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Self-defense is legal. Fighting is illegal.
If you get arrested, odds are -- no matter
what you thought you were doing
-- you were fighting.


Going to Jail For Defending Yourself

We are constantly besieged by people who are concerned about "Going to jail for defending myself"

Unfortunately, most of these people really need to see a therapist.

That's because -- while appropriate use of force is a legitimate issue that must be addressed -- 99% of the time what these people are asking in essence is: Now that I have this deadly power in my hands, how can I engage in an emotional frenzy, give myself permission to unleash a lifetime of anger and fear thereby wrecking extreme carnage ... and get away with it?

Guess what chitlins? That is NOT SELF-DEFENSE!

Self-defense is NOT about what you feel, it is NOT about protecting your emotional well being, it is NOT about how adrenalized you are ... it is about protecting your physical well being against an immediate threat.

And if you approach the subject the legal complications of self-defense like a What If Monkey, then no matter how you phrase it, you are asking that underlying question.

Self-defense IS is a legally defined term and conditions.

What you need to know about self-defense starts right there. And anything that doesn't comply with that established definition is something -- but it's not self-defense. No matter what you or anybody else calls it.

The first and foremost problem is that people do not know the legal definitions of self-defense, fighting, assault and other terms. In fact, most don't even have a layman's explanation  of the differences. These are rock-bottom definitions that no amount of self-justification, rationalization or hyperbole from your MA/SD/WSD/RBSD instructor are going to change. You can say or think anything you want, but when it comes to engaging in violence, these definitions -- not yours -- are what you will be held accountable to. The reason this is a problem is that many people want to lump everything they do under "self-defense" -- when in fact, it most often isn't.

Putting that in really simple terms, there are a lot of people who claim to be teaching self-defense who have no idea about these different definitions. Unfortunately, their ignorance isn't going to hurt them, it's going to hurt you if you use what they taught you as "self-defense."   It is incumbent on you to learn the legal standards about use of force that you will be judged by. In this business, what you don't know -- much less, what you willfully chose to remain ignorant of -- WILL get you raped in the prison showers.

The second issue making this subject a quagmire is that entirely too many people consider their emotions to be unstoppable juggernauts. By this we don't just mean things that they cannot control, but that they should not be held accountable for this lack of control. Any action that is performed under these emotions is -- to that person at least -- acceptable. As a quick indicator of what we are talking about: Have you ever known someone who excuses or rationalizes his/her  terrible, destructive and vicious behavior because that persons was/is "angry?"  The simple fact is that billions of people on this planet can get just as angry without engaging in these kinds of behaviors. Just because someone is in an emotionally heightened state doesn't make these behaviors acceptable.

If we can see and recognize this among people who use "anger" as an excuse, we also must understand that "fear" is another powerful emotion. An emotion that if we don't control, we can commit terrible, destructive and vicious behavior under its influence. The problem with fear is that it can catapult us into being the aggressor just as fast as anger.

The simple fact is that anger and fear are like being drunk -- in many different ways (which we will discuss in a bit). But what we are specifically talking about here is that whether you are drunk, angry or afraid... you are still responsible for your actions. And like being drunk, decisions made under the influence of fear might "look like a good idea at the time," but are, in fact, far from a good idea. This is because you are reacting to your emotional/ adrenalinized state rather than what is actually happening.

A third issue contributing to this whole mess is a person's training. Putting it bluntly, you're going to do what you train for. If your training -- even though it is called "self-defense" -- is oriented on fighting (e.g. mixed martial arts), if you find yourself in a situation, odds are you are going to fight. It seems that the only place where the idea that you will react according to the assumptions, focus and techniques of your training is rejected is among the MA/SD/WSD/RBSD/DT world. If your Filipino martial arts training teaches you to face an opponent and continue slashing him with your knife as long as he is standing...that is what you are going to do in a "self-defense" situation. If your military training taught you to -- as you pass a downed enemy combatant's body -- put two extra rounds into him to make sure he is dead... that is what you are going to do in a civilian shooting context. If you are trained to engage in...let's use, Mixed Martial Arts type of sports fighting ... then when you go off someone using your martial arts training for a traffic incident, you're  going to be arrested for assault (1). That's because sports fighting isn't self-defense.

