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Arming Yourself with the Laws of Self-Defense

Arming Yourself with the Laws of Self-Defense

Can You Trust Your Training?

Effective self-defense training always emphasizes the teaching of situational awareness. It must offer specific instructions on how to counter the most common types of attacks such as grabs, punches, and kicks. The training should also include some groundwork.

The best self-defense programs take a hands-on approach, allowing students to test their abilities against a resisting opponent, often a highly skilled instructor. Superior self-defense training goes a step further, bolstering students’ response and stress management in potentially violent circumstances. This integrated approach validates the instruction as a trusted approach for self-protection readiness. Not having these fundamentals will significantly influence the effectiveness of the training.

In the wide-ranging realm of martial arts, debates about which style is “best” are commonplace. Although occasionally entertaining, these discussions often miss the central point. The most important element of a well designed self-defense program is a knowledgeable instructor who can effectively apply the aforementioned attributes. However, there is another critical piece of self-defense training that is almost always overlooked—the laws of self-defense.

What You Don’t Know Will Hurt You…Or Even Worse

There exists a widespread lack of public awareness in regards to the laws of self-defense. You may even be shocked to discover that many alleged self-defense instructors are unaware, poorly informed, or simply incorrect in their understanding of the law. To make matters worse, if you tune into the evening news, your confusion might intensify. Unfortunately, these familiar outlets often provide minimal factual information, preferring to editorialize and sensationalize the violence which occurs within our communities.

This article is intended for informational purposes only. We are not legal professionals and cannot provide legal advice. Rather, the goal is to offer a continued framework for personal protection and situational awareness.

In the context of a legal self-defense claim, there are five essential components that need to be fulfilled. If you find yourself in a violent altercation, the absence of even one of these elements could jeopardize your assertion to a legally acceptable self-defense claim.

Innocence: Being an Unwilling Participant

The first component of a legal self-defense claim is innocence. This means that a person who claims self-defense is an innocent party to the altercation in question. The principle of innocence is primarily applicable to individuals who refrain from aggressive behavior in a conflict scenario. Any initiation or extension of a confrontation fundamentally undermines an assertion of innocence. 

Willing participants in a dispute can not claim innocence. However, one can regain innocence by verbally articulating a disengagement from the ongoing disagreement. Furthermore, innocence may be reclaimed in situations where a non-lethal confrontation instigated by an individual is met with a lethal response.

Imminence & the AOJ Triangle

The next component in a legal self-defense plea is imminence. An imminent threat is defined as a present or ongoing adversarial situation. The act of employing force after the threat has subsided is called retaliation and not self-defense. Understanding imminent threats is key to managing your personal risk.

To help define an imminent threat, professionals use the AOJ model, which encompasses ability, opportunity, and jeopardy. A person who claims self-defense must demonstrate that the assailant simultaneously had the ability and opportunity to cause harm. They must also demonstrate that they (the victim) were in peril or danger at the time. The AOJ model serves as an efficient tool for identifying and assessing imminent threats. This knowledge is vital in helping to navigate complex situations and making better informed decisions.

However, there is one exception to the principle of imminence. It is the legal concept known as Battered Spouse Syndrome. In these situations, the AOJ triangle is not used to assess imminent threat because it is assumed that the elements of the AOJ triangle are always present.

Proportionality & the Use of Force

Proportionality is the next important concept. Understanding the right amount of force to use in a self-defense situation is crucial for legal protection. Imagine being in a position where you have to defend yourself, but you use more force than the attacker. This could lead to legal trouble as it may be deemed excessive.

The use of a firearm is typically categorized as deadly force, but other items can fall into this category as well. Therefore, it’s imperative that you only apply deadly force when there’s a clear imbalance of power and it’s absolutely necessary to halt the aggressor.

Keep in mind, a prolonged application of force could also be seen as excessive and can negate the proportionality clause. Even an unarmed attack could be regarded as deadly if it doesn’t stop once your attacker is incapacitated.

Avoidance: Using Violence as a Last Resort

The next precursor to a self-defense plea is avoidance. Avoidance refers to the tactic of seeking a safe route of escape before resorting to the use of force against an attacker. If you have the ability and opportunity to retreat, it is always in your best interest to do so. 

However, retreating from a possible violent encounter is not always possible. That’s why most states do not mandate a “duty to retreat.” The commonly misunderstood “Stand Your Ground” laws do not necessitate you to retreat if doing so would place you in danger. In California, you have the right to “stand your ground” in such situations.

Under the “Castle Doctrine,” you are not obligated to retreat in your home, dwelling, vehicle, workplace, or any other legally occupied location. This doctrine also encompasses the “curtilage,” areas immediately adjacent to a legally occupied area. In these situations, the onus of proof lies with the prosecutor, who must demonstrate that the resident did not have a reasonable fear of imminent death or injury when employing force. We will revisit this scenario later.

Currently, there are 45 states which use some form of the “Castle Doctrine.” In California, there’s a legal assumption that a resident has a reasonable fear of severe harm or imminent death if an intruder unlawfully enters their home. The presumption under the “Castle Doctrine” gives the resident the advantage in such cases. 

What Would a Reasonable Person Do?

Reasonableness is the final element in a legal self-defense claim. The “Reasonable Man” defense, means that your actions should align with those of a reasonable and prudent person (RPP) in the same or similar circumstances. Psychiatric conditions and altered states of mind fall outside this consideration.

The “Reasonable Man Defense” attempts to employ an objective standard for assessing the use of force based on how a normal person, having the same knowledge, mental characteristics, and human emotions, would react.

As mentioned earlier, in California you are presumed innocent and justified in using force within a dwelling place against a non-resident who unlawfully and forcibly has entered a residence. Using force in this situation is considered reasonable behavior. 

Arming Yourself with the Law

Every self-defense scenario presents a unique set of circumstances that influence the applicability of the various elements in a legal self-defense plea. There are no simple solutions, and even legal professionals engage in debates over specific points. However, there is one thing we can say with certaintythe individual who demonstrates the highest level of skill is one who learns to identify unsafe situations and attempts to avoid them entirely. Making smart, informed decisions will not only help to keep you out of harm’s way, it will also help you stay on the right side of the law. 

For a deeper understanding, we suggest reading “The Law of Self-Defense: The Indispensable Guide to the Armed Citizen” by Andrew Branca, published in 2016.


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Tai-Sifu Ben Stanley

Chief Instructor of White Dragon Martial Arts - Clairemont (San Diego)

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