A Few Words on Self-Defense
Understanding When to Use BJJ to Defend Yourself
The main reason many of us started training BJJ, the main reason most people start training in any martial art, is for self-defense. When it comes to personal defense, nothing rises to the occasion like the gentle art because of the infinite variety of takedowns, chokes, and joint locks that can be used to defend your life, not to mention the lives of your friends and loved ones. And while we are taught to avoid fighting, to use our BJJ in only the direst of circumstances, the reality is that fights do happen and, sometimes, they happen to us. If there is a problem in any of this it is that while we BJJ practitioners understand how to defend ourselves, many of us have a very limited understanding of when it is actually LEGAL to do so.
Here’s a little test.
Situation 1.) You are in a public place and someone says something rude to you. You respond in kind and they challenge you to step outside to settle it. You agree and when you get there they attack you. You use something you learned in BJJ class to stop their attack. Is that self-defense? It seems pretty easy but the answer may be surprising. If you live in the state of Texas, where I happen to be writing from, then the answer to both questions is no. According to Texas state law, this was mutual combat where both of you have committed assault. The other guy invited you to step outside for a fight and you agreed. Technically, you consented to an aggressive encounter and cannot plead self-defense, even though they threw the first punch.
Situation 2.) Suppose you are in the same place and the same rude person, after having words, walks up to you and slaps you in the face. Afterward they laugh and start to turn away. You become angered and hit them with a vicious takedown or submission. Is that self-defense? This one is a little tricky, but still the answer is no. Here’s why: In the eyes of the law your attacker did assault you, but immediately broke off his attack and attempted to leave just before you retaliated, which resulted in you also assaulting them.
Now you are under arrest and on your way to jail. Got a little more than we bargained for, didn’t we? Remember, fighting is chaotic in nature, it escalates quickly and in no time we can find ourselves in a dangerous position where we are subject to injury, disability, death, or criminal charges. Assault is one of these, and it can range in severity from a Misdemeanor with a fine to a Felony and jail time. The prosecution will be serious about these charges as well, especially if someone was injured. This is a situation that many of us simply aren’t prepared for: to be charged with a violent crime simply for doing what you’ve trained for years to do. Hardly sounds fair right? You have to consider this; that martial arts came into existence during times of war and extreme lawlessness. Fortunately for us, in this country, those days are long gone and we attempt to govern ourselves with laws. These laws are enforced by properly educated and trained individuals, the police, and unless you are wearing a badge you are not one of them. Law enforcement does not have the legal right to harm anyone without justification and neither do you. More food for thought, what we as martial artists and BJJ practitioners play at, what we do as a recreation, is essentially a sportive version of person-on-person violence. Think about it, a rear naked choke is a sweet submission on the mat but on the street it’s a heinous crime with serious consequences. And that’s how the law may view it, which is why it is necessary to familiarize yourself with the legal side of self-defense: what legally justifies use of force and when it is prudent to do so.
Learning the Legal Ins and Outs
Laws regarding use of force vary from state to state and even city to city. Some states have a duty to retreat clause, which means that you have to make every attempt to flee from an attacker before it is justified to use force. Here in Texas we do not have a duty to retreat, we are legally allowed to use force if we have a reasonable fear of being endangered. Even then, use of force is dictated by very narrow circumstances. We can’t just cut loose and turn the place into the OK Corral. The key word here is reasonable, the meaning of which is not legally defined. What is reasonable varies from situation to situation and, if you are charged with assault, will ultimately be decided by the courts. This is why you need to learn the legal ins and outs, before the fact, by consulting an attorney who specializes in self-defense laws. Consultation fees are usually inexpensive considering the value of the information you receive, and some attorney will consult with you for free. Also consultations can be done almost anywhere, from the attorney’s office to online to over the phone. An attorney is a professional and they will be able to clearly explain the laws of your respective city and state. They will inform you of your rights and they can also advise you on how to behave before, during, and after a violent encounter; i.e. what to say or do without incriminating yourself. Also, should you ever get arrested for use of force, it’s a good thing to have that attorney’s card in your wallet so you can call them right away.
Remember, one of the main goals in BJJ is the cultivation of the mind, body, and spirit. Should you ever find yourself in a position where you are potentially facing serious criminal charges and you have to justify your use of force, your mind will be the most effective weapon in that battle. You wouldn’t compete in a tournament without adequate preparation, would you? This is the same thing. In the arena of law, knowledge is preparation, and it’s always better to be safe than sorry.