The odds are pretty good that you or someone know has gotten into a situation with another person where tempers flared and things got physical. Road rage incidents are good examples.

And what about the millions of Americans who are victims of violent crimes each year?

You want to protect yourself in cases like these. It’s only natural. But you should know about the legal limits on self-defense.


The laws on self-defense vary from state to state, but in general you’re allowed to use reasonable physical force to protect yourself from imminent or immediate physical injury. You can only use that amount of force that’s necessary to stop the threat of harm.

For example, if you get into an argument with someone and:

  • The other person lunges at you or tries to punch you, you can protect yourself by fighting back
  • If you fight back and the other person gives up or is unable to defend himself, you can’t continue to hit him – it’s an unreasonable use of force
  • If the other person doesn’t come close enough to you to actually hit you and he doesn’t have a weapon and he starts to walk away, you can’t chase after him and hit him – the threat of harm to you isn’t imminent

These are very simple examples and very general rules. The facts and circumstances of each case and the laws in your state will determine if you acted properly in defending yourself. The keys to remember are: You can use only that amount of force that’s necessary to protect yourself from immediate harm.

Deadly Force

Most states have special rules for the use of deadly force. Again, the rules vary by state, but in general you can’t use deadly force unless you’re in reasonable fear of immediate serious physical injury or death.

For instance, say a driver who’s upset with the way you changed lanes drives by and yells, “I’m going to shoot you!” but he continues to drive on. You can’t chase him down and use deadly force (in fact, probably no force at all) because there’s no reasonable fear immediate serious injury or death.

However, if he stops and gets out of his car after making the threat and approaches your car with a weapon, the use of deadly force may be justified.

In most states, you have the duty to retreat before using deadly force. In other words, deadly force needs to be the last and only resort. If you can escape from the situation safely, you have a duty to do so. If you can escape and don’t, and then use deadly force, it’s very likely you’ll be charged with a crime.

Castle Laws

Some states have Castle laws. Not all states have them, and they may differ a great deal from state to state. Basically, however, these laws don’t require you to retreat if you’re in your home and an intruder threatens serious bodily injury or death. You’re allowed to use deadly force to “protect your castle.”

In some states, you may have a legal duty to let the intruder know that you’re in the house and that you intend to use deadly force to protect yourself and your property. Also, in some states, the castle laws may give you the same right to use deadly force against intruders while in your car or at work. Check the laws in your area for specifics on the Castle law.

Defense of Others

The same general rules apply when it comes to protecting someone other than yourself. The keys are:

  • reasonable fear the other person is in immediate danger of injury or death, and
  • She could have used force to defend herself if she was capable of doing so

For example, in early 2011, a lone gunman opened fire on a Congresswoman and others during a public meeting. Another bystander could have used force – probably even deadly force – to stop the gunman.

Again, the laws vary from state to state. In most states, you may step in to help a total stranger. In a few states, the self-defense defense applies only if you’re acting to help an immediate family member. In still other states, you must retreat if the victim has the chance to retreat.

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