Anyone who's ever watched pretty much any movie in the history of ever or otherwise watched professional pugilists spar words with one another in a media session knows that those trained in the art of kicking ass are required to register their hands as deadly weapons in the United States. Further, if they use their fists of fury against the general public, not only will they get thrown in the slammer for a rather long time for assault with a deadly weapon, but afterwards they'll go on a high flying adventure with the likes of Cyrus The Virus Grissom and his band of lovable ragamuffins. But is any of this actually true in reality? Well, as the universe hates simplicity and basically nothing is black and white- no, and also yes, and then nuance.
As to the easiest part of this particular topic to address- are those highly trained in hand to hand combat required to register their hands as deadly weapons in the U.S.? Nope… except for in one U.S. territory- Guam. There, in Title 10- Health & Safety Division 3- Public Safety, Chapter 62, it states,
Any person who is an expert in the art of karate or judo, or any similar physical in which the hands and feet are used as deadly weapons, is required to register with the Department of Revenue and Taxation…
An exception to this is that U.S. military members, as well as law enforcement, are not required to register. The fee for such a registration is a mere and does not ever need to be renewed. Should such an expert fail to register and this is discovered by the authorities, said individual will be found guilty of a misdemeanor crime.
As to the end result of such a registration, in a nutshell the Department of Revenue and Taxation keeps a database of those registered and it further states in section 62106, "Any registered… who thereafter is charged with having used his art in a physical assault on some other person, shall upon conviction thereof, be deemed guilty of aggravated assault."
Interestingly, no part of this section of the law seems to give any guidelines about how long you have from entering Guam to register yourself. And it does seem to require you show up in person to register, so there will always be a period between entering Guam, or reaching "expert" status while living there, and when you actually register.
And if you're wondering, they define "expert" as "a person trained in the arts of karate, judo or other hand-to-hand fighting technique, whereby the hands, feet or other parts of the body are used as weapons, who shall have completed at least one level of training therein and shall have been issued a belt or other symbol showing proficiency in such art."
As a brief aside, we're just saying, but if Guam really wanted to make some nice side money for their Treasury, they'd allow this registration and issuance of such a certificate to be done via the internet and then raise the price considerably, as well as offer worldwide shipping on officially embossed and laminated registration cards. With some good word of mouth marketing, this would be an extremely popular gift to get martial arts students the world over who reach certain proficiency levels, whether they ever have any plans to visit Guam or not.
On that note, other than Guam, the only places where you can even try to register your deadly hands as such are in various fighting schools we could find who sell novelty certificates to students who reach a certain threshold in their training.
So that's the yes and no. What about the nuance?
While it is true that in most of the world you do not have to register your deadly hands, it turns out the fact that you do have that training is extremely likely to come up in any court case in which you used your skills in a fight, with potentially very serious consequences, as we'll illustrate later in the famous Con Air Cameron Poe fight, among some real world examples.
But before we get into that, this might all have you wondering how the myth that expert fighters do have to register their hands as deadly weapons became established and so prevalent. While nobody is sure who first got the bright idea, it is the case that professional fighters in the past have occasionally claimed they had to do this. Most notably, for a time it was all the rage for boxers. In these cases, the boxer might, for example, hold up their fists during a press conference and proclaim they had to register said extremities as deadly weapons upon arrival into town and come SUNDAY, SUNDAY, SUNDAY their opponent will find out just how valid that registration is.
Beyond publicity stunts spreading the myth, Taekwondo 7th Dan Grandmaster and former police officer Darwin J Eisenhart states that some among the particularly well trained actually find getting or making these novelty certificates very practical. It would seem a side effect of being a relatively high profile fighter is that random drunk or "tough guys" at bars like to challenge said fighters to fights, similar to what frequently happened to Abraham Lincoln once he gained the reputation as an expert fighter.
Such official-looking certificates help forestall these conflicts via the fighter flashing the certificate or card they made and explaining to the individual suffering from small penis syndrome that the fighter cannot engage in such a contest of manhood because it could result in said fighter getting charged with assault with a deadly weapon, regardless of the outcome of the fight.
As Eisenhart elaborates, "There was no legal standing for these claims, and no one was actually 'officially' registered or required to announce in advance that they had training, but most of them did this to avoid fights rather than state it as a brag or boast…"
Hollywood, of course, has done a great job further spreading the myth as well.
