Anyone who practices martial arts should know the laws that pertain to self-defense. This post will get you started.

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 post 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 nondeadly 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.

Article by Frank Gannon, a Dallas-based practitioner of Okinawan karate and the Filipino martial arts. He worked as a civil litigation attorney in Texas for 10 years.

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Do you want to maximize your self defense skills? Learn the game of combat chess and most importantly the queen of all moves.

Allow me to intercept those who would object to the title of this article. I'm not claiming that there's a secret move, shortcut or hack that will give you the edge in any fight. Even if there was an ultimate weapon or strategy, you likely would avoid it because you
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Many different types of "blocks" are taught in most martial arts school. We are taught high blocks, low blocks, middle blocks, knife hand blocks, etc. Some schools will also teach how to use the legs to block an attack, as well.

The purpose of this writing is to possibly open some minds to the possibilities of going outside the box and considering alternatives to the basics.

Blocking is taught as a way of protecting oneself from harm. Truly, we don't "block" anything, as a non-martial artist would think of it. What we call "blocking" is more of a redirection of an opponent's attack, or even a counterstrike against the opponent's attacking limb.

To block something would mean to put something, like your arm, leg or other body part directly in front of the attack. That would certainly hurt and possibly cause some damage. The goal should be to move the attack out of the way in order to prevent injury and provide a way to fight back. For example, many schools teach blocks as a limb moving toward the strike such as a circular high block.

The movement required for a block might have other uses, if you keep an open mind. The blocking techniques can also be used as attack techniques. For example, your "low block" may be used as a striking technique against the outer thigh of the attacker. Your high block might be used as a strike to the jaw. The set up for a block can be used as a deflection, as well as the actual block.

Doing a block or a series of blocks will most likely not end an attack. A block needs to be followed by a counterattack. While the block is usually taught as a separate technique in order to learn it correctly, it should also be used in combination with a counter.

The more you know, the more you realize how much you don't know. Intensive books can and have be written about basic techniques. With this writing, I am hoping to create interest in exploring the additional possibilities for what we have been taught and what we teach others.

About Grand Master Stevens

GM Stevens has been training in taekwondo for 47 years under the tutelage of the late legendary Grand Master Richard Chun. He holds an 8th degree black belt and is certified in the USA and in Korea. Grand Master Stevens is a member of the Board of Directors of the prestigious Richard Chun TaeKwonDo World Headquarters organization. He has been very active in his community and has been a volunteer with the Glen Rock Volunteer Ambulance Corps for over 11 years. He is a certified member of C.E.R.T. (Community Emergency Response Team).

Gary Stevens Taekwondo is located at 175 Rock Road in Glen Rock, New Jersey.

For more information: call (201) 670-7263, email: or go to

Having partners at or above your skill level is important for improving in your martial arts training. At some point, however, you will probably find yourself with a shortage of skilled partners, especially if you are an instructor.

This can happen for any number of reasons: students can move away, change their work schedules, start a family, etc., and just like that, you find that you're the highest-ranked student, or sole instructor, in your gym or dojo. This doesn't have to be a bad thing. In fact, if you take advantage of it, even working exclusively with lower-ranking classmates or students can improve your skills.

I used to host a twice-a-week training session at my dojo where I invited mostly black belts from other schools (as well as a few of my advanced students) to come and run drills. It was a blast. These were tough two- to three-hour sessions where I got to work with fighters of all different sizes, speeds, and technique preferences. My sparring improved dramatically over the next few months, and I don't think I've ever been in better shape. But unfortunately, it doesn't always work out that way. And as the old saying goes, "You gotta work with what ya got." So, make it hard on yourself.

I like to set handicaps when fighting my students. Specifically, I focus on forcing myself to work on improving my weak areas. Is you right leg weaker than the left? Then only kick with the right leg when sparring your students. Not much of an inside fighter? Don't kick at all. Training with partners of lesser skill not only helps you improve your weak points but gives them an opportunity to improve as well by working on strategy. It's also great for building their confidence. It can also be a low-cost opportunity to test new techniques and combinations, which benefits you as well.

In grappling, just like sparring, there is little benefit to wrapping lower ranking classmates into pretzels over and over, for them or you. Instead, let your partner put you in a bad situation. Let them get the mount; help them sink in that choke or armbar. If you start standing, such as in judo, allow your partner to get the superior grip before attempting a throw. This way you will get comfortable working out of a weaker position and your less-experienced partner can perfect their technique (and get experience using multiple techniques, if you get out of their first one).

You might think that giving advantages like these to students who may be far beneath your skill level is much of a challenge. Trust me, you'll reconsider that sentiment when you wind up sparring a 6'5" novice with zero control over his strength after deciding to only use your weak leg, or have a 250-pound green belt lying across your diaphragm trying to get an armlock after you let them get the pin. Remember, this is exactly what you signed up for: a challenge.

If you find yourself at the top of the heap without partners who are sufficiently challenging, there is no need to despair. Use it as a low-stress opportunity to improve your weaknesses and develop avenues to help your less experienced classmates and students to grow. You may even be surprised. One day they might present more of a challenge than you ever imagined!
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