In Spider-Man, Uncle Ben told Peter Parker, “With great power comes great responsibility.” The fact that the statement originates from a comic-book character doesn’t make it any less true. It’s especially applicable to the martial arts and the use of deadly force. Deadly force is the most serious issue you can confront. The martial arts are based on the premise that force may be necessary to protect human life, which is why so many techniques empower even an unarmed person to kill an attacker easily. Civilized society, out of necessity, enacted rules to govern such conduct, and it’s in your best interest to understand them before you use them.

Many rumors, misconceptions and falsehoods get tossed about by martial artists while discussing deadly force and self-defense. On this issue, engaging in guesswork is dangerous, for the improper use of deadly force can result in the double tragedy of the imprisonment of one party and the death of another. The purpose of this lesson is to provide a basic framework for understanding the way that the law views deadly force in the context of self-defense.

Self-Defense Laws: Rules and Regulations

Much of the confusion that surrounds the law of self-defense stems from the fact that it differs from state to state and country to country. Although the statutes have much in common, they can vary significantly. For simplicity, this post will address the views held by the majority of states. There’s no guarantee that your state follows all, or any, of the rules that will be discussed—which is why you should review your local laws before taking action. The easiest way to read the statutes that apply to you is to visit the website of your state legislature.

Self-Defense Laws: Definitions and Situations

“Deadly force” refers to force that’s intended, or known by the person using it, to be capable of causing death or serious bodily injury. “Nondeadly force” is the term for all other types of force.

While non deadly force is permitted in many self-defense scenarios, deadly force is justified only in the most extreme circumstances. Before resorting to any level of force, even nondeadly force, certain circumstances must first exist. In general, you must have the reasonable belief that force is immediately necessary to prevent the other person from unlawfully causing you physical harm. If someone hurls insults at you but shows no signs of physical aggression, there is no legal justification for using physical force against him.


You must have a reasonable belief that the other person’s conduct is unlawful. If a police officer is performing a lawful arrest on you, you typically have no right to self-defense. In general, you’re not allowed to use force to resist an arrest by a peace officer, even if the arrest is unlawful. However, some states—including Texas, Tennessee and Arizona—permit the use of force in self-defense if the officer uses more force than is necessary to make the arrest.

You must have a reasonable belief that the other person poses an immediate physical threat. If he’s shouting threats at you but shows no immediate intent to act on them, you’re not justified in using force. On the other hand, most states hold that if he raises a clenched fist as if to strike you or lunges violently toward you, his actions represent an immediate physical threat.

You must reasonably believe that immediate action is necessary to defend yourself against the threat. If a person threatens to take violent actions at some point in the future but shows no signs of immediate violence, there’s no justification for using force.

The amount of force used must be reasonable given your understanding of the circumstances at the time it’s used. If the aggressor shoves you while you’re in line at the ballpark, you’re not justified in breaking his arm.

The right to use force in self-defense lasts only as long as the threat lasts. If a person begins making threats of immediate violence toward you but calms down and shows no further signs of violence, you have no justification to use force.

Force may not be used in response to verbal provocations alone. If a man in a bar asks you to step outside to resolve a dispute, you can’t punch him in the face.

You’re generally not justified in using force against another when you’re the one who did the provoking. You cannot dare someone to hit you and then claim it as justification for self-defense.

If an attacker abandons the confrontation or clearly communicates an intent to do so, your right to use force against him stops. If someone sucker-punches you and then flees the scene, you can’t track him down and pummel him. However, the right to use force stops only when the conflict has ended. The attacker must have clearly abandoned the confrontation. If he makes a “strategic retreat” to gain a more advantageous position to continue his assault, he hasn’t abandoned the confrontation, and you retain the right to use force to protect yourself.

Self-Defense Laws: Deadly Force

Generally speaking, deadly force is justified in situations in which you’re justified in using nondeadly force against another person in self-defense and you reasonably believe that it’s immediately necessary to prevent him from causing you death or serious bodily injury.

Most states hold that you’re justified in using it to protect a third person if, under the circumstances as you reasonably believe them to be, you would have been legally justified in using deadly force if you were that third person and you reasonably believe that intervention is immediately necessary to protect him or her. For example, if you believe you’re witnessing a murder, most states hold that you’re justified in using deadly force against the attacker.