Now, all that said, it turns out that while the cards themselves weren't official, the reasoning these fighters were stating it wouldn't be a good idea for them to get into such a fight was completely valid.
You see, much like as you're not required to register a walking stick, car, steak knife, or a dog as a deadly weapon, all four can unequivocally be considered such by the courts in the right set of circumstances. Similarly, regardless of whether you're an expert fighter, pretty much every part of your body can be considered by the courts to be a deadly weapon in the right set of circumstances, depending on how you use said body part. For example, in the past, U.S. courts have found everything from knees to elbows to teeth to be deadly weapons in court cases.
A very important thing to note about all this is that, again, in many regions of the world, those who are highly trained in hand to hand combat will often have a much greater chance of having a court decide that the person's body parts are to be considered deadly weapons.
The result of this is that it's much easier for that person to be found guilty of a criminal or felony assault than a normal person who might be charged with a simple misdemeanor assault for the same set of actions and events.
On top of that, in some regions and sets of circumstances, it doesn't even matter if you were the one being attacked and simply were defending yourself, as we'll get into in a bit.
The distinction between these two legal classifications is rather important as, in the U.S. and many other regions, something like a misdemeanor assault might result in only a small fine to pay and/or a little bit of jail time, but not usually significant. In contrast, a Felony assault's minimums will probably see a fine of at least several thousands dollars and very likely also include lengthy incarceration, even up to life in prison if the assault resulted in a death.
Thus, in all of this, while technically outside of Guam the letter of the law doesn't distinguish between a random Jimmy Layabout and Bruce Lee, it turns out in criminal and civil proceedings this is most definitely going to be factored in.
As a real world example here, consider the words of Judge John Hurley who was ruling over a road-rage case that included an ex-marine and very skilled mixed martial artist by the name of Fernando Rodrigues. Judge Hurley states, "I've always thought that if you are a black belt in karate or you are an expert in martial arts, that your hands and feet would be considered weapons."
Perhaps it is no surprise from this that said judge ruled, "The court believes at this time that [Rodrigues'] hands and feet are considered, for probable cause, to be deadly weapons."
Similarly, many a jury member may hold the exact same opinion, ultimately biasing them somewhat against the professional fighter in a given assault case, especially as the opposing attorney will absolutely be shoving this fact down the jurors' throats.
For yet another real world case, we have an incident involving one Jamal Parks of Texas in 2013. Parks first got in a fight with one of his friends, resulting in the police being called. When police arrived to the scene, Parks beat the crap out of one of the officers as well. In this case, because Parks was a mixed martial arts fighter, the court went ahead and considered his hands to be deadly weapons and he was charged with Felony Aggravated Assault with a Deadly Weapon, rather than going with a lesser charge as would have likely been the case if he was just some Jimmy Crapface. District attorney Bill Vassar noted on this one, "It's pretty unusual, but in this instance — because he is an MMA fighter — we thought it was appropriate to charge his hands as deadly weapons."
Jumping across the pond to Merry Ol' England, we have a rather tragic assault against an 18 year old named Daniel Christie. Christie was walking with friends on New Years' when they encountered a scuffle where a rather large individual was attacking some much smaller teens, prompting Christie to apparently approach and yell at the man "Why are you hitting kids?"
Well, it turns out the group of teens had offered to sell drugs to the rather muscular man, Shaun McNeil, as well as apparently made some comments about McNeil's girlfriend which McNeil apparently wasn't too happy about. The slightly inebriated McNeil declined the offer for drugs, but after the comments about his lady, there was some sort of fight between them, with McNeil knocking one of the teens down.
When Christie and his group approached and Christie yelled his question at McNeil, McNeil subsequently misinterpreted Christie and his friends with being with the other teens and punched Daniel in the face, as well as punched Daniel's brother, Peter.
Unfortunately for McNeil and the Christie family, while you wouldn't normally expect a single blow to the face to cause serious long term damage, in this case when Christie hit the ground, said unyielding surface shattered part of his skull. The result was that, 11 days later, Daniel's family had to say their goodbyes and had the doctors turn off life support.
As to the court case, given McNeil was a highly trained fighter, it was decided to charge him with murder instead of manslaughter, despite it being very questionable that there was any murderous intent.
