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Self-defense vs. Assault: How Do You Draw the Line?


Just like you, dear reader, random fisticuffs captivate me. And just like you, I’ve burned through hours of my day, watching clips of people beat the snot out of each other.

That’s how utterly entertaining they are. But some of them will make you sick to your stomach, like this clip you’re about to see. 

Self-Defense or Assault?

Here’s a problem we have in this digital age: a lot of these videos lack context. You can’t decipher enough from a five-second clip, but you can make a basic story out of it. 

Shirtless Guy aggressively rushes towards Dark Shirt Guy. Judging by his stance, he was locked and loaded within seconds, ready to fire anytime. All he needed was for Shirtless Guy to get to the distance he wanted. 

Shirtless guy throws a sloppy overhand right, leaving the left side of his head open. Dark Shirt Guy swings his hip forward, along with what could very well be a baseball bat swung upward. 

His shin lands squarely on the jaw, right at the off button. Shirtless Guy was likely out before the back of his head landed on cold concrete. 

Scrolling through the comments below, you’ll see praises for Dark Shirt Guy. The ‘Fuck around and find out narrative.’ 

I beg to differ. First, let’s define what assault is. Third-degree assault, to be specific, which based on my (un)educated guess, applies to this situation. 

According to New York-based criminal lawyer Michael Galluzzo, here are three situations: 

  • When, with intent to cause physical injury to another person, he or she causes such injury to such person or to a third person; or
  • He or she recklessly causes physical injury to another person; or
  • With criminal negligence, he or she causes physical injury to another person by means of a deadly weapon or a dangerous instrument.

Deadly weapon? Dangerous instrument? A perfect segue to our next section. 

Limbs Are Registered Lethal Weapons

Remember this scene from Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood? Brad Pitt’s character Cliff Booth, a stuntman to A-Lister Rick Dalton (DiCaprio). 

Booth got into it with Bruce Lee in a movie set, but the latter refused to engage because his hands are registered as lethal weapons. 

Here’s a clip to help jog your memory. 

“Anybody kills anybody in a fight, they go to jail. It’s called manslaughter.”

The idea of registering your hands as deadly weapons may seem absurd, part of the usual comical images conjured up by Hollywood. However, certain laws in the United States do consider hands and fists as deadly weapons. Here, read up

‘Registering’ your limbs is more about keeping them in check. As a trained killer, you know what you’re capable of. 

You’re immediately a class above the normal folks who never threw a punch in their lives

You’d be an idiot to take it literally, but there is validity to it. Now, Dark Shirt Guy faces the possibility that he could’ve just taken a life, a situation he could’ve very well avoided. 

When Is It Self-Defense? 

Reading up on the legality of things only adds more layers of complexity. “Using force or violence to protect oneself” is a touchy and highly-subjective criterion that may require tons of professional deliberation. 

So, let’s throw the law book out the window for a moment. That will make you see that there are levels to each situation. 

In this case, a sneaky foot sweep to knock him on his ass would have sufficed. A push kick to the pot belly, if you really want to escalate things and take the wind out of the guy a little bit. 

But to plant a clean head kick as a counter to a sloppy, telegraphed punch? And being fully aware of the damage you’re about to inflict? 

This isn’t self-defense. I’d even go as far as calling it attempted murder. But hey, good thing I’m not a lawyer, right? 

If I were to answer this question, I would say self-defense is more like how Mr. Miyagi handled John Kreese in the parking lot. 

He put on a solid enough beating, one that would make Kreese take notice and perhaps question his life choices at the moment. But at the same time, Miyagi spared him from spending the next six weeks eating through a straw.

Whether you’re dealing with bigger kids who are on the hunt for your lunch money or a blind drunk bozo swinging at you, you’re better off with the Miyagi approach. Do you really want the headache of a lawsuit? 

Now, blasting someone’s face off because they wielded a machete at you? That’s an entirely different conversation. 

See? There are levels to this shit. 

Cheers, and be well. 

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