The Unarmed Assailant – A Deadly Threat

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The Unarmed Assailant – A Deadly Threat
Doctors for Responsible Gun Ownership
Doctors for Responsible Gun Ownership

USA –  -( A unifying principle of American law governing the defensive use of deadly force is that a victim may use such force when an attacker threatens violence capable of causing death or grave bodily harm.

There is little doubt that it is justified when the robber draws and points a handgun at the victim.

But what if an unarmed assailant advances with fists clenched, clearly getting ready to beat his victim?  Should the victim take a few punches and hope he remains conscious long enough to draw and shoot, thus stopping his attacker? At what point short of being beaten to a bloody, crippled pulp can the victim still convince a jury that he feared he was about to die or be forever damaged? 

The law offers no clear answers.

To begin the discussion of defending against an ostensibly unarmed attacker, we must first understand the need to recognize an attack. Both police and civilians face this dilemma, but police are given more training in reading body language and responding than are most civilians. Few people can beat a drawn gun or a thrown punch. We must learn always to understand where we are, what we are doing, and what is going on around us.

An armed citizen is obliged to be polite and unaggressive. We live in a world of unseen witnesses and almost omnipresent video recorders.  We can be assured that if we are forced to deploy deadly force in a few terrifying seconds, our every action will be dissected at leisure for months in the calm of a prosecutor’s office or a jury room.  Evasion and escape whenever possible are far preferable to using force of any intensity.

There is, however, a time when attack is indicated, and that is when one perceives a life-endangering situation. The only person who can determine that is the victim.

Aside from the obvious firearm, edged or pointed weapon, blunt object, or motor vehicle, what can be considered a deadly weapon? I propose that hands, feet, knees, elbows, and even an assailant’s head are potentially deadly weapons.

After a punch in the head, a victim may be able to step back, recover and maintain balance. But if that punch is delivered to the eyes or nose, producing reflex tearing, the victim’s vision is impaired, leaving him instantly vulnerable to further attack. If the blow causes bleeding and gagging, protective responses might be altered.

A surprise punch to the kidneys would produce an immediate reaction of grasping the flank. Most people would sink to their knees, possibly vomiting in reaction. A victim so distressed is now defenseless.

A knee to the groin may rupture a testicle. Though in this case the victim’s hands will protectively grasp a different part of the anatomy, the disability caused is just as devastating. Clearly, even without a weapon an attacker, even one not trained in martial arts, can produce disabling injuries with hands, knees, elbows and feet.

A blow to the head causes even more catastrophic incapacity. Temporary traumatic brain dysfunction, known as a concussion, can cause symptoms ranging from double vision or reduced visual field to disorientation to loss of consciousness.

Any one of these states renders the victim completely vulnerable to further injury or death.

Such disabling injury can be associated with normal computerized tomography (CT) findings or grossly normal autopsy findings in the brain. The injury impairs the ability of nerves to conduct impulses and allow normal protective responses. The human brain is a soft, rather delicate structure residing in a hard bony vault, the cranium. Cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), which bathes the brain, is all that cushions and separates it from the bone.

An assailant’s blow to the head causes the bony vault to move, while by inertia the brain initially remains in place and the interior of the bone at the point of impact strikes the brain, the so-called coup injury. When the bone stops moving, the brain continues to move and is stopped by banging into the bony vault at the opposite side. This is a contrecoup injury. Thus when the head is struck with enough force to move the head, there are two points of injury.

The injury is only made worse if the victim’s head subsequently strikes a wall, or if he falls, striking the head once again, this time on the ground or pavement. The sudden deceleration, after a period of gravity acceleration, causes yet another blow to the brain, likely at a different point of impact on the brain.

With or without a skull fracture bleeding may occur.  This is yet another mechanism of brain injury that can cause rapidly increasing pressure on the brain, impaired circulation to the brain, and often permanent disability or death even with prompt emergency brain surgery.

Another concern is that as we age our reflexes slow, and our ability to respond to an injury such as a dislocated joint or a broken bone is clearly reduced. Most older people have a relatively reduced muscle mass and therefore reduced strength compared to younger people. Many older people also have illnesses which may affect their heart, lungs, muscles or joints. Even without illnesses, it is extremely unusual for a 60 year-old healthy individual to be as strong and flexible as a similarly healthy 30 year-old individual.

It is important to remember that young people have also suffered devastating and occasionally fatal injuries from a single punch, or from a blow that results in a fall and the head striking the ground. Recall the so-called “knockout game.”

The serious student of self-defense will read, study, and seek training and practice in the skills of situational awareness and reading body language. Any citizen who must use a firearm in self-defense will be required to articulate the specific circumstances that put him in fear for his life.

Robert A. Margulies, MD, MPH
Robert A. Margulies, MD, MPH

Knowing in advance of the risk of severe permanent disability or even death from a vicious attack by an unarmed but deadly assailant is vital.

