Self-Defense Laws and Examples

Kyle Lee, Amy Bonn
  • Author
    Kyle Lee

    Kyle Lee has taught high school social science for over five years. They have a bachelor’s degree in sociology from University of Florida.

  • Instructor
    Amy Bonn

    Amy has taught college and law school writing courses. She holds a master's degree in English and a law degree.

Learn about self-defense. Understand what self-defense is, learn if self-defense is legal, know the elements of self-defense, and see self-defense examples. Updated: 03/23/2022

What is Self-Defense?

Self-defense is the right of individuals to protect themselves from suffering harm by counteracting a force with a sufficient amount of counterforce. Self-defense is often based on justification of actions, and for some countries like the USA, UK, Japan, and Belgium, it is classified as statutory law. Killing, for instance, may not be considered a criminal act if the perpetrator reasonably had a strong belief that they were in imminent danger of death or serious violence, assault, and/or battery from the aggressors and if killing was deemed necessary to avoid those risks. Defendants prosecuted for committing homicide under justifiable self-defense scenarios may be acquitted. Their case may be downgraded from a first degree to a lower second or third degrees or reduced to manslaughter.

Self-defense is purposefully used in defending the health and well-being of individuals. It enables one to navigate dangerous situations and avoid possible physical assaults. A justifiable defense is comprised of situations where defenders fear sustaining serious injuries or losing their lives from an immediate threat and respond to that threat proportionately. Two circumstances that do not constitute self-defense include using excessive force to start an initial attack and escaping from an aggressor and then returning to attack the original aggressor.

Self-Defense Examples

  • John gets into a heated argument with Ken. Things escalate quickly, and Ken grabs a knife and attempts to stab John; John struggles with the weapon and in the brawl ends up stabbing Ken in the throat, rendering him dead. Ken's response indicates excessive force. This example justifies self-defense for John due to a reasonable amount of force and threat of imminent injuries. It is justifiable that John uses deadly force to protect himself, since Ken was using deadly force against him.
  • An argument between Bob and Josh proceeds heatedly; Bob withdraws to cool off, leaving the scene. Josh follows him with a loaded gun pointed at his back and threatens to shoot; Bob can justifiably draw his gun and shoot Josh because of what he could perceive as a deadly threat.
  • Jane is walking down the street when a stranger jumps out in front of her and attempts to take her purse, pushing her to the ground in the process. This is an unprovoked attack, as Jane did nothing to instigate this aggression. Jane can justifiably fight off her aggressor and legally claim self-defense.
  • Wendi suffers from severe coulrophobia, or fear of clowns. She tries to avoid situations where clowns are present because her symptoms and fear of harm are so severe, but one day she sees a clown walking directly towards her in a secluded parking garage. Wendi may be able to defend her use of force to protect herself from a perceived threat, even if the clown meant her no harm and was only walking towards his own car parked nearby. This is referred to as imperfect self-defense.

Self-Defense Rules

There are three main self-defense rules. They include:

  • Imminent Threat: The threat of danger must be immediately present and require an immediate response. For example, one cannot claim self-defense if they are responding to an aggression that happened 3 weeks ago.
  • Reasonable Fear of Harm: The danger must be such that the defendant reasonable fears for their safety or their life if they do not fight back. For example, a reasonable person would not consider an unarmed 5-year-old child to be a threat of significant bodily harm or death to an adult.
  • Proportionate Response: The force used in defense must be proportionate to the force used by the aggressor. For example, it would be disproportionate to respond to a punch by shooting someone.

Self-Defense Requirements

We've all had to justify things from time to time, whether it's to ourselves or others. Perhaps we've had to justify taking that one last cookie or staying up late to catch the ending of a movie. When we justify something, we're making the case that doing something is okay.

In criminal law, there are very few ways that the use of force, even deadly force, can be justified, or seen as a right under the law. Self-defense is the justified use of force to protect oneself from harm. A person who invokes self-defense must not have been the aggressor in the situation that led to the need to defend him or herself. While the concept of self-defense might seem pretty straightforward, the key things to focus on are when, how, and where one can defend oneself justifiably under the law.

