Disclaimer: This guide is not a substitute for professional legal advice. I am not, nor have I ever been, a lawyer. Always check your local laws and speak with an attorney about what types of self-defense are allowed in your community and when they are allowed. The law is constantly changing and evolving so I can’t 100% guarantee this guide will always 100% up to date.
If someone attacks you, then you have a right to defend yourself from that attack.
Depending on the severity of the attack, you may be able to legally defend yourself with lethal force. Laws in the United States and around the world vary on this, but if you feel that your life is immediately threatened, then you have the option to defend yourself to whatever extent is necessary to ensure your own life.
There are three general elements that must be present for lethal force to be legally justified in most jurisdictions.
- The ability of the attacker. If the attacker had the ability to cause your death or grievous harm if the attack was allowed, then you can defend yourself with the same ability. This usually means an attacker must be armed with a weapon that could be lethal, such as a knife or a gun. In some instances, lethal force against an unarmed individual may also be legally allowed if serious harm could be the outcome.
- The opportunity of the attacker. If there is limited space between you and your attacker, then lethal force may be considered legal when used in self-defense. For an unarmed attacker, this means they must be within an arm’s length for such force to be applied. If a weapon is present, the opportunity to cause harm can be very different.
- The feeling of personal jeopardy. If you feel that your attacker meant to cause you grievous harm or that your life was threatened, then you have the generalized right to defend yourself. Just because someone has a gun doesn’t mean there is “personal jeopardy” present. The gun must be drawn and likely pointed at you, using this example, for this element to apply.
Where self-defense becomes problematic for individuals is when the defensive actions take place after the attack has completed. If a robber comes into a store, holds a gun on the clerk, and then leaves the store with cash in their pockets, the clerk cannot then run out of the store and shoot the robber in the back in most jurisdictions.
Why? Because all three elements no longer apply. The attacker is running away. Personal jeopardy is not present. If the clerk acted while the gun was being used, the situation for self-defense is different, which means a legal defense will likely be allowed.
That is why non-lethal self-defense is a better option for the average person. It allows you to defend yourself, but it also limits the damage that can be done to the attacker. That limits your potential legal liabilities, even in situations where your actions of self-defense may be considered unjustified.
There Are Limits on Your Self-Defense Rights
In some jurisdictions in the United States and around the world, there is a duty to retreat when an escape is possible. This means that an individual who is not the aggressor in a confrontation has a duty to retreat and seek help if such an opportunity presents itself.
If an individual is aware that there is a retreat option to complete safety and they choose not to take it, then defending yourself legally may be more difficult to accomplish.
Because of the “awareness” need in the duty to retreat, some jurisdictions have embraced what has been labeled as a “stand your ground” doctrine. The theory behind this idea is that, as an innocent person, there is no duty to retreat or run away in fear from an attacker if there is a means to defend oneself.
For the Stand Your Ground self-defense form, it generally follows these three key points.
- The individual defending themselves must not be the aggressor in the situation.
- There is an awareness that there is an opportunity to retreat, but this option is not taken.
- Force is then applied to the attacker, with lethality if necessary, because there is a belief that serious physical harm or death will occur if self-defense does not occur.
Any item can be used in this circumstance to defend oneself. This includes non-lethal items, such as a pepper spray or taser, or lethal items, such as a firearm.
Another option for self-defense comes under what is termed the “Castle Doctrine.”
Although there is some debate about the usefulness of the Stand Your Ground principle, virtually every state in the US and most nations allow people to defend themselves in their own homes from an intruder. Even if there are retreat laws in place, there is rarely the need to find an opportunity to escape when defending one’s home.
If someone comes under attack in their own home, they can use lethal force if there is any apparent danger of a serious injury. The very fact that an intruder is in a home, whether owned or rented, may be enough cause to use lethal force when defending yourself legally.
What Happens if a Non-Lethal Self-Defense Action Causes Death?
There are many non-lethal self-defense options available to you today if you don’t want to carry a firearm or a blade. From keychain defense items to pepper spray to a baseball bat, these tools can help you defend yourself when an attack occurs without the high risk of lethal force being used.
Yet death can still occur when an item classified as being non-lethal is deployed against an attacker.
In 2015, there were 48 people killed by law enforcement through the deployment of a taser.
A November 2011 report in The Guardian showed that dozens of deaths have been caused by the use of pepper spray.
What happens if a non-lethal self-defense action causes death?
The answer to that question likely depends on what your local laws happen to be and what was used to cause the fatality.
For example: you may face less criminal liability if you used a commercially available pepper spray to defend yourself than if you made your own DIY pepper spray and used that item in self-defense.
Intent may also be part of the equation. If your response to an attacker is above and beyond what could be reasonably expected from an attacker, this may enough cause to begin a criminal investigation.
It all depends on local laws. That’s why asking a legal professional who specializes in self-defense in your geographic region is so important. Because the laws that govern self-defense vary greatly throughout the United States, what may apply in one area may not apply in another.
More Questions to Ask Regarding Your Local Self-Defense Laws
Self-defense laws vary all over the world.
In some communities, the ability to use force to defend oneself may be very restricted. If there is a retreat law in place and an investigation deems that retreat was not taken, though recognized, then the individual defending themselves could be charged as if they were an attacker.
In other communities, the ability to use force to defend oneself is highly protected and may apply in virtually any circumstance. Even the reasonable expectation that an innocent person may find himself or herself in danger could be enough to allow for defensive actions to be taken.
To make sure you understand more about what your local laws allow or do not allow you to do when defending yourself legally, it is important to ask these questions to a local legal professional.