It will increase the chance of survival of not only the criminal attack, but of the attack in the courtroom if the victim must face criminal charges for using force to save his own life.


—Robert A. Margulies, MD, MPH is an emergency medicine specialist, retired Marine Corps captain, and firearm trainer with multiple certifications from the NRA and Massad Ayoob Group.

Doctors for Responsible Gun Ownership, a project of the Second Amendment Foundation.

  • 8 thoughts on “The Unarmed Assailant – A Deadly Threat

    1. Why do I get the feeling that actual self-defence course are deemed for sissies here? Articles such as these are always on the “what if I have some violent person bearing down on me?” and never looks at why you have someone wanting to deliver dangerous violence on to you. Articles that focus solely on what if in the event of a fight pander to those who live a shady lifestyle, like getting into conflicts or have poor personal skills that they don’t understand others’ personal boundaries.

      1. Not behaving like an a-hole is sufficient to avoid trouble with the most people. However, it doesn’t work with predators in search of soft targets. Some examples are muggers, carjackers and the thugs who play the knockout game. Blaming the victim is just saying, “I don’t do that. Therefore, I am immune to attack.” That’s just wishful thinking.

    2. When I was younger, I took martial arts, was a US Marine and a LE Officer who taught unarmed self defense for 10 years. Now I am a senior citizen, and I know that some criminals see me as a potential victim for robbery or even payback if its someone who recognizes me from my working years. I also know that I don’t move like I use to and there fore I know I can’t get away from an attack by running away, even if I was considering that option.
      I know I must stand my ground, even though if outside my home In Ma. we don’t have a “Stand Your Ground” law. We do however have the right to self defense no matter where we are.
      I carry pepper spray often and also a handgun when know I am going into places that are highly populated,like the city, or into the woods where I walk my dog. I will not be a victim without a fight because I also know that most criminals who attack “seniors’ are really cowards. I will go along with the old rule, its better to be tried by 12 than carried by 6.

    3. Hi, I am multi war veteran. I have had 4 vertebrae fused in my neck and 3 fused in my lumbar. I cannot take a hit. I cannot take a car accident. I also have lattice degeneration and Glaucoma. Any hard shock can blind me.

      The concept here is “perceived threat”. In my case any attack will be considered a perceived deadly threat. I am not the only person with these problems. The “knockout game” could be deadly to older people and people with infirmity.

      Hit me once you die, if I did not die first. I do not go to locations where crime runs rampant. I avoid any place where those events transpire regularly. I know what I will do if they come to me.

      While I was overseas fighting for my country (serving the criminal parasitical Elite agenda) my country was undermining my freedoms back here at home. Now I and all other Veterans who served this country are listed by the US Government (DHS) as terrorists. We have done nothing to deserve this. Yet there was no outrage when this label was place on us. (2009)

      One thing I have learned from history is when a criminal government wants to become totalitarian they start it by maligning those peoples they would consider a threat to their crimes. In the USA the “government” no longer serves the people. So they will do everything they can to malign the good people who would act to stop them. It has happened many times before, it is happening now AGAIN. History is repeating itself. You cannot blame this on the military, you can only blame it on the criminals and the idiots…

    4. If you think actual self-defense courses are deemed for sissies here, all I can say is you haven’t been reading here for very long. I’ve seen more articles at this web site on how to avoid a gun fight than I have on how to win one.

    5. What about those of us unable to move quickly to evade or exit the situation ? Being so handicapped instantly brings up disparity of force arguments on your side ,left defenseless for any other response but to use your gun should be a valid defense ;being paralyzed and mostly defenseless has given me greater urgency to get my cc license and training so as to be able to have some means of self defense . I urge all other handicapped and non mobile. Persons to get their license and train The life you save just might be yours!

    6. An attack is an attack no matter what is used. If you fear for your life that is reason enough to use deadly force. Never pull a gun just to take the person prisoner. They can lie to the cops and in court and you can be the one going to jail. If someone is about to attack you and you fear for your life, use deadly force. Dead men tell no lies and they will never be a threat to anyone else ever again.

    7. Gee T2, wouldn’t know it? The articles under “self-defence” are ones that look at what to do with a gun or knife in a dangerous situation. It’s akin to someone looking for a quality dojo for “self-defence.” It because you’ll do what you train for – if you’re training yourself to shoot someone at a moment’s notice should it turn violent that’s what you’ll do. If you rigorously train in a fighting style for “self-defence” then you’ll physically fight someone if situation is dangerous enough.

      The trick anyone can afford a mini-arsenal or umpteen fighting lessons probably is a middle-class person for whom a violent situation should be an extremely rarity. If you’re a middle-class person you’ll most certainly care what the law considers self-defence and not self-defence. After all, people who grow up in the wrong side of town will know how to defend themselves – primarily identify a potential dangerous situation and staying away from it – because that’s how they survive.

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