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The Threat Must be Imminent

When a person has invoked self-defense as a reason to justify having killed another person, for example, it must be determined whether the perceived threat of harm was imminent. Something that is imminent is about to happen immediately.

So if, for example, Ted forgets to record his roommate Bob's favorite show, and an enraged Bob runs at Ted with a knife, the threat to Ted would be imminent. In other words, Ted would have to act fast to defend himself. If, however, an enraged Bob tells Ted that once he gets paid the following week, he will go out and buy a pricey knife to stab Ted with, then Ted would not be facing an imminent threat, and would not be justified in reacting by killing Bob. Self-defense would not apply in that case.

The Fear of Harm Must be Reasonable

Additionally, in order to be justified in using force to defend oneself, one's fear of being imminently harmed must be reasonable, meaning that a reasonable and prudent person would have deemed the threat to be real.

Let's say Ted leaves all of his dirty dishes in the sink, and an annoyed Bob tells him, 'I could kill you for never loading the dishwasher.' Assuming that Bob is not a violent guy and was not behaving in a threatening way toward his roommate (roommates often say off-the-cuff things to each other), Ted would not be justified in running over to Bob and strangling him to death, and if he did, self-defense wouldn't apply here, as it wouldn't be reasonable for Ted to assume that Bob was about to kill him.

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Video Transcript

Self-Defense Requirements

We've all had to justify things from time to time, whether it's to ourselves or others. Perhaps we've had to justify taking that one last cookie or staying up late to catch the ending of a movie. When we justify something, we're making the case that doing something is okay.

In criminal law, there are very few ways that the use of force, even deadly force, can be justified, or seen as a right under the law. Self-defense is the justified use of force to protect oneself from harm. A person who invokes self-defense must not have been the aggressor in the situation that led to the need to defend him or herself. While the concept of self-defense might seem pretty straightforward, the key things to focus on are when, how, and where one can defend oneself justifiably under the law.

The Threat Must be Imminent

When a person has invoked self-defense as a reason to justify having killed another person, for example, it must be determined whether the perceived threat of harm was imminent. Something that is imminent is about to happen immediately.

So if, for example, Ted forgets to record his roommate Bob's favorite show, and an enraged Bob runs at Ted with a knife, the threat to Ted would be imminent. In other words, Ted would have to act fast to defend himself. If, however, an enraged Bob tells Ted that once he gets paid the following week, he will go out and buy a pricey knife to stab Ted with, then Ted would not be facing an imminent threat, and would not be justified in reacting by killing Bob. Self-defense would not apply in that case.

The Fear of Harm Must be Reasonable

Additionally, in order to be justified in using force to defend oneself, one's fear of being imminently harmed must be reasonable, meaning that a reasonable and prudent person would have deemed the threat to be real.

Let's say Ted leaves all of his dirty dishes in the sink, and an annoyed Bob tells him, 'I could kill you for never loading the dishwasher.' Assuming that Bob is not a violent guy and was not behaving in a threatening way toward his roommate (roommates often say off-the-cuff things to each other), Ted would not be justified in running over to Bob and strangling him to death, and if he did, self-defense wouldn't apply here, as it wouldn't be reasonable for Ted to assume that Bob was about to kill him.

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Frequently Asked Questions

Is self defense legal in the USA?

Self-defense is legal in the USA. In most states, self-defense is considered justified if one reasonably believes that an aggressor intends to cause imminent bodily harm or death to them or another person, or has already caused such harm or death, and they act out of a reasonable fear of imminent danger.

What is defined as self defense?

Self-defense is the process of defending oneself from an assault. It is typically done by inflicting pain, injury or death on the assailant to protect oneself. Self-defense is based on legislation that permits individuals to counteract potentially harmful attacks from aggressors in situations they believe could result in severe injury or death.

What are the 3 elements of self-defense?

The three elements of self-defense are:

1. Imminent Threat - the threat of danger must be immediately present.

2. Reasonable Fear of Harm - the defendant must have a reasonable fear of harm or death from the aggressor.

3. Proportionate Response - the defense response must be proportionate to that of the aggression.

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