Introduction: The Basic Issue
In the United States, it is illegal to harm another person intentionally.
That is the law at its most basic level. The names given to crimes involving such harm range from battery to murder, but the general idea is simple: If you poke someone in the eye, you can safely assume that you’re breaking a law.
However, there are circumstances that may justify your action, or at least mitigate the punishment. These vary, but the relevant consideration to this discussion is common sense: self-defense.
If you poke someone’s eye to prevent him from poking you, are you still committing a crime?
Well, not really, but it’s more complicated than that. A killing is a killing; an eye-poking is an eye-poking; a stabbing is a stabbing, and so forth. If the evidence supports that you did such a thing, and you’re prosecuted for it, and you don’t deny it, then it’s a crime. You can, however, make the case that you were legally justified in your actions, and if you can prove that, then you’re clear. But while establishing that you did the eye-poking is the prosecution’s problem, establishing justification is yours—your burden of proof.
That’s the basic issue—legally justifiable use of force—and though this is a gross oversimplification, it gets at the core of the matter. It also introduces the goal of this website: to provide basic, accurate information about how US law today addresses the justifiable use of force for self-defense purposes.
We will walk you through the “ground rules,” so to speak, to give you some idea of this complex and messy issue. It’s so complex, indeed, that there aren’t any straight, easy answers, and it’s particularly important to understand that we can’t give you personalized legal advice. For that, you must consult a good lawyer.
Although the general principles are fairly clear, the law itself, its interpretation and application in individual cases, and its numerous state-by-state variations are not at all simple or straightforward. Therefore, we emphasize that all practical summaries, including this one, come at the cost of some legal precision. Our focus is on giving you information that you can use, not making you a lawyer.
Fortunately, it’s not hard to grasp the simple fundamentals that will hold true across the country and throughout the tangled judicial system. Our ultimate goal is not only to educate, but to provide you with a working knowledge of issues that can and may affect you. Hopefully they never will. But one day, they may.
This site is structured as a linear walk-through. Use the navigation buttons on the left to move between pages or the arrows at the bottom of each page. Read them in order, one at a time. Don’t skip—read them all.