Is Self-Defense a Legal Defense?


Is self-defense legal? From a legal standpoint, using force to defend one’s self from imminent harm is legal, but may require scrutiny. The particulars of each law differ from state to state, but there are some similarities between them. A self-defense law can trace its origins back to Roman law, with some familiar features also based on common law. Some are also based on long-standing property laws.

The two most important elements of a self-defense claim are that the force was reasonable, justified and that the intended victim had reason to believe they were in danger.


Affirmative Defense

Justifying a use of force as self-defense is an affirmative defense to a criminal charge of assault, battery or other crime. The intended victim of the original attack must show that they acted reasonably in order for their actions to be justified under the law.

In many states, this means they must attempt to avoid conflict if possible, and it also means that they may only employ such force as is reasonably necessary to eliminate the danger.


Actions of the Attacker

If the person against whom the victim is being defended abandons their attack or otherwise surrenders the engagement and further, communicates that to the defender, then legally speaking, the danger may be gone and the defender has no further justification to use force.

This is an important element in any conflict because if the original attacker surrenders and then is injured by another attack from the original defender, there may be grounds for a criminal charge against the defender even if their original intent was simply to prevent any further attacks.



The problem with introducing a weapon into an act of self-defense is that it gives the attacker grounds to assert the use of force was pre-meditated. Legally speaking, it is much harder to defend a use of potentially deadly force by an armed assailant as self-defense unless they were originally confronted by an overwhelming and grave danger. This, among other reasons, is why police officers rarely draw their firearms.


Criminal Charge

If you have been charged with assault for self-defense, your best option is to immediately ask to speak to a qualified criminal defense attorney.