If someone comes at me with a knife, can I also wield one and attack them before they attack me?

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If someone comes at me with a knife, can I also wield one and attack them before they attack me?

Asked on July 3, 2014 under Criminal Law, New York

Answers:

SJZ, Member, New York Bar / FreeAdvice Contributing Attorney

Answered 7 years ago | Contributor

You're on dangerous ground, literally and legally. Yes, if someone attacks you with lethal force or a deadly weapon, may use like force to defend yourself. And you're not obligated to let the attacker strike first, especially when a gun or knife--where the 1st strike often decides the fight--is involved. But the issue is: are you being attacked or not? For example, say I draw a knife and make threatening remarks, but I do not at any point strike at you; instead, I am using the knife as a threat or prop, but not actually attacking. In that case, if you stab me first, you may be found to be the aggressor. It depends on the context and situation, and whether a reasonable person would have considered an attack imminent or not. Distance also matters: unlike a gun, a knife is a close-in weapon. Say I'm holding a knife but the gap between us is to big to bridge with a single move--that is, I can't stab or cut you without closing the distance. Say that I do not close the distance; in that case, if you suddenly take a step towards me and cut first, you would very likely be found to be the aggressor. So the answer is, yes, you legally may pre-emptively use a lethal weapon or deadly force, but the context has to clearly indicate you did not initiate the combat; if you did, you may be the attacker, not the [self-]defender.


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