The court did, in the end, rule McNeil not-guilty of murder. But he wasn't off the hook. They instead convicted him of manslaughter. As to the ultimate ruling and sentencing, Justice Hulme cited McNeil's training in MMA and background in body building (thus his hands being more deadly than most), as well as McNeil's rather large size compared to Daniel's (thus Daniel could have not possibly posed any real threat to him). On top of that, witnesses claimed that once McNeil approached to punch, Daniel attempted to retreat the situation and put his hands up and said "no". This, again, demonstrated Daniel had posed no threat to McNeil, despite the somewhat inebriated McNeil allegedly interpreting the situation as him being surrounded by a unified group of drug dealing, potentially hostile teens.
Further going against him, McNeil had something of a history of getting into random, often alcohol induced, fights with his rather deadly hands and seemingly had not learned his lesson from previous more minor run-ins with the authorities over such. Thus, after explaining all his reasoning, for this single punch, Justice Hulme sentenced McNeil to a maximum of 10 years in prison, with the earliest possibility of parole after 7.
The point being in all of this- if one is an expert fighter and is considering attacking anyone, they are in many regions of the world going to be at a higher risk of having the courts level much more severe charges against them than Jimmy Couchpotato.
Now, of course, Jimmy Couchpotato still could potentially have similar charges leveled against him if the court deems he used extreme degrees of force, such as curb stomped someones' head into the ground or the like- even if that someone had been the one to initially attack. But should Mr. Couchpotato punch someone in the face once and accidentally kill a person with that single blow, they are more likely to face lesser charges than if Bruce Lee did the exact same thing.
So how can Mr. Lee (and indeed your average Joe) help ensure things go smoothly in court when it comes to self defense?
It's important to note that what constitutes acceptable self-defense is an incredibly nebulous concept with varying laws from region to region, including even varying from state to state in the United States. Beyond varying laws, determining culpability can be extremely difficult, especially when factoring in both civil and criminal courts and often conflicting first hand accounts of what happened and exactly when and how.
That caveat out of the way, while rules differ, there are a handful of things you can do to help yourself out in the general case. First, if evidence shows that you attempted to de-escalate the situation in words or actions, that's a point in your favor. Further, if it can be shown that you attempted to exit the situation, that's another point. In fact, there are actually some regions where you are required, if at all possible, to attempt to retreat before defending yourself. (Note even in these regions, if you're in your home, you usually are not required to attempt to exit the situation. Though, contrary to popular belief, in most regions this still doesn't give you carte blanche to use whatever force you please to the person who entered your home without your consent. Proportional force to the perceived threat still applies.)
Just another quick note here as well, also contrary to popular belief, in most regions, you are not required to wait for the attacker to throw the first blow. If the attack is very clearly imminent, such as someone running at you and yelling they are going to put a dent in your face, you can strike first and have that be considered self defense. It's simply that, once again, in many cases it can potentially be another point in your favor if the other person is the one that attempts the first blow.
So you've done all that, and the fight starts anyway. What now? Most laws concerning this sort of thing in many parts of the world usually say something like that the person defending themselves is free to use up to the minimum force required to protect themselves from harm.
As you can imagine, what constitutes "minimum force required" can vary considerably from case to case. You can also see from this why an expert fighter might be much more prone to getting into trouble while defending themselves. They are much better at inflicting an awful lot of damage with a single blow compared to most, and, on top of that, have much more experience than most at knowing what kind of damage they will do with a given blow- thus more likely that a judge or jury might deem that inflicting that excessive damage was intentional.
So, for example, if Jimmy Crapface comes at Bruce Lee with his fists, and Lee responds by a quick and decisive kick to the head which then breaks Jimmy's skull, killing him, there's a non-zero chance the prosecutor might level some rather serious charges against Lee and leave it up to a judge or jury to sort the matter out. After all, while Jimmy was the attacker- and being Jimmy absolutely deserved death- he only brought fists and being a Grade A asshole to the fight. In contrast, Bruce Lee knowingly brought a deadly weapon- his foot, and then used it in a way that he was expert enough to know could cause deadly damage. Thus, Lee could be deemed to have, essentially, brought a gun to a fist fight, and then used it.
Further, even if the criminal court ultimately decided to let Mr. Lee off (because Lee did the world a favor by offing Jimmy), should Jimmy's family choose to sue Lee over the death, there's yet another round of proceedings to contend with where the ruling very much might go against Lee. (That said, on the civil case side of things, this is region dependent as, for example, 22 states in the U.S. have rules against an attacker suing for subsequent injuries, even if excessive force was ultimately used by the defender.)