The use of deadly force in the protection of property is prohibited in most states. However, it can be justified in some circumstances when the theft of property is involved. For example, if an armed robber threatens you with immediate death or serious bodily injury, the use of deadly force is justified. On the other hand, in a close call with a pickpocket who places you in no reasonable fear of serious bodily injury or death, deadly force isn’t permitted.


Some states, such as Nebraska and Texas, allow the use of deadly force to protect property from the immediate commission of certain crimes such as burglary or robbery. However, even in such situations, it’s justified only if the use of nondeadly force would expose you or others to a substantial risk of death or injury.

Self-Defense Laws: Duty to Retreat

Many states have ruled that a person may use deadly force only in situations in which there’s no opportunity to retreat beforehand. Alaska, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Maine, North Dakota, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania are among them. This duty typically doesn’t require retreat within your residence when you’ve been threatened with death or serious bodily injury.

In states that don’t have an explicit statutory duty to retreat, important issues may still arise concerning the opportunity to retreat. This question often involves the factors that are considered in determining the reasonableness of the belief that deadly force was immediately necessary. If you could have easily fled the scene of the attack rather than resorting to deadly force, it becomes highly questionable whether such force was immediately necessary.

Self-Defense Laws: Common Sense

The most potent tool in your arsenal is common sense. An oft-quoted maxim in martial arts schools is, The best block of all is to not be there. The same wisdom holds true in the legal arena. The legal justifications discussed in this article come into play only after an altercation has begun. By avoiding risky situations, you minimize the likelihood that violent force will be necessary. If nothing happens, no explanation—and no defense attorney—will be needed.


Prevention: First Lines of Defense

Be like a creature of the forest. Keenly observant. Senses amplified. Attuned to your environs. Here's why: two seconds of early detection could be enough time to avoid a "hit" and live to tell the story. Not bad!

To reduce the element of surprise, ditch tunnel vision and develop peripheral vision. Soften your gaze and use your eyes like a wide angle lens. This can help eliminate blind spots--common angles of attack--and allows you to become an early motion detector.

Walk like you own the turf. Put your weight down. Let your upper body and torso ride naturally atop the powerful carriage of your hips and legs. (No tipping forward or schlepping!) Stay aligned, on balance.

Give peace a chance! If faced with a fuming, but not yet violent individual, use verbal skills to de-escalate, defuse, lower his aggressive arousal. (Use non-inflammatory, empathy-based language." I can see how upset you are.... I hear you.") Give an "honorable exit" but don't get soft. Talk and empathy are NOT always saving graces. Maintain distance while calmly moving yourself off his line of attack.

Act fast! The first few seconds of an assault or first sign of imminent danger is your best time to break away. The longer a person has control over you, the more difficult it becomes to facilitate escape.

Do not allow a criminal to move you to a second location (not even from the street to the backside of a building). Second locations are always more dangerous. At a second more isolated location, criminals will have more control over you. Go ballistic but do not "go with!"

RULE! Don't allow yourself to be tied up. If you see rope, duct tape or cordage coming at you, it's time to "go off!" Fight like a bitch! Attack the face, eyes. Morph your legs into battering rams. Go Karate Crazy to escape!

Set boundaries (using verbal, spatial, distance controlling skills) to ward off space invaders, intrusion and would-be predators. If a person encroaches or makes you uncomfortable promptly establish borders to create space and OWN your space. Use strong (but not hostile) body posture—take a sturdy stance with hands up and palms out as if to say "Stop." Use firm unambiguous (not nebbishy) language: "Leave me alone. No thanks, I'm not interested. Back off." This isn't one-size-fits-all, so adjust volume/ intensity / attitude as needed. This could be a "test" (Is she an easy or hard target? Can I get THIS close, touch or speak to her like this...? ) so be sure your words and body-language are congruent. Add gravity: shift your center down into the basement of your being. Master this!

Don't fight over money, jewelry, your Gucci bag. This is self defense not "stuff defense." In a simple street robbery, throw the dog a bone—then blast. Reserve your savagery for when your life is at stake.

