Self-Defense Laws in USA: Basic Terms

The world has never been a particularly safe space, neither for our ancestors nor us. Humanity has been gradually working on making it less hostile, and it won’t be an overstatement to say that we have achieved considerable success in that direction. We’ve managed to eradicate some of the external sources of lingering danger and now reached the point where the main threat to our existence is ourselves. An impressive achievement that we need to reckon with. That is, by no means, a novelty: people have been hurting each other throughout our whole history and come up with many ways to do so. However, a tool is only a tool: pistols can be instruments of crime in one situation and serve as lifesavers in another one. Self-defense scenarios are one of the rare cases when these two sides of one coin show at the same time. The right to life, liberty, and security is a basic human right, and sometimes we have to take active actions to exercise it. The concept of self-defense is easy to understand, but its legal side has a more complicated nature. When are active attempts to prevent violence justified? How far can you go while trying to protect yourself? Though many aspects of self-defense are explained by legal experts, the language of legislation might be hard to grasp. In this article, we try to explain the key principles of self-defense in a more or less understandable manner.


From a legal point of view, self-defense is a criminal defense that can be used to justify the use of force by one person against another person under certain circumstances. As the name suggests, those circumstances have something to do with protecting oneself. It might seem like the only thing that matters is that your health or life is at risk. Law establishes the framework in which this notion exists, defining the conditions under which one might resort to forceful actions that would be considered illegal in other cases.

Imminent Threat

The use of force against another person is justifiable when an immediate threat causes the fear of imminent harm The threat can be expressed through actions or words. The threat to slit you open is as much a reason to do something to protect yourself as seeing someone unfold a balisong and head in your direction. A person walking into a shop holding an M4 rifle might (and should) be perceived as a source of immediate danger and thus can be acted against. It’s important to note that verbal insults are insufficient grounds for taking self-defense actions. For better or worse, these rules only apply when your health or life is in danger, not honor or dignity.

Imminent Threat

It’s also crucial to understand the concept of imminence. Your forceful self-defense actions are only justifiable as long as the threat remains. When for one reason or another, your attacker stops assaulting you and indicates their intentions to no longer do so, the threat of danger has ended. Any further use of force from your side will be considered retaliation, not self-defense. For that reason, if a bully drags you into a fight and you manage to knock them out or render them harmless, stop once the threat is no longer. Should you fail to pull yourself together and go into a retaliatory frenzy, no self-defense claims will be applicable. It will also be hard to file for self-defense if you were the initiator and provoked the other party into fighting.

Reasonable Fear of Harm

In some cases, the perceived aggressor doesn’t even need to actually mean the victim any harm. The justifiability of self-defense actions is based on the potential victim’s perception of the situation. That is where the concept of a reasonable person comes into play. A reasonable person is a fictional individual with an ordinary degree of reason, foresight, and intelligence whose conclusions and expectations are used as a standard for defining something as reasonable. Nobody passes a reasonability test to later be summoned to court to judge whether the fear of harm was reasonable. Legal practice shows that this concept is subjected to varying interpretations, but it’s still the system’s best tool to determine whether a person’s evaluation of immediate danger was justified.

Examples of reasonable fear are plenty. A person might break into a shop holding a gun that, in fact, lacks any ammunition and thus is nothing more than a close combat weapon. The robber might have intended to use it as a tool of intimidation, not inflicting harm. However, none of the shop employees or customers are aware of that fact. If somebody, especially an employee, were to use a firearm for self-protection and the protection of others, they would have all legal grounds to file for self-defense if charged. The gun doesn’t need to be authentic: a convincing prop or model would make the same impression, giving people the right to act accordingly. Be it a plastic knife indistinguishable from a real one, a prop bottle shank, stolen from a film set, or even a gun-shaped thing, pointed at you through a jacket – everything that is supposed to look like a threat can be perceived as one.

The concept envelops all scenarios, not only weapon-related or threatening ones. A stranger trying to be friendly and reaching out to drive away a bee flying around somebody’s head will hardly expect that person to forcefully punch them in the hand. What is overreacting from one perspective is a reasonable reaction from another. Seeing somebody’s hand darting towards your head might provoke different reactions from different people. If such an occasion were to end in legal action, a court might very well rule that sudden movement of a stranger’s hand towards a person’s head would make a reasonable person think they are in danger of immediate physical harm. No one in this situation had ill intentions, but they are not the obligatory part of this equation.

Imperfect Self-Defense

This doctrine might be invoked when a defendant wants to mitigate punishment or sentencing imposed for a crime involving the use of deadly force. Let’s take that fictional shop of ours. A robber breaking into a shop with a gun at the ready is an apparent and obvious threat. A person reaching into the inner pocket of their jacket is not. Somebody may think they are reaching for a gun and act accordingly to prevent a potential threat. However, it’s hardly reasonable to expect every person to be a potential criminal. An unreasonable but honest belief that a deadly force might prevent severe bodily harm or death from happening might be regarded as imperfect defense. It does not excuse a person from the crime using violence, but it can mitigate the charges and penalties involved (reduce murder to voluntary manslaughter, for example). Not all jurisdictions recognize imperfect self-defense as a basis to mitigate a murder charge, though.

Imperfect Self-Defense

Proportional Response

The laws regulating self-defense require that the force used for protecting oneself is proportional to the threat faced. This aspect is crucial for those filing for self-defense. You can’t use deadly force when defending yourself or others if the threat itself wasn’t deadly. One can only employ as much force as needed to eliminate it. If you face the apparent threat of being punched in an argument, punching is as much as you are legally allowed to do. Using self-defense weapons for stabbing or shooting the attacker, even if not fatally, would be considered a disproportional response and will turn you from victim to defendant. You are only allowed to use deadly force to counteract a deadly threat.

Duty To Retreat

The original laws that regulated self-defense obliged people to first try to retreat from imminent danger by running away or escaping the situation in any other way. That regulation is known as the duty to retreat. While the principle has been discarded for the instances of using non-lethal force by the majority of jurisdictions, it’s still widely applicable when lethal force is involved. If a person is physically incapable of escaping, is cornered or physically restrained, and faces the threat of bodily injury or death only then are they allowed to use whatever force necessary to defend themselves.

Stand Your Ground

Stand your ground principle is the opposite of the duty to retreat. The general principle of such laws is that a person is allowed to use force to protect themselves without trying to flee. In many states that exercise this principle, a person can avoid trial and be granted immunity from prosecution with a claim of self-defense.

The peculiar feature of these laws is their heterogeneity. Stand-your-ground laws can differ from state to state. In general, most jurisdictions recognize this principle in relation to the use of non-lethal force. Some states still require a person to try to flee from danger before applying lethal force, but some don’t. As of now, 38 states adhere to some variation of the stand-your-ground principle, and 11 impose a duty to retreat. The remaining one, Washington, D.C., adopts a middle-ground approach.

Stand Your Ground

Castle Doctrine

The overwhelming majority of states, even those imposing the duty to retreat, follow the castle doctrine. It’s not a defined law that can be invoked but rather a set of principles. The castle doctrine allows a person attacked in their home or another place they have the right to be(vehicles or workplaces) not to try to retreat. These laws permit the use of lethal force to protect one’s property from intruders and the workplace from attackers. The extent to which these laws are used is also different from state to state, but it’s important to be aware of their existence. You don’t need to flee from your home if a burglar breaks in, and you can use lethal force in some states even without waiting for a trespasser to indicate that they mean you harm.

While American safe-defense laws can’t be unified due to the number of jurisdictions, they all use the same terminology. Knowing the basic terms is essential for understanding these laws and being able to exercise your rights. Know your rights and stay safe.