Self-defense is one of humanity’s traditional rights, recognized for thousands of years by some of the oldest written legal codes. The premise of self-defense is simple enough: if someone is actively threatening your life, you can use force to protect yourself.

In real life-or-death situations, the line between acting in defense and becoming the aggressor is not so clear cut. All citizens should have some understanding of what constitutes legitimate defense and what goes too far, but it is a particularly important issue for gun owners and those licensed to carry firearms.This guide is meant as an informational summary of New Jersey’s often misunderstood self-defense laws. It is not personal legal advice, and should not be used as a substitute for legal counsel.

If you face criminal charges for using force to protect yourself or your home, contact South Jersey Criminal Defense Lawyer Ken Aita now for help protecting your freedom.

What are New Jersey’s self-defense laws?

In New Jersey, you have a right to defend yourself from the danger of death or serious bodily harm with force. While there are dozens of caveats, there are three important rules to keep in the back of your mind:

  1. You have a duty to retreat, unless you are in your home. This means you must try to leave a threatening situation without using force, if possible. At home, you must give a verbal warning before using force, again if possible. If a man is actively threatening you with a gun, you don’t have to ask nicely before returning fire. But if all you know about the threat is the sound of shattering glass and someone rummaging through the house, you should shout a warning before using force on the intruder.
  2. You can’t use excessive force or keep using force after the threat has been subdued. Force should be proportional to what your attacker is applying. You can’t shoot a man just because he hit you, or hit a man just because he started shouting. And if you do justifiably shoot an attacker, you can’t shoot them again if they fall and stop being a threat or stay up but flee–that’s murder, not self-defense.
  3. You usually can’t claim self-defense if you started the fight or altercation.

Does New Jersey Have a Castle Doctrine?

The “castle doctrine” is a tradition from English common law meaning that a person has a right to defend their home with force against an intruder.

New Jersey retains this old legal tradition. If attacked or threatened in public, a man must make a reasonable attempt to retreat before using force. But in his own home, a man may meet force with force to protect himself or his family. There is no duty to retreat.

As the NJ criminal code says, “the actor is not obliged to retreat from his dwelling, unless he was the initial aggressor”. That final clause is important as well; if you start a fight, even in your own home, any assault you commit will not be excused as self-defense. In the case of an armed intruder, their illegal entry and weapon makes them the aggressor.

Does New Jersey have a Stand Your Ground Law?

No, New Jersey does not have a stand-your-ground law. Stand your ground laws are self-defense laws that mean you can use force to protect yourself anywhere you are legally allowed to be, including in public, with no duty to retreat  High-profile cases involving Stand Your Ground Laws often make the national news, and it would be easy to think these laws apply to New Jersey. They do not. In New Jersey, you must make a reasonable attempt to get away from an assailant before using force in self-defense.

Can you use deadly force on a home intruder?

You can only use deadly force in situations where not doing so would put you or your family in imminent danger. Unless doing so would be impossible or put you in danger, you have to demand the intruder leave before using force. And you cannot use deadly force to recover stolen property-a thief with his back to you and a TV in his hands is not what most juries would see as an imminent threat to your life.

You can use force to protect others in your home as well as yourself, though the same imminent danger and escalation of force concerns apply.

What Self-Defense Weapons are Legal in NJ?

New Jersey has very strict laws concerning the possession of firearms, fighting knives, stun guns, and many other weapons.

As one of the few states with an active assault weapons ban, New Jersey prohibits the possession of semi-automatic rifles with certain military features, silencers and destructive devices, and even legally registered NFA items like machine guns and short-barreled firearms.

In addition to more than 50 firearms banned by name, any substantially identical firearms are also illegal to possess. You can find the complete list of banned firearms on the State Police website. It is important to make sure any firearms you keep at home for self-defense are legal to possess.

Using a prohibited weapon to protect yourself will make it difficult for an attorney to prove you acted legally in self-defense. And even if you can claim self-defense and avoid murder charges, possessing a prohibited firearm carries a mandatory 5 to 10 year sentence in New Jersey.

Please contact a firearms attorney for specific questions about guns you own or are considering buying for self-defense in New Jersey, especially if moving into the state. Many of the prohibited models and “evil” features are common on home defense weapons sold legally in all other states.

Can I Use Knives for Self Defense?

Provided you are in a situation where deadly force is justified, there is no law preventing you from using a knife, or any other tool you may have at hand to protect yourself. However, New Jersey also has strict laws on knives and other melee weapons.

With few exceptions, gravity knives, ballistic knives, switchblades, daggers, dirks, stilettos, billy clubs, blackjack, brass knuckles, sand club, slingshots, cesti, or any studded wood or leather bands are illegal to possess.  

While sold under various names, this means many double-edged “fighting” or “trench” knives are best avoided as self-defense weapons. The close confrontation and grisly resulting wounds mean that using a normal hunting knife as a defensive weapon can be hard to justify in the eyes of a detective or a jury. A fighting knife is even worse, because it casts the wielder as aggressive and confrontation-seeking.

Can you go to jail for self-defense?

Just because you are threatened does not mean you have the right to use force.

You cannot use excessive force; that is, you can’t retaliate with more force than you are threatened with. A man grabbing your arm doesn’t justify shooting him, and verbal aggression doesn’t warrant physically retaliating. Escalating an encounter is not usually seen as self-defense, even if the other person started the altercation.

Facing Charges? Find a lawyer NOW!

Many innocent people who use force on an attacker are arrested and charged with murder or aggravated assault, especially if they talk to police with no attorney present.

If you retain an attorney from the beginning, you may be able to avoid prosecution by successfully convincing police and the prosecutor that your decision to use self-defense was lawful.

Even if Law Enforcement believes what you did was criminal, a lawyer can argue your innocence on grounds of self-defense in the courtroom. If you are facing assault or murder charges after using force in self-defense, South Jersey defense lawyer Kenneth D. Aita may be able to help. You can schedule a consultation by calling Aita Law LLC at (856) 287-7800.