Use your voice as a weapon to repel, dissuade and to attract attention. Many women have successfully foiled attacks by using their voice. (Me too. What... you didn't hear me?) Yell, like you're waking the dead!

Be willing to make a commotion. Throw rocks though a window. Pull a fire alarm. (While you're there, grab the fire extinguisher. They make fabulous weapons.)

If suspiciously approached, watch the hands—not the eyes. Eyeballs are never going to physically attack you. Hands and whatever they contain might. When driving, remain alert. If suspicious persons approach your vehicle and you cannot see their hands, hit the gas!

As a general rule, don't stick your face where it doesn't belong.

Disengage! Never feel forced into conversations not of your choosing—especially on the street. It's fine to nod, acknowledge people, and walk on.

Walk Away. If you see trouble coming - be it familial or from a stranger- and you can remove yourself, do it. There's no shame in that. Don't merely hope or wait for a person to change their behavior. Self defense means taking control and acting on your own behalf sooner than later.

A moving target is harder to hit! If approached by a gunman and you can easily escape, RUN! Distance is your best defense! When driving, try to maintain enough room between your vehicle and the one in front to make a quick getaway. In just three seconds at 20 mph a car travels 90 feet—effectively out of range of most shooters.

Trapped with an aggressive date or client with no easy way out? Take control. Lie. Manipulate. Redirect the mind of the man. Hey, Tiger, let's go out back. Have a smooch on the porch. But be prepared to go animal and deliver a good blow!

In confrontations, mind your words. Don't resort to dissing. Here's the deal: If you humiliate or back a dude into a corner, he's more likely to go on the attack. Swallow some pride—even if he's a jerk. This is about saving your butt, not your face. Got it?

Stun-n-run: If grabbed but not immobilized, get cracking and bust free. For example: crack the side of his head or ear with your thwacking hand or loaded purse; bust your wrist or arm free with a whipping circular 'round the world' move. Holler! Kick the nearest knee or lower leg. Caution: stun-and-runs are best used when help is nearby such as public parking lots. Not if you're isolated or fighting off a determined attacker. NEVER RELY ON JUST ONE MOVE!

Use barrier methods to create distance from troublemakers. Get your Butt onto the other side of big items: cars, buildings, desks, walls. Raise hell and draw attention. Point and shout: the cops!

Honor gut feelings; stay in touch with your fear! Whether you hear fear's signal as a quiet voice in your head or as alarming sensations... obey! Real fear is an agent of survival. Its prime directive is to keep you alive. Honoring fear and intuitive hunches—whether with strangers or intimates—could save your life.


When the Only Way Out is Through... Counterattack & Bring It with a BANG!

Here are some key fight-back concepts from stand-up positions. (Fighting concepts from the ground will be added soon!) REMEMBER: FIGHTING BACK IS A LAST RESORT when nothing else will do. Your goal is to safely escape. That said, a pumped up aggressor can withstand A LOT of punishment, so get your mojo in gear and be prepared to do what it takes to breakaway.

First, burn this nugget into hide and heart : You ARE the weapon, the delivery system. Everything else is a tool, a force multiplier. Understand this completely: It comes down to YOU.

And this: willpower and emotional commitment count! You cannot be half-hearted or squeamish. If you fight back/ counterattack, it is a microcosm of WAR. Decide in advance: what is worth fighting for? What is non-negotiable? Have THAT conversation NOW!

Keep it simple. Stick to gross motor skills! Under the adrenaline stress of "combat" it's unlikely you'll be able to perform complex or fine motor skills. Primary strategy: wield your strongest weapons— elbows and knees, legs and feet, hands (open hand, palm, fist, hammer fist, knuckles), teeth, hips and head (which you can also strike with) against his weakest most vulnerable targets, such as: eyes, throat, nose; ears and neck; groin (testicles) and lower abdomen; knees and shins. Use low kicks to deliver high pain to knees and shin bones.

