The common law right to use defensive force in North Carolina rests on three fundamental principles: necessity, proportionality, and fault. Ordinarily, when a person uses defensive force, the force must be reasonably necessary to prevent harm; the force must be proportional to the threatened harm; and the person using defensive force must not be at fault in the conflict. See John Rubin, The Law of Self-Defense § 2.1(b), at 14–15 (UNC School of Government, 1996). North Carolina’s new statutes on defensive force continue to rely on these principles. As under the common law, the statutes do not always refer to these principles in describing the circumstances in which a person may use defensive force. But, as this post is intended to show, the basic principles of necessity, proportionality, and fault remain central to the statutory rights.
Several years ago (some might say that’s an understatement) I wrote The Law of Self-Defense in North Carolina, in which I looked at over 200 years’ worth of North Carolina court opinions on self-defense and related defenses, such as defense of others and defense of habitation. The book’s approach reflected that North Carolina was a common law state when it came to self-defense. The right to act in self-defense depended primarily on the authority of court decisions. The General Assembly’s adoption in 2011 of three defensive force statutes—G.S. 14-51.2, G.S. 14-51.3, and G.S. 14-51.4—changed that. An understanding of the law of self-defense in North Carolina now must begin with the statutory law of self-defense.