top of page
VG-Hanna Proper grip fire.jpg

Reasonable Force

The amount of force necessary to protect oneself or one's property. Reasonable force is a term associated with defending one's person or property from a violent attack, theft, or other type of unlawful aggression. It may be used as a defense in a criminal trial or to defend oneself in a suit alleging tortious conduct. If one uses excessive force, or more than the force necessary for such protection, he or she may be considered to have forfeited the right to defense. Reasonable force is also known as legal force.


A person is generally justified in using force that is intended or likely to cause death or great bodily harm if the person reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent the commission of a forcible felony. The person is also generally justified in using such extreme force to prevent or terminate another's unlawful entry into or attack upon a dwelling, if: (1) the entry is made or attempted in a violent manner and he reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent personal violence to himself or another then in the dwelling, or (2) he reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent the commission of a felony in the dwelling..

Deadly Force

The lawful use of “force” usually contemplates something less than “deadly force.”  Most instances of self-defense will involve repelling a threat or attack through physical force.  In some very rare circumstances however, “deadly force” may be used.  BUT a person may only use “deadly force” in self-defense when they are in “imminent danger of death or serious bodily injury.”  And that belief, that you are in imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury must be a reasonable one.  Consequently, bringing a gun to a fist fight is probably not reasonable and could result in serious criminal charges. 

 Homicide or deadly force is justifiable only when committed either:

  1. In the lawful defense of the slayer, or his or her husband, wife, parent, child, brother, or sister, or of any other person in his or her presence or company, when there is reasonable ground to apprehend a design on the part of the person slain to commit a felony or to do some great personal injury to the slayer or to any such person, and there is imminent danger of such design being accomplished; or

  1. In the actual resistance of an attempt to commit a felony upon the slayer, in his or her presence, or upon or in a dwelling, or other place of abode, in which he or she is.

See RCW 9A.16.050



The degree of force used in self-defense is limited to what a reasonably prudent person would find necessary under the conditions as they appeared to the defendant. State v. Bailey, 22 Wn.App. 646 (1979).  Deadly force may only be used in self-defense if the defendant reasonably believes he or she is threatened with death or great personal injury.  State v. Walden, 131 Wn.2d 469 (1997).  A person cannot use deadly force in self-defense unless he has a reasonable and good-faith belief that, from an objective standpoint, deadly force was necessary.  State v. Bell, 60 Wn.App,. 561 (1993).    

One has the right to use force only to the extent of what appears to be the apparent imminent danger at the time.  When there is no reasonable ground for the person attacked or apparently under attack to believe that his person is in imminent danger of death or great bodily harm, and it appears to him that only an ordinary battery is all that is intended, he has no right to repel a threatened assault by the use of a deadly weapon.  State v. Walden, 131 Wn.2d 469 (1997).  Justifiable homicide, and all self-defense, is rooted in the principle of necessity, and deadly force is only necessary where its use is objectively reasonable, considering the facts and circumstances as they were understood by the defendant at the time.  State v. Brightman, 155 Wn.2d 506 (2005). 

The Use-of-Force Continuum

The Use-of-Force Continuum was adopted by the Eight United Nations Congress on the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders and was welcomed by the General Assembly of the UN in resolution 45/166 in 1990.  As such, it is not legally binding for the Member States, but rather seeks to further clarify aspects of the Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials and provide guidelines that it encourages States to adopt and implement.


Goal: The goal of the Basic Principles is to “…assist Member States in their task of ensuring and promoting the proper role of law enforcement officials…” and to provide more detail concerning Article 3 of the Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials, which handles the use of force by law enforcement officials.

Relevant Clauses:

1. Governments and law enforcement agencies should develop a range of means as broad as possible and equip law enforcement officials with various types of weapons and ammunition that would allow for a differentiated use of force and firearms.  These should include the development of non-lethal incapacitating weapons for use in appropriate situations […]

2. The development and deployment of non-lethal incapacitating weapons should be carefully evaluated in order to minimize the risk of endangering uninvolved persons, and the use of such weapons should be carefully controlled.

3. Law enforcement officials, in carrying out their duty, shall, as far as possible, apply non-violent means before resorting to the use of force and firearms.  They may use force and firearms only if other means remain ineffective or without any promise of achieving the intended result.

4. Whenever the lawful use of force and firearms is unavoidable, law enforcement officials shall:


a) Exercise restraint in such use and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offence and the legitimate object to be achieved

b) Minimize damage and injury, and respect and preserve human life

c) Ensure that assistance and medical aid are rendered to any injured or affected persons at the earliest possible moment;

5. Governments shall ensure that arbitrary or abusive use of force and firearms by law enforcement officials is punished as a criminal offence under their law.

6. Exceptional circumstances such as internal political instability or any other public emergency may not be invoked to justify any departure from these basic principles.


Special Provisions

7. Law enforcement officials shall not use firearms against persons except in self-defence or defence of others against the imminent threat of death or serious injury, to prevent the perpetration of a particularly serious crime involving grave threat to life, to arrest a person presenting such a danger and resisting their authority, or to prevent his or her escape, and only when less extreme means are insufficient to achieve these objectives.  In any event, intentional lethal use of firearms may only be made when strictly unavoidable in order to protect life.

Policing unlawful assemblies

8. As everyone is allowed to participate in lawful and peaceful assemblies, in accordance with the principles embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Governments and law enforcement agencies and officials shall recognize that force and firearms may be used only in accordance with principles


9. In the dispersal of assemblies that are unlawful but non-violent, law enforcement shall avoid the use of force or, where that is not practicable, shall restrict such force to the minimum extent necessary.

10. In the dispersal of violent assemblies, law enforcement officials may use firearms only when less dangerous means are not practicable and only to the minimum extent necessary […]

bottom of page