Of course, if you feel your life is in danger for some reason, such as if the attacker is coming at you with a knife, you are free to use deadly force to a point. As to the limits, let's say the attacker comes at you, tries to stab you, and you then deflect the blow. In so doing, you cause the attacker to drop their knife. After the knife is dropped, you then use a severe blow that has the possibility of causing deadly damage. Unfortunately for you, given that the attacker no longer offers a deadly threat to you, having just dropped the knife, you once again are in danger of the court ruling that you used excessive force and, given you are an expert fighter, more likely they'll also rule that your hands be deemed deadly weapons.
Of course, in all of this, a variety of factors are also considered including, among many other things, your size relative to your opponent (such as was brought up in the aforementioned Daniel Christie case), whether there are multiple attackers, whether it was likely that the attacker might recover the knife and try to use it against you, if the attacker seemed to be on some sort of drugs that might require deadly force to get them to stop, even if they are unarmed themselves, etc. etc. And, of course, what the exact sequence of events were in the fight is going to be closely looked at, though is a rather difficult thing to accurately determine in many cases, further muddying the waters.
So let's now look at the Con Air fight which illustrates many of these points. In it, at no point did Cameron Poe try to de-escalate the situation with words, nor try to exit the approaching fight. In fact, when the attackers first started to approach from a distance, Poe was standing right next to his open car door with no imminent threat present. Thus, he could have simply got in and drove away, as his wife was begging him to do. Instead, he stepped away from the car towards the attackers, actually purposefully escalating the situation. The group of "hounddogs" then attacked and Poe defended himself against all of them but one in a perfectly reasonable way that would have caused him no issue in court.
But, of course, there was the matter of the person he killed. Unfortunately for him, there were no witnesses other than the combatants to that part of the fight. It was simply his word against the remaining attackers that the one he killed tried to use a knife against him. With no physical evidence that the attacker posed a deadly threat, as the knife was taken (and presumably the other attackers claiming no such knife existed), it is not out of the question for the court to rule both that Poe used excessive force to defend himself, and that he intentionally brought and used a deadly weapon to a fight where the attackers only brought fists.
Granted, there were multiple attackers and one Cameron Poe, so it might have been possible for Poe's lawyer to try to argue that even without evidence of a knife, Poe feared for his life given he was surrounded- as ever nothing is black and white. However, given Poe more or less willingly entered the fight, arguing that he was afraid for his life is a bit of a stretch. Further, at the point he killed the attacker, he had already incapacitated everyone else. So it was just one on one. So that argument probably wouldn't have gone far.
Thus, given all the pertinent facts that the court was aware of (including, again, no evidence of a knife outside of Poe saying there was), the ultimate ruling was perfectly reasonable given the letter of the law. Just because someone attacks you doesn't give you the right to intentionally use deadly force against them, and the court is especially not going to be on your side if they know you had a chance to leave the situation and, rather than doing that, actually willingly entered it.
Granted, what the Judge said in his ruling about Poe not being subject to the same laws as a normal person was all a bunch of crap, and his lawyer seemingly screwed him over to boot, but the ultimate ruling even if he hadn't plead guilty wasn't unrealistic.
At least one thing Poe did have in his favor was that Alabama law does not allow attackers to sue for damages should the one they are attacking inflict such. So while he was convicted in the criminal court, he at least wouldn't have faced any civil suits later.
But to sum up, while outside of Guam nobody is actually registering their hands as deadly weapons, should you actually be highly trained in hand to hand combat, you still want to approach any fight as if the courts will consider your body parts deadly weapons, whether you are attacking or are the one being attacked.
If being attacked- attempt to de-escalate the situation with words and/or leave. If that fails, then use the absolute minimum force possible to end the fight, and then resist the urge to do anything else after your opponent is incapacitated. Even a single blow after they are no longer a threat to you could be awfully expensive for you in a civil court proceeding, and may have very serious criminal ramifications on top of it.
The plus side of all of this is that, while you the expert fighter might not be able to use "my hands are registered as deadly weapons" as a pick up line for the ladies, you could technically rephrase it a bit for the same effect- "Parts of my body are more likely to be considered a deadly weapon in court given the right set of circumstances, varying based on region and exactly what I do with them in the fight. And baby, I know what to do with my body parts."
And when that doesn't work. Well, move to Guam. No doubt the ladies will throw themselves at you when you have the official certificate.