CYA: Justifying Your Use of Force

In a 2009 Black Belt magazine, Reality-Based Personal Protection pioneer Sgt. Jim Wagner quoted an adage, “There are two fights you must win. The first is for your life, and the second is for your liberty.”

In several firearm classes, I’ve heard the phrase, “If you pull the gun, it will change your life. You don’t even have to pull the trigger.”

In martial arts, we often think about how we would fare in a real-time fight or imagine defending ourselves and walking away unscathed. The problem is when we use our hard-earned skills, we may find ourselves on the wrong end of justice if we can’t justify our use of force.

I recently had two young cops attend one of my classes. We had an interesting discussion afterward about the use of force from a law enforcement perspective and from a civilian.

I asked them what “CYA” stood for in either scenario. They gave the usual response: “Cover your a**.” But, that’s not what I think of when I use the acronym.

A better version of CYA is “Can You Articulate?”

To Sgt. Wagner’s point, can you properly verbalize and articulate your reasons for using the level of force that you used in the altercation? Can you justify pulling the gun? Can you support your decision to stomp his head five times after you have rendered him unconscious? Do you see the difference and the importance of your words?  

Justification of use of force is about persuasion and communication. In communication, you will always have an audience, a what, and a so-what scenario.

After the event, your audience will be the law enforcement officer taking your statement and possibly the jury hearing your case should you go to trial. In an interview about use of force, author and defensive tactics instructor Rory Miller describes how this might play out.

“Theoretically, self defense is supposed to be judged by somebody with your equivalent training and experience, but in practice it is always the people on the jury, the people who will hear your story, who will judge whether it is reasonable. It comes down to your ability to tell the story so that they are actually in your head when it happened–because it was reasonable to you or you wouldn’t have done it.”

The ‘what’ in a self-defense scenario is when you describe the event itself. What happened during the event? What tools and techniques were used? What took place before the event that led to the level of force used? These tell the audience what and how you came to sit in front of them.

The ‘so-what’ is the answer to why you used the tools and techniques, and perhaps the extent to which you used them.

In his book, Meditations on Violence, Miller points out that in most self-defense cases, we need to use “‘the minimum level of force’ which you ‘reasonably believe’ is necessary to safely resolve the situation.”

Whether it’s using a chokehold to render your assailant unconscious or pulling a trigger to change his behavior, we have to verbalize our reasoning in a manner the judge or jury can understand.

In his interview, Miller elaborated on what he meant in his book.

“In order to justify using a gun, you must be able to articulate why you reasonably believed you were under immediate threat for death or grievous bodily harm. And, though there appears to be an exception for Castle Laws and Stand Your Ground states, you want to be able to explain why you had no option.”

Why did you pull the trigger or swing the tire tool? Because you had no other option. If you can’t articulate that reason or it wasn’t your reason to start with, you might need to think more deeply about your training, your mindset, and your reality.

Photo by Max Kleinen on Unsplash

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2 thoughts on “CYA: Justifying Your Use of Force

  1. Excellent points. The key issue is whether you truly believed you or your loved ones were in danger. And as you suggest, even if you convince the jury you reacted in self-defense, if you go overboard, you can still face nasty repercussions. That’s why martial arts classes stress using the minimum force necessary, not just for legal reasons, but moral reasons as well.

    Liked by 1 person

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