Martial Arts Myths, Reality, and the Law

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When it comes to the variety of martial arts training that’s available to the average student, the choices are almost endless. You can learn the way of the samurai, the way of the ninja, the latest techniques used in the octagon or the style that was featured in your favorite martial arts movie.

Martial arts teachers can and will show you how to do just about anything, but if you want to stop most instructors — and students — cold, just ask them, “What do you know about the law?”

Luckily, there’s an expert with a deep knowledge of the martial arts and the law, and he can clear up the misinformation, the myths and the lack of understanding about a martial artist’s personal responsibility. His name is David Z. Kaufman.

With a martial arts résumé that includes black belts in tang soo do (sixth degree), kendo (fifth degree) and iaido (fifth degree), along with a distinguished career in law that has seen him defending martial artists in real court cases, Kaufman is well-qualified to help you understand the potentially perilous place where martial arts and the law meet. The information he’s about to present could keep your matches on the mat and out of the courtroom.

The Myth That Will Not Die

“You’re a black belt? Did you have to register your hands as lethal weapons?”

It was one of the first things I was asked after I earned my black belt, and I still remember the look of stunned disbelief when I answered no.

“That’s probably the most ancient of the assorted fictions that martial artists have to deal with,” Kaufman says, referring to the widely held but completely untrue belief that a black belt must register his or her hands with some law-enforcement agency.

Growing up in the 1970s, I remember hearing this myth on television and in movies, but in the 21st century, when our access to information is unprecedented, it is incredible that it’s still around.

“It’s persistent,” Kaufman says. “It’s the fable that won’t die.”

I hope that this myth has finally been put to rest and we all can move on.

Self-Defense and the Law

The world outside the dojo, and especially the world online, has many “experts” who don’t hesitate to weigh in on the legality of what constitutes self-defense. However, Kaufman, a real expert, sums up the nuanced aspects of the application of martial arts techniques in real-world situations best: “It’s complicated.”

Kaufman provides a hypothetical scenario to help flesh out the limits and obligations of the participants in a self-defense situation: “If I’m tussling with somebody in a bar and I throw an elbow and smack him in the temple and [he] goes down — all right, he’s down, walk away.

“Here’s a way of thinking about it: You’re using your martial arts to defend yourself, but the minute the person is incapacitated, if you continue, you are then the aggressor. Don’t transition from defense to aggression.”

In the same way that martial arts practitioners, especially black belts, must be cool under pressure to be able to successfully use their skills in class or competition, they also must know when to limit their use of those skills in an encounter on the street.

“The ability to exert mature control over your emotions is critical to being a successful black belt,” Kaufman says. “You’ve got to, in the middle of fighting, stay in control.”

Practical Advice for All

Most martial artists are very particular about their teacher, their equipment and especially the art they choose to study, but how many are actually talking to their insurance provider about the fact that they study martial arts?

“People who are martial artists should make sure that they have proper insurance,” Kaufman advises. “Some insurance companies will want to know that you’re a practicing martial artist just like they want to know if you have firearms in your house or jewelry or something like that.

“And some insurance companies just aren’t going to care, and it’s impossible at a distance to know. So the advice is to check and make sure that you’ve got coverage.”

Give your insurance company a ring, Kaufman suggests, and while you’re at it, consider this piece of sage advice: “My iPhone has a lawyer on speed dial.”

For more information, visit David Z. Kaufman’s website.


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