Practicing Self-Defense At the Gym and In Court; What You Need to Know.

Practicing Self-Defense At the Gym and In Court; What You Need to Know.

Turn to a news source and you will see the same news everyday; iPhone muggings, sexual assaults, stabbings, beatings and murder. It’s a daily occurrence especially in a large city like Chicago. And the statistics are alarming. In the city of Chicago, the chances of becoming a victim are 1 in 97 compared to 1 in 233 in the state of Illinois. There are 627 crimes committed per square mile within the city of Chicago compared to 44 in Illinois and 39 nationally. [1]

Perhaps you, like many who have decided to protect themselves and their loved ones have taken Krav Maga or other self-defense classes. You have practiced countless hours throwing strikes, kicks, blocks and elbows at the gym. All in the hope that all that knowledge is just for the sake of learning something new and getting in shape and that you will never, ever have to use those skills in real life. But what happens if you do? More precisely, what happens after you have fought off the attacker successfully and left him with serious injuries. What happens legally? Can you be criminally charged for assault and battery?

Illinois has what’s known as an affirmative defense, which means a victim must prove that the danger they faced justified the amount of force they used. And this is determined on a case by case basis in light of all the facts and events surrounding the circumstance.

A person is justified in the use of force against another when and to the extent that he reasonably believes that such conduct is necessary to defend himself or another against such other’s imminent use of unlawful force.

So what does all of that mean? Unfortunately, your legal rights and protection can fall into a lot of different gray areas and be lost. Perhaps you were at a party and there was a lot of alcohol served, a shoving match ensued and you were in the middle of it and you threw an elbow that broke someone nose. Were you the aggressor? Or was it in self-defense. Those are situations that will only be resolved after many witness statements, evidence, and lengthy fact-finding discovery. That’s a murky area that’s difficult to discern if the use of force was justified. Like I said, each case will be evaluated on its own facts and is case specific.

But what happens when you’re at an ATM late at night and somebody attacks you in the street? Are you justified to throw that groin kick followed by that perfectly placed right cross that you have practiced over and over at the gym? Again, that depends on the circumstances and more importantly, were you a victim acting in self-defense or did you become a victim turned aggressor?

First, you have to reasonably believe that your use of self-defense is required. Illinois does not any longer require a person under threat of harm to flee and retreat from an attacker before fighting back. In other words, you don’t have to do everything possible to avoid the conflict, but it may be a good idea if the circumstances allow it. If someone snatches your wallet from you at the ATM and takes off running, it is probably more prudent to let them go, try to remember as many details about the attacker as you can and call the police. The risk of serious injury and possibly death are not worth the $100 in the wallet. On the other hand, if the aggressor begins to verbally abuse you and escalates the threatening comments or gestures which leads you to reasonably believe that you are in imminent harm, you may be justified in defending yourself.

Second, the threat against you has to be unlawful. Simply put, the person using force upon you is not legally entitled to do so. A security guard or law enforcement officer has a legal standing to use a certain amount of force to control a situation. Clearly, you can’t throw elbows when being escorted out of a bar by a police officer. But back to the ATM scenario, if someone grabs at your purse or threatens you, most likely it is unlawful.

Third, the person threatened is not the aggressor. This can get murky in social situations such as bars or get togethers where words get exchanged, tempers flare and shoves turn to punches. Who started what? This can be difficult to establish. But again, if you’re just minding your business at the ATM and a stranger threatens you, most likely you’re not the aggressor.

Fourth, the danger of harm is imminent. Basically, the threat has to be able to be carried out immediately and not some time in the future. So back to the bar, if the aggressor says “If I see you here again tomorrow, I’m going to punch you” and walks away, clearly the danger of harm is not imminent. You can walk away and call the police and your use of force is not justified. On the other hand, if you’re at the ATM and the aggressor acts like he is about to carry out his threat, most likely the danger of harm is imminent.

Fifth, the use of force was necessary. Again, this can be a murky situation that depends on the facts at hand. Did the aggressor abandon his initial altercation and now you’re retaliating? Or are you put in a position where force is necessary for your safety?  All those gray areas can be difficult to discern hypothetically, but can be easier to determine when put in a threatening situation. If it turns out that the aggressor wants more than just your purse at the ATM or you’re being grabbed at the bar, perhaps the use of force is necessary.

And lastly, the amount of force used was necessary. Simply put, if someone is hitting you with their fists, you can’t shoot them. The amount of force used to defend has to be of equal amount to the force of the attacker. The law does lean towards women a little. A woman can most likely use more force to stop an attacker than a man could, especially when the protection of children is involved.

As you have seen, Illinois does not require a person under threat of harm to retreat and wait and see what will happen next. The law recognizes a person’s legal right to self-protection and understands that at times a person has to take their own safety in their own hands and protect themselves by all means. So not only can you practice self-defense at the gym, but also have self-defense under the law.

 Note: this article is for educational and entertainment purposes and does not constitute legal advice. All cases of self-defense are case specific. For more information, please contact a Criminal Defense attorney.

About the Author.

Michael Roberts is an Illinois attorney and an avid fitness and wellness enthusiast. He was a competitive fencer, fitness model and currently practices Mixed Martial Arts and Krav Maga at POW! MMA and Fitness in the West Loop. He still runs marathons, ultra-marathons and relay-races and triathlons.


[2] § 720 ILCS 5/7-1 – Use of force in defense of person

Illinois statute[2] spells out the requirements for self-defense:


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