The fourth issue that utterly turns this subject into a quagmire, is the simple fact that about 99% of all the violence that police arrive to deal with, both fighters immediately claim it was "self-defense."  We're even talking about when one guy is sitting on the other guy's chest and jack-hammering the downed guy's head on the concrete, he's going to claim he was "defending himself."   So putting it in very crude terms, the "self-defense pool has been peed in."  Here's the thing, most of the time, both parties really believe that it was the other guy's fault. They do not see their participation in the creation, escalation and continuation of the violence as them "fighting."  Their decisions -- made under the influence of emotions, adrenalin, booze or drugs -- seemed to them, at the time, defensive. But the truth is they were very much offensive. As such police have seriously good reason not to believe it when someone claims "self defense."  

You have to demonstrate to them that your actions were self-defense. And not just another of the many illegal acts of violence that so plague our cities.

These four issues all contribute to not so much a legal morass, but one where you can get into deep trouble if your actions weren't actual self-defense. It is incredibly easy to slip into a course of action were you thought you were doing the right thing and "defending yourself," but you were in fact, breaking the law. And this is why you have to do your own research and not accept what most of these "experts" on self-defense say about what is and isn't legal.

Not too long ago I was contacted by someone asking me if I disagreed with any laws about self-defense and what I would change. My response to him gives more concrete examples of  the issues we've discussed in a generalized sense here.

>I was wondering if there are any laws about self-defense or fighting that you disagree with?

In most states, no. The standards of self-defense are pretty straight-forward. Self-defense is a pretty clear cut situation. What is NOT clear cut (at least in most people's minds) is fighting. Most people mistake what they are doing (fighting) as self-defense.

Where they really step on their own dicks is not knowing what "assault" means. And then they get pissy because their claim that it was 'self-defense' isn't accepted. The fact that them jumping up and down on the guy's chest after they knocked him down, isn't self-defense or fighting (anymore) but outright assault just flabbergasts them.

The problem is that being in the grip of an adrenalin rush/strong emotion  is like being drunk, your mind isn't really working right. Under those circumstances all kinds of extremely stupid things seem like a good idea. Thing is, like a drunk who decides to drive his car and kills someone, that other person is still dead. Someone in the middle of adrenalin/strong emotion WILL at the moment make all kinds of assumptions about the threat level of the other guy and keep on attacking. Thing is when that happens it is no longer self-defense, it is now an assault.

The example I use is if you stab someone. And to explain this I have to use two words I use, reality and actuality. Actuality is what you see on the video tape. It is what physically and actually happened. Reality, is what the people involved felt, thought, interpreted and believed was happening or has happened. This is how several people can see the exact same thing and each of them have totally different interpretations of what occurred and WHY. A person's reality can be strongly effected not only by his/her life experiences and beliefs, but also booze, drugs and strong emotion.

Now with all this background stuff, let's look at someone "defending" himself with a knife. For the sake of this example, let's say that a Big Bad got up in this guy's face. Let's call that guy Joe Blow. JB got scared at the idea of being attacked. That's like him having a four shots of Everclear right there. NOW is where reality and actuality can start to go down different highways. The Joe Blow is reacting to his fear more than to the actual threat. It's not necessarily the actual threat in front of him, but his belief that the Big Bad  is going to hurt him that makes him put his hand on his knife.

Simple point of fact, someone with lots of experience with winning fights and handling troublemakers is going to have a different "reality" when facing the same Big Bad than someone who thinks he's going to get his ass kicked by BB. The experienced person knows he could drop BB like a prom dress without weapons, so his emotional reaction is going to be way different than Joe Blow's.

So let's say the Big Bad takes a swing at Joe Blow -- that is actuality. BB is physically attacking JB.

