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SELF-DEFENSE LAW -- THE BASICS. After A Self-Defense Incident – How Will You Be Judged?

Updated: Jun 10, 2020

By Steve Westfall

U. S. Secret Service – Retired

Self-Defense Law Instructor

Self-Defense law has evolved over many centuries of legal scholars, legislative efforts, and jury trials. Now, all 50 USA states work with basically the same legal elements. There are five (5) elements to all self-defense cases and all elements must pass legal muster for a self-defense claim to survive. If a court decides your self-defense claim fails, you could face the full legal liability for the results of your actions (i.e. assault, manslaughter, murder). KNOW THE LAW!

While the elements are easily understood, each element has its’ own rules and legal tests. That makes them a little complex. The devil is in the details. If you have to defend yourself, these elements will affect your life and liberty! Remember, if a prosecutor can show that your defensive actions did not follow the rules of even one element, you will not be allowed to claim self-defense.

The following is a condensed concept of each element. Do not rely on these brief statements to plan a defense. Instead, resolve to learn all you can about each element. To help remember the elements use the acronym IPAIR (not in that order here).

The 5 Legal Elements:

INNOCENCE – The right to claim self-defense is for the innocent. If you start or provoke a self-defense incident, your self-defense case could collapse. Aggressors in a confrontation are not entitled to claim self-defense.

IMMINENCE – A threat (any level) must be happening right now – no time to call for help. A perceived future threat/event or a threat that has passed cannot justify a use of force.

PROPORTIONALITY – Balance your defensive force with threatened force. If threat is non-deadly, only non-deadly response is allowed. Use deadly force only if threat is serious bodily harm or death. If you use more force than necessary to end a threat, your self-defense claim will not survive.

AVOIDANCE – In some states, you must attempt (if safe to do so) to retreat from a situation before using defensive force - there is a “duty to retreat”! The majority of states have adopted “stand your ground” laws. (See more below)

REASONABLENESS – This element encompasses all the other four (4) elements. Your actions (in light each of the above four elements) must pass a “reasonable” test. A jury will decide if you pass.

Avoidance Note: Embedded in this element are the concepts of “Stand-Your-Ground” and “Castle Doctrine”. Some states allow this element to be waived as a matter of law on the stand-your-ground rules. Even if this element is waived, you still must comply with the rules of the other four (4) elements.

Other aspects of self-defense law that need explanation include: Defense of Others, Defense of Property, Defense of Home, and Interactions with police.


At last count, there were still 13 states in the USA that have duty to retreat laws on the books – a minority, but significant. These states are: Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, North Dakota, Rhode Island, (Wyoming passed SYG laws 3/2018). Hopefully other states will follow.

Get what you need here at Sindri Tactical. Then visit selfdefenselawfacts.com for more self-defense law information.

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