When is a Punch Considered Deadly Force?

A seventeen-year-old is facing a manslaughter charge after an April 21 fight in Brunswick, Georgia. No, he didn’t shoot anyone with his everyday carry (EDC) handgun. The young man didn’t stab the person with his knife. He punched a 41-year-old man one time. The incident resulted in the older man’s death.

Police cruiser

There are a couple of different perspectives that make this story relevant for concealed handgun carriers.

Is a Punch Considered Deadly Force —

First, I often hear people say I can use deadly force against an unarmed attacker because a single punch can be deadly. Yes, some people die from just one punch. But this isn’t always the case. More people don’t die from punches than from them.

Factors to consider —

But a single punch can, under some circumstances, be considered deadly force. So what are the factors that make it more reasonable to conclude that a single punch would lead to death? Here are some considerations:

  • The strength of the attacker

A clear disparity of strength leads to the reasonableness that an unarmed strike could cause death or serious bodily injury.

  • Experience of the attacker

At the time of the attack, the victim knows the person attacking them is a professional MMA fighter. It’s reasonable for the defender to use a higher level of force than they would against someone of lesser ability. However, the defender must know the attacker’s level of training at the time of the attack, not sometime later.

  • Age of the defender

Some elderly people suffer severe injury from a fall. So if the defender is elderly, it’s reasonable that a single punch would cause severe injury.

  • Physical state of the defender

Would a paralyzed defender using a wheelchair be at greater risk of death or serious bodily injury than someone who is mobile? I think the reasonable answer is yes.

Again, none of the above factors means a person can always use a higher level of force, just that many factors play a role in determining if their force is reasonable and proportionate.

Photo from: The Brunswick News

Is a punch considered “less lethal” force —

So on the one hand, if a single punch can be force likely to cause death or serious bodily harm, is it okay to punch someone who is only stealing property? After all, you can’t shoot someone to protect mere property. So which is it?

If we consider an unarmed force as “less lethal” when we use it against someone else, but deadly force when someone uses it against us, I think we set ourselves up for failure. This way of looking at unarmed force may cause us to use excessive force when it is not warranted and engage in conflict when it is avoidable.

Imagine you wake up in the middle of the night to noises outside your house. You look out the window and see someone breaking into your vehicle. We’ve established that you have a legal right to use reasonable force to stop someone from taking your property.

So you use unarmed strikes to stop the person from stealing your property. However, kicks, especially to the head, are a higher level of force. Absent the suspect using a comparable level of force against you, offensive kicks to someone’s head could even qualify as force likely to cause death or serious injury. That level of force is not reasonable against someone only stealing property from your vehicle.

The point I am trying to make is we may enter a conflict thinking that punching someone isn’t a big deal, but the person dies. Let me be clear, I am not advising against using defensive force when appropriate. Not at all. If you need to use force to defend yourself, use reasonable and necessary force to stop the threat. If that requires deadly force, so be it.

In a hand-to-hand fight, it is sometimes hard to distinguish the aggressor. A fist fight can turn into a deadly force encounter, even if neither person has a weapon. If an unarmed person is in a defenseless position, and no longer fighting, what force is reasonable? Striking force is likely no longer reasonable. This is where it is easy to cross the line into using excessive force.

Reasonable questions to ask ourselves —

Would we avoid more conflict if we realized how quickly unarmed “less lethal” force can change into deadly force? If we approached it this way, would we look to use things like de-escalation, distance, or OC spray before resorting to physical force? I think so.

It is a good idea to carry and know how to use OC spray.

Would we be less likely to use excessive force and shoot someone for pushing us if we didn’t presume that a single punch could be deadly, so I’m justified to use deadly force against this person? I think so.

I think we can have this mindset without giving up awareness or the ability to respond to a threat appropriately.

Final Considerations —

I don’t know the specifics of the incident involving the 17-year-old. News article is void of information necessary to do an honest analysis. But from what’s reported, the 17-year-old allegedly punched the older man once. When he fell, the older man’s head struck the concrete in such a way as to cause his death.

But prosecutors have that information and charged the young man with manslaughter.

The reason for this post isn’t to judge the prosecutors’ decision. Instead, it’s just to use the incident to discuss “unarmed” fights and how we look at them as they relate to self-defense.

If you enjoyed this post or it made you think let us know in the comments. Also consider subscribing to Guardian Nation and unlocking all the benefits that come with membership!


  1. Ron Cales on April 27, 2022 at 4:53 pm

    When I was in the academy We were taught that fist strikes to the head was considered using deadly force. I agree for the most part with your opinions herein. But it leans towards age and ability as the factors, the problem of course is that the attacker has no knowledge of medical conditions such as victim being on blood thinners where even a punch to the gut can cause them to bleed to death. I feel prosecutors should stand firm that any strike to the head by an attacker is using deadly force and the victim should be able defend using deadly force. I personally am not going to wait and see if I die from getting hit in the head. At my age with my particular medical issues I would be i fear of my life.

    • Dave on May 2, 2022 at 11:44 am

      The blood thinner is my biggest concern. I wear a medical alert bracelet to indicate my higher risk. I guess I should wear some self-defense as well. I’m worried that my use of a cane and/or walker makes me more targetable as well. Sad state of affairs that this is even a discussion topic–out of necessity.

  2. Dale on May 2, 2022 at 3:42 am

    There’s a less than well understood legal concept called “Disparity of Force.”
    Years ago use of this concept would have been touch-and-go for me with almost anyone.
    However, I’m now 70 years old with arthritis, congestive heart failure, pulmonary hypertension, and kidney failure.
    And i carry a 45.

  3. Geary on May 4, 2022 at 9:57 pm

    Since I had 2 major head surgeries, if a person strikes my head, I may have serious bodily injury or could die from it. The law does not see a punch from the attacker’s view point but from the recipient possible outcome. I do not need to notify the assailant of my injuries but can use deadly force to stop a possible serious bodily injury or death. So, a punch to my head is considered deadly force. The punch is likely or intended to cause death or serious bodily injury.
    Court cases look at this issue from the defendant’s insight of the attack.

  4. barry Shephard on May 5, 2022 at 9:07 am

    At 82 yrs of age, I’m too old to get my butt kicked, and that’s why I carry everywhere

  5. Mike on May 5, 2022 at 10:59 am

    From the newspaper article this case has nothing to do with deadly or non-deadly force. The charge is involuntary manslaughter predicated on a misdemeanor, the commission of an unlawful act not amounting to a felony – in this case Affray (fighting) (see O.C.G.A. § 16-11-32 & O.C.G.A. § 16-5-3(a)). Per the statute Affray “is the fighting by two or more persons in some public place to the disturbance of the public tranquility” there is no “deadly force” required.

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