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When are you "justified" in using force in Self Defense?

December 3, 2007 AZ CCW Laws, Legal Issues, Use of Force Issues No Comments

This is a short question that has a very long answer.  To give you some idea, in the CCW courses that I teach in Arizona, we spend between 2-3 hours discussing this topic.  Clearly I can’t do that here.  I also need to tell you that I am not an attorney and can’t give you legal advice.  If you need to get a definitive answer or need legal advice, you should locate a good criminal attorney.  Having said all that, I will try and give you an answer to your question…  In general, Arizona laws provides that you have the legal right to use force if you are ‘justified’ in doing so.  Justification is a fairly complex concept that looks at the circumstances when a threat of force or use of force has occurred and applies a test of whether or not the response to that threat or use of force was ‘reasonable and appropriate’.  First, you must understand that words alone are never justification for use of force.  Someone can stand right in front of you and scream obscenities in your face and you are not ever justified in using force to stop them.    On the other hand, if they take a swing at you with a fist, you may be justified in using some level of force against them to ‘stop the threat’.  Since the force you are being threatened with is not “lethal force” , you can only use enough force to stop the threat and can only do so if you believe that you are in danger of being injured.If the threat against you involves a “deadly weapon”, which by legal definition would be a knife or a firearm, then you are justified in using force, including lethal force to stop the threat against you.  When someone illegally uses lethal force against you, you are most likely in fear of serious injury, permanently disabling injury or death.  This almost always would justify the use of lethal force to defend yourself.It is the gray areas in between that cause so much confusion.  What happens when someone threatens you with a baseball bat or a stick?  Since neither of these are “deadly weapons” but simply “dangerous instruments” you may not be justified in using lethal force, but would be justified in using some physical force in self defense. It simply depends on the circumstances.  For example, if you were elderly or infirm, you might be justified in using lethal force if you believed you might be seriously injured or killed by your attacker. If you were about the same size and the same sex as your attacker and had some impact weapon available, you might not be justified in using lethal force, but you would be justified in using physical force to stop an attack.  These issues are broadly referred to as “disparity of force” issues.  They involve things like the number of attackers, disparity in the physical size, age or sex between the victim and attacker.  All these things can affect whether or not justification can be used as a defense against use of force in a self defense situation.  My rule of thumb is this…if I can remove myself from the situation, that is the best choice.  If I am forced to defend myself from injury I will only use the force necessary to stop the threat or attack.  If I am being illegally threatened with lethal force, I am justified in using lethal force and would use it, if necessary, to stop the attack.Bear in mind that any use of force, justified or not, can result in criminal charges.  The police may arrest all involved parties and let the court sort out who is guilty and who is innocent.If you want a much more involved discussion of justification, you can pick up a copy of the “Arizona Gun Owners Guide” written by Alan Korwin.  You can pick one up for $15 in most gun stores.  You can also visit the Arizona Department of Public Safety website at http://www.azdps.gov/ccw.  There you will find a downloadable paper written by an attorney, Michael Anthony, on the Arizona laws associated with the use of force and lethal force.  It’s about 75 pages worth of legal reading, but there is lots of detail.  It is also free.

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