Self-defense:
Rules, Laws, and Tactics

Humans are very social animals. Nor combat, sport, or self-defense rules exist in any kind of social vacuum – all it relates to a specific environment, society, and customs. Something that is OK in Amazon jungle is not OK on French Riviera, and what is OK on French Riviera may not be OK in Tokyo.

Judo tournament rules have been first established in late 19th century Meiji Japan and evolved into somewhat entirely different set by early 21st century. Same happened to the rules of boxing and any other combat sport. This is easy case – you have written rules and you have historians of the art who are happy to explore them and interpret their evolution for the rest of us.

Combat rules are slightly different story, but not by much. As we’re casually saying that “combat has no rules”, we’re also creating rules of war and even notion of the “war crime” as legal definition for criminal violation of the war rules, combat rules. This is subject for specialists in military law. Individual combat is a scale-down war and all the war laws will apply (subject to legal interpretation, to be sure). So, if combat is legal (you’re on a battlefield under military or law enforcement jurisdiction) you still can’t legally kill your enemy by poisoning with sarin or mustard gas, even you can kill him with a blank point shot between eyes. Even in illegal personal combat when on a trial bench for murder, you will get less for killing with one devastating knife thrust then for slowly cutting your enemy to pieces, which insure you much harsher punishment.

Well, this is sport and combat. But what is about self-defense? Self-defense is much different: in sport and combat we have two willing opponents who signed up to their destiny by taking part in it, but in self-defense we’re just innocent bystanders who ware brutally attacked by those villains. We didn’t look for a fight, but ware caught in it. Does our unwilling base for participation absolve us from adhering to any rules? After all, we just want to get out alive, this it.

Well, here we’re getting into a really gray aria: you can be absolved from responsibility for collateral damage, including murder, if you (or your well paid lawyer) can prove that it was self-defense. However, if you did a lot of collateral damage, it will be inherently difficult to prove that it was in self-defense.

Let’s look at this by examples (none of them real-live cases):

Case One:

In a hot summer day you’re walking on an ocean front in Brooklyn, NY.  You’re thirsty and you getting into a small bar. It’s almost empty, just in a shadow deep inside the hall you see one table with a dozen people around it. You see your favorite beer on the shelf and asking barman to sell it to you. But barman refuse. He’s looking strange at you and saying that it’s nothing you can buy here. He said registry is closed and he won’t accept even cash. Then one guy from the table inside came over. Barman serves him a drink and guy looking through you and saying that you better leave. You’re looking at him and asking what is the matter? As answer he slaps you at the face. You’re blocking his hand and hitting his jaw with your favorite side punch. He fails head first onto corner of marble service counter. Blood everywhere… Guys from the table inside just left through the back door.

Case Two:

In a hot summer day you’re walking on an ocean front in Brooklyn, NY.  You’re thirsty and you getting into a small bar. It’s almost empty, just in a shadow deep inside the hall you see one table with a dozen people around it. You see your favorite beer on the shelf and asking barman to sell it to you. But barman refuse. He’s looking strange at you and saying that it’s nothing you can buy here. He said registry is closed and he won’t accept even cash. Then one guy from the table inside came over. Barman serves him a drink and guy looking through you and saying that you better leave. You’re looking at him and asking what is the matter? As answer he slaps you at the face. You’re blocking his hand and hitting his jaw with your favorite side punch. He fails on the floor and trying to reach his back pocket. You’re grabbing the bar stool and hitting him with it on the head. Barman yells and you hitting him too. Blood everywhere… Guys from the table inside just left through the back door.

Case Three:

In a hot summer day you’re walking with your girlfriend and her baby on an ocean front in Brooklyn, NY.  You all three are thirsty and you getting into a small bar. It’s almost empty, just in a shadow deep inside the hall you see one table with a dozen people around it. You see your favorite beer and lemonade on the shelf and asking barman to sell it to you. But barman refuse. He’s looking strange at you and saying that it’s nothing you can buy here. He said registry is closed and he won’t accept even cash. Then one guy from the table inside came over. Barman serves him a drink and guy looking through you and saying that you better leave. You’re looking at him and asking what is the matter? As answer he slaps you at the face. You’re blocking his hand and hitting his jaw with your favorite side punch. He fails on the floor and trying to reach his back pocket. You’re grabbing the bar stool and hitting him with it on the head. Barman yells and you hitting him too Blood everywhere… Guys from the table inside just left through the back door.

This is the quiz for you: What case was self-defense and what wasn’t?

Well, your lawyer can argue case Two and will need to argue case Three, but case One is a clear self-defense. You displayed the same arrogant stupidity in all three cases, but it’s definitely was no legal reason to slap you. Your attacker did slap you and you just hit back. It was unfortunate consequence that he cracked his head on the service counter. It’s just collateral damage of your legitimate self-defense actions.

Case #Two… Well, I’m not a lawyer, but I would argue that you were assailant. The guy clearly started it, but when he failed on the floor from your mightily reply, you had an opportunity to get out and to call police. Besides this, barman yelled at you, but did nothing to warrant you hitting him too. Your lawyer may argue that you got scared from handgun that you believed was in this guy back pocket and you hit barman because you believed he’s with this guy and may call for help from people from the table that left before you noticed. Therefore, he may argue that you was acting in distress believing you’re under continues attack, but he can’t state a clear self-defense case.

Case #Three is different. When it looks exactly like the Second case, the difference is in the presence of your girlfriend and her baby. No, I’m not arguing that it made you even more stupid and it warrant any excuse for you, but saying that because of their presence on the seen you had to defend not only yourself, but them too and as you may not be able to assess if they can safely retreat and your offensive actins were meant to provide for the ability to get out. …Your lawyer will ask for a lot of money to handle this case because it will be not easy case to argue.

So, what are the rules of no-rules self-defense? The rule is to stay within limit of defending yourself and not crossing into offense.

Adhering to this rule should be paramount objective in developing you self-defense tactical and technical arsenal.


Good review of the legal aspects of the use of force is provided by Brandon Oto "useofforce.us" site. His discussion is based on the US law, but general points will apply to any modern legal code (I can't really see any significant exceptions and following those rules should keep you on the safe legal side practically anywhere). You'll need a lawyer to argue your case in a criminal and, potentially, civil court anyway, but this information will give you better understanding of legal complexity of lawful self-defense beforehand and will help you to stir clear of troubles.



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