- What is defined as a “home” when using the Castle Doctrine when defending oneself?
- If the attacker within a home is not an intruder, will the Castle Doctrine still apply?
- For a Stand Your Ground law to apply, does it depend on where you defend yourself?
- What liabilities could be faced if local self-defense laws are not properly followed?
What Can I Use to Defend Myself Legally?
When you are purchasing items to defend yourself should an attack occur, there are some items that may not be legal in your jurisdiction. Simply owning a bladed keychain or a high-concentration pepper spray may be illegal and potentially result in fines or worse.
Buying pepper spray may come with an age restriction. Some states may require a purchaser to be either 18 or 21. Restrictions may also apply to felons owning pepper spray.
Container restrictions may also apply. In Arkansas, a pepper spray container must be 150cc or less. In California, the container must be less than 2.5 ounces.
In New York, sales are restricted to licensed firearms dealers and pharmacies. Only bear sprays or other animal pepper sprays ordered online would be allowed.
Wisconsin requires that a pepper spray be no stronger than 10% and safety features must be included on the dispersal of the item.
For residents of Washington, DC, any pepper spray purchase must be registered with the local police department to indicate you are in possession of this self-defense item.
Animal repellents are generally legal to purchase and have shipped to you from an online transaction.
Although state laws may allow for the purchase and/or possession of certain self-defense items, certain city or county restrictions may be in place that do not allow ownership. In Chicago, for example, it is illegal to carry pepper spray on your person, even though it is legal to own pepper spray in the state of Illinois if you are 18 years of age or older.
For a complete list of restrictions, this chart will help you see what is or is not allowed in your state. Always check for local restrictions before completing a purchase.
Not Every Self-Defense Situation is a Criminal Consideration
Burt wakes up. It’s the dead of night. He looks at the clock and it says 2am. There’s a noise in the house. Then there’s a loud crash and a sharp cry. Burt runs downstairs to see that someone has broken through the living room window. A shard of glass has gone through the intruder’s arm. The TV has fallen on the intruder’s legs and caused a broken ankle. Burt laughs and calls the police, who arrest the intruder.
Common sense would say that should be the end of the story. Burt uses his homeowner’s insurance to cover the damage and thinks about suing the intruder for the damage done to his property.
Unfortunately, defending yourself legally may create a future civil problem. Burt may be able to sue the intruder for damage to his property, but the intruder could potentially sue Burt for the injuries that happened while breaking into the home.
This is due to a rule known as the “premise liability rule.”
In most jurisdictions, there must be a reasonable expectation that harm will not be caused if someone enters your property. Entry does not require permission for this rule to be in place. It applies to owner-occupants and renters. There is a legal expectation that the premises are relatively safe.
Whether or not an intruder can bring a civil case for injury that happens to them while breaking in depends on the condition of the property, the definition of a trespasser, and if there are any warnings against unauthorized entry that are posted on the property in a reasonable location.
If an owner or renter is believed to know that there is a reasonable expectation for trespassers to be on their property, most jurisdictions require that a duty to give reasonable warnings to prevent injury must be in place. This requirement typically applies to artificial conditions on the property that could create a serious injury, but could apply to any injury that occurs.
What does this mean for Burt?
- If he set a trap to stop an intruder on his property, he could be sued for willful injury.
- If he had seen signs of a trespasser in the weeks before and didn’t warn of the dangers of entry, he could be sued for a lack of warning about known dangers.
- If he doesn’t request help from law enforcement right away because of the injuries suffered, Burt could be sued for his lack of response.
These civil consequences could occur even though everything happened on Burt’s property and he had nothing to do with the incident.
What can help Burt out is a process that is called “comparative fault”.
If an intruder breaks into a property and becomes injured, it could be ruled that both parties were at fault for the injury. The intruder, using this example, wouldn’t have received an injury from the window or the TV if they hadn’t chosen to break into Burt’s home in the first place.
Burt might be ruled to be liable at some level because he didn’t properly post “No Trespassing” signs on his property.
In comparative fault, a percentage of fault is assigned to both parties that does not exceed 100%.
For this example, let’s say that the intruder sues Burt, wins his case, but is assigned 90% fault for his own injuries. The total amount awarded in the case is $20,000.
Because Burt is only assigned 10% fault for the injuries, his total liability would be $2,000 to the intruder. If Burt had a good homeowner’s insurance policy, he could then pay the deductible for that cost (if he even had one) and pay potentially nothing out of pocket – despite the fact that he lost the case.
This means great care must always be taken when defending oneself. Whether you agree or disagree with the laws, they are valid and will be applied in a case of self-defense. If you do not follow those laws, your legal and civil liabilities could be more than you ever imagined.
There is one exception. Special rules apply to landlords of property. If you rent property to a tenant, you will wish to speak with a legal professional about your criminal or civil responsibilities in an incident such as the example above.
Do You Have the Right to Defend Yourself?
If you feel threatened, then self-defense laws protect your right to keep yourself and your property from harm. The specific rules that governthis right depend on where you live, so do not rely solely on the broad concepts offered here to make a specific decision.
Always ask a legal professional what is or is not allowed as self-defense in your specific jurisdiction because there may be local, county, state, and national laws that could apply.
In general terms, you can defend yourself and your property with the same amount of force that an attacker threatens or attempts. This may include using lethal force when necessary.
If you wish to defend yourself legally, however, a non-lethal option is your best option in virtually any jurisdictions. From pepper sprays to stun guns, you have plenty of choices to make sure you and your family can stay safe. Choose the items that make sense for your defense, stay aware of your surroundings whenever possible, and you’ll be able to lower the risk of having something dangerous happen to you.