Be direct, explosive, and follow through. Don't just give a smack. Penetrate! Blast through your target. HARD. FAST. REPEATEDLY. Wield your weapons with the savage intent of a prehistoric human:SMASH the face with your elbow. Crack the ears. Use your hips to drive gut-busting knee strikes. Kick back like a MULE. Grind with your knuckles. Grab fist fulls of hair and slam down! Hammer the nose, the testicles. Bite. Stomp. Whip your fingers at the eyes. When running for the exit, burst into action; burst through your attacker. Take charge! You get the idea.

Don't waste time punching He-Man's chest. (Why do you think Tarzan pounds his chest and not his gonads or Adam's apple?)

Do it with your hips! Power your moves from your hips, center of mass, and snappy rotations of the waist. In other words from your body's CORE, not your body part.

Get your war cry on. Shout it out! Yelling adds as much 33 percent more power to blows and throws. It rallies the fighting spirit, unfreezes the breath, and sharpens the focus. It also provides a way to channel the raw power of emotions.

It's raining blows, so get inside—his strike zone I mean. This may be counterintuitive but in close-range or oncoming attacks instead of backing up, which puts you in his strike zone, BURST IN! Getting in tight takes you out of range of oncoming punches or kicks. Once inside (en route, really) go DIRECTLY to your target—face, eyes, throat, groin, lower abdomen, thin-skinned lower shin—and blast away to facilitate escape.

Exploit timing, opportunity and the element of surprise. Attacks against women are up close and personal-so take full advantage. In a standing pin, initially you might not even resist. But once his hands latch onto your body, ATTACK without warning. Example: while he's preoccupied at your chest, fire off sudden, hard-hitting, thunder-clapping blows to his ears. Unless this is disabling, immediately follow with smashing knee strikes, or by HAMMERING the face, throat or eyes, or by pulverizing the family jewels. Keep the initiative. Your goal is to drive him back in order to open distance and safely flee (Or possibly deploy a weapon.) NEVER expect Mr. Offender to plop at your feet from one good blow. But if he does, you go girl!

Spring it to bring it! If engulfed in tight quarters, don't struggle against a man's superior body strength. Instead, compress down, spring-loading like a jack-in-the box. (This shrinking violet behavior should appear submissive, potentially lowering his aggressive arousal.) Gather yourself. Then release with sudden force into your target, driving from the thighs while expelling your most shocking warrior shout. Follow up as needed.

Stand by your man and let rip. Take a lesson from our primate kin: A small monkey can latch onto a man's head and shred his face in seconds. Not pretty, but in a DEADLY encounter, you may have to do same. If so, get in tight, like a boxer's clinch. Grab the head with one hand, hang onto it, and attack his face with the other. Gouge the eyes. Bite into lips, cheek, nose, ears, throat. Repugnant, yes, but it may be your only way out. Set your dial to "savage" and let rip. Monkey see, monkey do.

If trapped with an attacker, never just wait or hope for a giant opening to make your move. Be prepared to seize slivers of opportunity and to create openings. Wield all your tools of trickery and cunning. It's all about seconds: the second he fumbles with your clothing, lays down a weapon, gets himself "ready," it may be Go Time. Seize the vaguard of the moment.

Weaponize! A pot cover worn on the hand will add zing to any palm strike. Think: whaddya got? Junk on the street? Handy desk items? Piping hot coffee? A book can be thrust into the face or throat; the bottom of a chair can be wielded, lion-tamer fashion to drive an attacker back.

Use the environment: Are there countertops, stairwells, hard surfaces to shove a person into? Be aggressive. Manhandle! Drop your center of gravity, widen your base, slink down into your hips and throw him away.

Attack the hands. Busting the hand(s)—with a stick-like weapon or by slamming something on it—can disable your attacker's primary weapon. Priceless!

Overcome the fear of injury. Always assess your situation, of course, but do not allow yourself to be held hostage by this fear. Remember: adrenaline is a wonder drug. It addition to supercharging the body it helps staves off pain.

Never give up hope or let futility set in. Futility is an enemy of survival; it's enables paralysis. Even in a worst case scenario, an assailant or criminal may let his guard down (especially when he thinks he's already won), presenting lucky breaks and opportunities to make your move and get away. Focus. Collect yourself. Stay on the hunt.

Be creative. Be a creature. Own your world.