What Is Self-Defense?

January 1, 2022 | By Shane Phelps Law
What Is Self-Defense?

The claim of self-defense is often overreferenced and misunderstood. Protecting yourself from harm is not illegal, but there are limited circumstances in which physical or deadly force is permitted. So, what is self-defense and when is protecting yourself against the law?


Self-defense is the right and use of force to prevent force or harm. In other words, if a person is threatening you and attempting to hit you, pushing them away could be considered a self-defensive measure.

However, it is important to recognize that under the law, self-defense is only permissible if the level of force is comparable to the threat of harm. So, if a person attempts to hit you, a proportionate amount of force would be a push but fatally wounding the person with a firearm would not be comparable.

Understanding Justification

When determining whether self-defense is a valid claim, there must be justification. Justification is the action of proving that an action or decision was right or reasonable.

When evaluating justification, the following factors should be addressed:

  • The threat level
  • Whether there was a means of escape
  • The extent of harm caused by self-defense
  • Whether the victim accurately and reasonably assessed the situation

It is crucial that any force used in self-defense is reasonable for claims of self-defense to be justifiable.

The Importance of Reason

Justification and reason go together during self-defense cases. The fear of harm should be reasonable for it to be justifiable. For example, a friend playfully exclaims, “I’m going to kill you” and you use force against them, your reaction may not be reasonable or justifiable. However, if a person threatens to kidnap you and you fight them off, your actions and perceptions are reasonable and by extension justifiable.

If your actions are not reasonable, you could face assault charges.

Threat Assessment

One of the crucial points addressed in self-defense cases is whether an individual faced an imminent threat. Imminent threats are identifiable hazards with an extremely high probability of damage. In other words, these threats are most likely to result in actual physical harm.

It is important to note that the harm does not necessarily have to occur for self-defense to be justified. If a threat makes you fear immediate physical harm, then you may have grounds for self-defense. However, if there is no accompanying threat of immediate harm you may not claim self-defense.

Additionally, justification does not apply to situations where an individual claims self-defense against threats that have already passed. If the threat has ended, force used against the aggressor could be considered retaliatory and may be punished under the law.

What Is Imperfect Self-Defense?

In rare cases, self-defense could be justified regardless of whether the aggressor intended to cause harm. For example, you live alone and hear someone enter your house and begin walking toward your room. You take the gun from the nightstand and shoot through the door, injuring the person on the other side.

In this circumstance, you had a reasonable fear of harm, but your response could be unreasonable. It was entirely reasonable to fear an intruder but shooting wildly at the door may not have been a very reasonable response to those concerns. This is called imperfect self-defense.

When Self-Defense Does NOT Apply

While self-defense can be reasonable in a number of situations, there are some cases where it cannot apply including:

  • When there was a reasonable route of escape, but no attempt was made to attempt a retreat
  • When the response to the threat of imminent harm was unreasonable and use of excessive force is a factor (except in cases that fall under imperfect self-defense as discussed previously)
  • When the threat of violence is in the future or past

Claims of self-defense are legal, but it is important to recognize the complexity of the law as it applies to these cases. You should never attempt to claim self-defense without the guidance of an experienced legal professional.

Shane Phelps Law offers award-winning counsel backed by decades of experience. Our attorney is a former prosecutor and Board-Certified Criminal Defense Specialist with a passion for advocacy. We provide clients with unparalleled service and support them at all phases of their cases from arrest to trial and sentencing. When our clients need help, we are available 24/7 to answer their questions and address their concerns.

Contact Shane Phelps Law today for more information.