Joe Blow, however, reacting more to his own fears, pulls the knife out and slashes BB. Now AT THIS MOMENT it is questionable whether or not it is "self-defense." Even though it was just a punch, it can be argued that JB was scared because BB was such a big bad and he was physically engaging. Now that it has gone physical though, JB's brain is the equivalent of having downed a pint of tequila. He's running on a real primal -- and stupid -- level.

Here's where things go sideways though. Big Bad, getting slashed, realizes that something is way wrong and turns to run. The actuality of this is that even though he is still standing in front of Joe Blow, his back is now turned to JB. He is NOT attacking anymore.  In Joe Blow's REALITY, however, BB is still attacking. To JB's lizard brain, BB is still there, still standing so he is still attacking. So what does Joe Blow do? He keeps on trying to stop the attack by counter-attacking. Now Joe Blow is slashing BB in the back.

Even though Joe Blow's reality said he was being attacked, HE'S the one doing the attacking. He is assaulting BB now. BB is trying to run away and JB is probably chasing him -- and that is what is going to show up on the security cameras. And that is what is going to get JB convicted of assault with a deadly weapon.

Now that is a situation where JB was assaulted by BB. See how complicated it can get? However, if JB and BB were in a pissing contest prior to that then they both are the mental equivalent of having downed a pint of tequila before it goes down. Ain't NOBODY going to be making smart -- or legal -- decisions. The actuality of the situation is both are equally involved in the creation and escalation of the problem, and both of them are out of line. And yet, both of their realities say "the other guy is the one who is out of line and they are just defending themselves."


Let's take a look at what is going on in this scenario we just created. In Joe Blow's mind Big Bad is still attacking him. But what is going to show up on tape is Joe Blow slashing BB in the back -- and chasing him. By chasing him, Big Bad in front of him, and Joe Blow's lizard brain is still seeing Big Bad as a threat. Now while Joe Blow's reality is that he is still being attacked by Big Bad, the truth is his actions are exactly the same as someone who is intending to kill someone with a knife!  That's right, the wounds that he is inflicting are the exact wounds that a would-be murderer would inflict!

The jury cannot see your internal reality, they can only see the actuality of what you did. And often the actuality of what you did was based on impaired emotional/adrenalized mental decisions. Here's another example: One of the most common reasons people are convicted -- even when the other guy attacked first -- is the fear based decision to kick a downed opponent. The fear based "reality" is that you are doing it to keep him from getting up again and attacking. The actuality, however, is that kicking a downed opponent is assault. That is because the person is no longer attacking (and he won't be until he gets up and attacks again), therefore that kick is not self-defense. Your fear has driven you across the line into being the aggressor -- and you will be prosecuted as such.

Do you also now begin to see why any training that encourages you to stand there and engage with an opponent can be dangerous in a civilian context? Not only from the fact that it can easily make it look like you were standing there engaging in the creation of the fight (because after all as a trained martial artist you can stand up to bad guys), but the fact that if you are trying to "win" (like you do in a sport match) you can easily keep on orienting on your attacker and, still considering him a threat, cross the line like Joe Blow.

Violence does not begin with the first blow, nor does it end with the last one. When you ingrain this concept into your training goals you lessen the chance of anger and fear from throwing you into serious legal problems. This is why we are such big advocates of the idea: Your actions must be consistent with your claims of self-defense.

Therefore it is prudent that your goals of self-defense as well as your training be oriented on stopping the threat. And that also includes running fiercely whenever possible. A whole lot of violence can be avoided by simply leaving the area.

No matter what your strategy for dealing with it, realize that there will be repercussions of violence

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1) There is however a second option. If you engage in sports fighting, then physically engaging in that manner is what your first instinct is going to be. But against a violent criminal, that is going to get your brains blown into a fine pink mist. Because his use of violence is totally different, his first instinct is to pull a weapon. He isn't there to win a fight, he's there to kill you at the first sign of resistance. Return to text

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