spray attached to a keychain may be perfectly legal in the same state where a cat self-defense keychain is illegal. The only way to know for certain is to check your local law that governs which weapons you can legally carry. The law will vary by location, so take the time to check the law not only where you live, but any place you intend to travel.
Can I Use Wasp Spray Instead of Pepper Spray?
No, you shouldn’t use wasp spray for defensive purposes. One of the most common bad pieces of advice related to defense against threats that well-meaning people give is the suggestion that you can use wasp spray as some form of less-lethal force. There are multiple issues with attempting to use wasp spray in this manner, but probably the biggest one is that it’s simply not very effective at doing any of the things that less-lethal spray should do. In addition to being regarded as relatively ineffective by anyone who studies defensive encounters, you could potentially run into legal issues if you’re in a situation where using a less-lethal option would be justified but instead spray a neurotoxin in someone’s face. If you’re interested in carrying a less-lethal spray, stick with pepper spray. As you can see, knowing and understanding the law is a must.
What Is the Best Handgun to Carry for Self-Defense?
Selecting any firearm is a highly personal choice, and there are many factors to consider when selecting one for defense against threats. A person who intends to carry a handgun every day may be looking for different features and options than the person who wants a firearm primarily to keep in the home. If your primary interest is carrying a firearm on your person every day, there are a few things to keep in mind.
Uncommon handguns are uncommon for a reason. Make sure to check the aftermarket support available for any pistol you’re considering purchasing. This can include anything from the holsters and sights that are available to the simple things like magazines or replacement parts on the market. It’s difficult to carry a gun that doesn’t have any quality holsters available for it due to its obscurity.
A handgun needs to fit your hand. A common mistake people make when they talk about fitting a pistol to their hand is thinking of “fit” in terms of “comfort.” To be clear, you don’t want a handgun to be uncomfortable in the hand. It’s important to remember, though, that a handgun can be comfortable in the hand but still be sized in such a way that you won’t be able to reach the trigger fully.
A general rule of thumb when checking fit is that you need to at least be able to place the first joint of your index finger on the face of the trigger when you hold the handgun in a normal firing grip, whether or not that’s the part of your finger you would actually use when shooting. If you find you have to rotate your hand around the handgun to get to the trigger, it probably doesn’t fit you.
Keep in mind when selecting a handgun that shot placement will be what wins most defensive encounters. Being able to place a “less effective” round exactly where you intend it is always better than a near miss with a “more effective” round. While it’s nice to have a handgun that’s chambered in a popular service caliber loaded with quality defensive ammo, it’s more important to worry about how you can perform with your chosen handgun than what caliber you’re carrying.
The last thing to keep in mind when selecting a handgun for self-defense is that if you intend to carry it, the handgun you select must be one that you can comfortably carry with you wherever it’s legal for you to do so.
While it’s true that the first rule of a gunfight is “Don’t get into a gunfight,” the second rule is equally important: “Have a gun.” Make sure that if you’re selecting a gun with the intention of carrying it as part of your everyday life, you select one that you’ll be able to comfortably conceal in a wide range of environments and activities. While many people conceal a full-size handgun on a regular basis, not everyone will have the necessary physical real estate on their body to be able to do that.
Knowing and understanding the law can be challenging. Consider taking a closer look at the U.S. LawShield® Legal Defense for Self Defense® to enjoy the benefits of being a member.
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The information provided in this publication is intended to provide general information to individuals and is not legal advice. The information included in this publication may not be quoted or referred to in any other publication without the prior written consent of U.S. LawShield, to be given or withheld at our discretion. The information is not a substitute for, and does not replace the advice or representation of a licensed attorney. We strive to ensure the information included in this publication is accurate and current, however, no claim is made to the accuracy of the information and we are not responsible for any consequences that may result from the use of information in this publication. The use of this publication does not create an attorney-client relationship between U.S. LawShield, any independent program attorney, and any individual.
I find your tutorials to be helpful and answering many of my questions
We are glad you enjoy them!
The good thing about a knife for self defense is no one should be injured downrange. Handgun bullets may go through the bad guy and kill an innocent person. Knives are commonly carried by most Americans; whereas, a pistol is not. Be sure and check state laws. Many states have loosened up knife laws greatly in recent years, but not all.
Even concealed carry holders often do not carry their gun constantly, as they do their pocket knives. Much heavier weight or the hassle of putting on holster, belt, over shirt, etc. are some reasons. note too that many jobs will not allow a pistol while they do allow a knife, and jobs are where people go 5 days a week.
If you do carry a pocket knife (folder), be sure and check the lock on it. Many knives do not have a good locking mechanism, even some expensive ones. Hopefully, we never have to use this tool for self defense, but is we do our lives–or our love ones–may depend upon it.
Just a little nitpick on a very good article…
When it is written “use of force laws”, it seems like you are describing “force laws”, whatever that is.
The proper way to write it is: “use-of-force laws.” FIFY……
As I said, this is a very good article nonetheless!
I feel the MOST important thing for ANYONE (no matter how experienced with weapons or any form of hand to hand methodology) is EDUCATION. Educate yourselves on the laws where you live, where you travel, any place that you will be whether carrying a weapon or not. Educate yourselves in the proper and safe usage of your selected weapon of defense. Learn your ability and limitations with that weapon. Then TRAIN, TRAIN, and TRAIN some more. When you have done what seems like all the training you can possibly do, TRAIN some more. The more you train, the more muscle memory you will gain. Then, APPLY ALL the education and training ALL the time. Especially before you get into an encounter that could turn violent. Attention to your surroundings and knowing when to avoid an area or situation is the BEST (and cheapest) form of self-defense. I see sooo many people out there who totally neglect education and training because they got a license to carry or they simply have a weapon on them. I’m as scared for those people as they should be for themselves, especially with all the multitudes of resources available to help educate and train yourself in all the aspects of self-defense. It’s a LOT more than just toting a gun….a lot more.
What are the rules for carrying a gun in a car for self defense when traveling?
Good info. Helpful.
I like the articiles I read it helps to know what I can and can not do when in bad and stressful encounter.
Dennis, we are glad you are enjoying the articles!
Benchmark presentations; please keep them coming.
Perhaps you might consider holding s seminar (with a fee if necessary) to demonstrate effective techniques not included by the above respondents.
Thanks for your e-mails
Training, training, and more training. You can never have enough training. Muscle memory is so important to your training. Never wait until it’s too late to wish you had more training.
I would like to find a training location close t wills Point Texas.
Thanks for a really good article. Even being in my 60’s, I seem to learn something new every time I read these acticles. Thanks for keeping us up on the gun laws.
Thanks for reading!
I like that you answer if self-defense is legal and why it’s important. My uncle wants to put his youngest in a self-defense class so he feels better when they are alone. He likes the idea of his kids being able to defend themselves when needed.