“Stand Your Ground” Laws
Laws in more than 25 states allow a person defending himself or his property to use deadly force against an intruder or attacker. Called “stand your ground” laws, these have been used successfully to excuse a defendant from prosecution, even in cases where the intrusion or aspect of self-defense was doubtful.
The law was tested in the 2011 U.S. Supreme Court Case from Oklahoma, Dawkins v. State, which clarified that the defendant may not be involved in illegal activity at the time of self-defense.
State laws vary in their application of stand your ground, including some that require a defendant to exit the situation (retreat from confrontation) if at all possible. The following states have stand your ground laws: Alabama, Alaska, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, West Virginia, and Wyoming. States that limit their laws to castle doctrine only (one must be in a home) include Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nebraska, New York, New Jersey, and Rhode Island.
Florida’s version of stand your ground is often cited as the most liberal, allowing a person the right to expect absolute safety in any place they have the lawful right to be. In Florida, the “victim” doesn’t have to be engaged in unlawful activity but may be threatening the shooter in some way (even if that threat only exists in the shooter’s mind). The National Rifle Association is credited with writing much of Florida’s law, not unexpected in a state with a “shall issue” gun permit regulation that allows nearly anyone to carry a weapon.
Along with studies examining the effect of the law on each state’s homicide rate, racial bias appears to be at play: there is evidence that the law is applied most often when the gunman is white and the perpetrator is a minority.
A study by the American Bar Association shows that most states have dispensed with the “duty to retreat” in favor of broad interpretations of self-defense gun laws such as stand your ground.
Test Cases of Stand Your Ground Law
The 2012 shooting of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin was a significant test of this law that received national attention. Martin was walking through a gated community where he was visiting his father’s fiancee when he was approached by George Zimmerman, who was the Neighborhood Watch captain. Zimmerman had called the police proactively, reporting Martin’s presence before approaching the teen. He claimed Martin attacked him, allowing him to use the stand your ground defense because he believed his life was in danger from the 5’11” 158 lb. teen although he was the one who pursued Martin.
Police sometimes say they cannot arrest a person who may use the “stand your ground” defense. That may differ from one state to another. In Florida, the law does allow a person to use lethal force in self-defense even when there are opportunities to retreat. In 2018 when a man initiated a parking lot fight then shot the man he attacked, police initially believed they didn’t have the power to arrest the shooter. However, state prosecutors determined that there was sufficient proof that the man did not act in self-defense and charged him with manslaughter.
Studies of the crime rates in states that have enacted stand your ground laws have shown varying results: one study said that the laws contribute up to 600 additional homicides a year, another said that non-residential burglaries increased as a result; a Journal of the American Medical Association report said that the rate of homicides by gunshot went up more than 30 percent following Florida’s adoption of the law.
The Castle Doctrine defense
Based on the “Castle Doctrine,” stand your ground laws began showing up in the late 1980s when violent crime was nearing an all-time high in the United States. In 1991, overall crime peaked at 5,856 per 100,000, with violent crime peaking at 716 per 100,000. The violent crime rate is now about half of that, around 366 per 100,000. The overall crime rate has fallen precipitously in the past 25 years and currently sits at about 2,857 per 100,000. In the same period, the murder rate fell by 50 percent.
Castle Doctrines are legal principles, not laws in themselves. The principle here is that a person whose home (or castle) is intruded upon has the right to defend it against those reasonably assumed to be committing a felony by entering the home illegally. The presence of fear is sufficient to invoke the Castle Doctrine in self-defense, a concern for one’s own life or the lives of others in the home.
Outside of the home or abode, the Castle Doctrine does not apply, and an individual generally has the obligation to avoid a violent confrontation when possible. However, this is where “stand your ground” laws come into play, allowing an individual the right to self-defense in a vehicle or any other location where he is legally allowed to be.