TLDR: Using a knife for self-defense can put a character on some shaky ground. The best tactic, legally speaking, is to inflict an injury that allows for a retreat when one is otherwise not possible.
It’s a lot of fun to choose knives for characters. I played the part of armorer for a vigilante detective character not long ago, and I enjoyed the hell out of it. The blades in that instance (I recommended two for the character) were to be used for last-ditch self-defense. I stopped short, however, of detailing what self-defense with a knife can mean in a legal sense.
Maybe this matters to a story and maybe it doesn’t. But if you’re going to assign a character a knife, don’t disregard how easy it is for a knife-wielding character to cross the line from self-defense to murder.
Disparity of Force
It seems simple enough at first. A character is attacked and uses a knife for defense. The character keeps slashing away until the bad guy is bleeding out the last seconds of life onto the floor, or something to that extent. Open and shut. Case closed, right?
Not quite. Here’s the rule of thumb:
Self-defense laws, typically set at the state level, don’t necessarily consider intent (“I was only defending myself”) or the level of injury (“I stabbed him, but I didn’t mean to kill him”). They consider disparity of force.
This disparity exists when the person threatened is outmatched by one or more people. An elderly woman in a wheelchair versus six young men. A small woman versus a large man. A couple on a date versus a gang of werewolf biker women (I don’t know, bear with me, people). Even a person with a gun versus someone with a knife, if the distance between them is 21 feet or less (link is NSFW).
In general terms, that disparity can be legally evened out with the application of deadly force. For example, Granny can use the hidden handgun beneath the knitting project on her lap to shoot the lowlifes trying to beat and rob her.
However, even dear old Gran must stop pulling the trigger once the threat to her is gone. If the lowlifes turn and run away, she must stop shooting. The disparity of force no longer exists because the threat is hustling it down the street. She must act reasonably, and in some cases may even have a duty to render aid, otherwise she’s committing murder instead of self-defense. State laws shade that reasonableness differently, but the general idea is the same.
Knives and Disparity of Force
Now apply that same concept to knives. If Granny is attacked and pulls a knife, then proceeds to slash the throats of those lowlifes (she’s pretty bad ass, possibly a member of a werewolf biker gang), the disparity of force is no longer present to justify her violence. Granny overpowered the lowlifes. Despite her original intent of self-defense, her actions could mean she committed murder. In fact, the lowlifes might even be justified in using deadly force against her, depending on the laws of the setting.
This is why self-defense with knives is such shaky ground. In order for that blade to make those injuries, you must have some sort of physical advantage. That’s why the best tactic is to inflict an injury that allows a retreat when one is otherwise not possible. If one of the lowlifes wraps a hand around Granny’s wrist, and the only way she can break free is to stab the bastard in the arm, then the use of that knife is probably justifiable.
None of that means the scenario is over, though.
Knife Injuries can be Ambiguous (NSFW Photos)
Even the goriest bits of pop culture don’t quite capture the brutality of a knife attack. This post on Lee Lofland’s blog, however, does. If you can stand them, you won’t forget the photos there.
While they do reveal plenty about human anatomy, those graphic wounds don’t tell whether they were inflicted on the right or wrong side of the law. It’s this ambiguity that the court system would have to unravel.
Don’t think a prosecutor wouldn’t exploit those knife wounds to play on a jury’s sympathies. After all, the person inflicting those wounds must’ve had a physical advantage, right? And instead of retreating, he or she stuck around to kill or maim someone in one the most brutal ways possible. This is how otherwise good people go to prison.
Like I said before, these legal considerations might not matter to a work of fiction. Readers probably aren’t interested in legalese. But for procedurals and legal thrillers, this is good stuff to consider. (In that case, I recommend this book.)
Turning Heroes into Murderers
The next time you read a novel, watch a movie or zone out for a TV show that features a fight scene, pay attention to when a bad guy is “finished off” by the protagonist. You might be surprised how often the supposed hero is actually a murderer. You might not be surprised, however, at how easily this point is skimmed over.
Of course, this kind of subtlety is absent in video games. Sorry, Mortal Kombat fighters, but you’re all due for a stint in prison.
Get the Book
The Writer’s Guide to Weapons: A Practical Reference for Using Firearms and Knives in Fiction (Writer’s Digest Books) comes with everything but the ammo. Pick up a print or digital copy from these fine retailers:
7 thoughts on “The Truth About Knives and Self-Defense”
Ben, you are one of the best educators out there – not only do I learn so much from you, but I bust my sides laughing at the same time. Win-win. Thanks!
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Thank you! That’s very nice of you. With this post, I hope no one mistakes me for a lawyer, because I wanted to get a concept across instead of give legal advice. It’s surprising how often the “good guy” in a story is committing a serious crime.
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High Five on your idealism, Ben. It is indeed, how the law wants it to be. Still, please, let me remind you that criminals are actually criminals because they give a damn about the law and its wishes.
A temper tantrum attacker type might be shocked by a wound. Someone really eager to gut you will simply come back for revenge later, usually with reinforcements or fiercer weapons.
Established citizens, who never had the “pleasure” of colliding with criminals before, should at least consider that surviving may become more important than expected. It may be wise to ask the local police about precautions and proper procedures, as they tend to have much more experience with the less genteel sides of society, and the borderline where the bad guys can actually win and get away with it.
The trick in writing fiction is not becoming too detached from the reality which inspired it. When every street-punk can tell you why such and such would never work-out for real it is, sometimes, an underestimated streetwise. And plenty of criminals love talking about their skills. Interviewing them is usually legal.
Definitely, Andre. What I’m saying doesn’t take into account the nuance of each situation. That’s up for the courts to decide, and they’ll be guided by laws that differ depending on the jurisdiction. I’m just throwing out something for writers to chew on as they build protagonists, and I don’t expect everyone to take the time to research the specifics. In reality, these things probably aren’t coursing through the heads of those struggling for their lives, but there’s still value in considering the legal consequences. In my experience, there’s a lot of emphasis placed on the gear and not on the consequences of using that gear.
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Thanks, Ben. Btw, yesterday I finished ‘The Last Injustice’, another good read. I think you do give great hints, but I remain among the minority who would prefer GlassEye 2. 😉
Thank you! It makes me happy to hear that. The sequel is on hold for now, though. I’ve got a new crime novel coming out from New Pulp Press any day now, the Chase Baker stories are selling well and there’s a lot going on with The Writer’s Guide to Weapons. To tell you the truth, I didn’t see a single sale of Glass Eye since the novel was featured on Wattpad with either the digital or the print edition. I might shop the sequel around to a publisher, or I might self-publish it, but I’m not sure when all of that happens. I need to follow the projects with the most return for my time, and right now Glass Eye isn’t it. Sorry.
“Don’t think a prosecutor wouldn’t exploit those knife wounds to play on a jury’s sympathies.”
This comment literally makes no sense.
How on earth is showing a jury a picture of a bunch of knife wounds going to influence them. in any way? The juries job is to establish the facts so showing pictures of wounds is irrelevant to the matter of self defence? Furthermore if was on a jury and a prosecutor thought he could impress me by showing me pictures of knife wounds I would laugh at them.
additionally you have also said .
“he or she stuck around to kill or maim someone in one the most brutal ways possible”
stabbing someone to death is not “one the most brutal ways possible” in fact it is not even minimally brutal – you have even gone so far as to post a list to pictures of knife wounds which clearly show that they are not brutal in any way . Why would you make sure a claim while also showing evidence that it is not true?