Anyone even tangentially interested in guns, gun control and self-defense has likely heard much fevered discussion and clutching of pearls over the “Stand Your Ground Law” that seems to be sweeping the nation.
Gun advocates cheer for it, and cite it as the chief defense of citizens’ use of force in response to an attack. Detractors label them “shoot first laws” and a hearkening back to the dim and brutal days of the taming of the West, when the muddy thoroughfares were bogged with the blood of cowboys, lawmen and bandits.
As I have written of before, matters of lethal force are no time for educated guesses and wild-hair theories. Failing to meet the strict law of the land will result in terrible consequences. As I have preached again and again, knowledge of the law, and incorporating it into your defense training and decision making processes is essential for success as an armed citizen.
Lots of opinion. Lots of talk. But what is the Stand Your Ground law, really? How does it codify a person’s right to defend themselves, and to what extent? What are the limitations and drawbacks, if any, of such laws? Any good armed citizen wants the answers to those questions and more, so in the following paragraphs we’ll be examining the concept of Stand Your Ground in great detail.
What is the Stand Your Ground Law Exactly?
Let’s get this spoiler out of the way: there is no Stand Your Ground Law. At least, not a sweeping, boilerplate piece of legislation that is being adopted wholesale, state by state, to the chagrin of anti-gunners and the celebration of Pro-2A types. No, Stand Your Ground, or SYG, is really a concept for a bunch of legislation, law and sometimes procedural legal opinion that is often very similar in effect from one jurisdiction to another.
There is no federal SYG law, and in many states the so-called Stand Your Ground laws aren’t even called as such. But in other states, they may contain specifically that language or reference. Understand that when you see SYG, it is simply shorthand for describing a given state’s laws that adhere to the concept.
That concept is this: a person has a right to defend themselves against an attack with no legal duty to retreat so long as they are in a place that they have a legal and lawful right to be. Pretty simple, yes? It is somewhat more complicated in practice, but largely not too much more.
The long version of the concept would be that a person who is in place they legally have a right to be, and is not engaged in any illegal activity, has the right to use deadly force in defense when they are attacked in such a way that they may suffer death or great bodily injury and furthermore they have no legal obligation to attempt to retreat.
Whew. If it sounds like legalese, you are right, but the devil as always is in the details. Nuance is critical for full understanding of the laws, but we will get to those a little later, and anyway each variation in the wording of the legislation among states that pass such laws can make a big difference, so we’ll get into examples a little later on.
SYG laws have much in common with Castle Doctrine law, which states that a person defending their home or occupied dwelling (and often vehicle or conveyance) has no obligation to attempt retreat against a home invader so long as a risk of death or great bodily injury is present, and further is (typically) immune to liability resulting from such an event. In essence, you may consider SYG laws Castle Doctrine for the public sphere: anywhere you may legally go, so long as you are not breaking any laws while there, you have the right to use deadly force in defense with no legal duty to retreat.
Why All the Fuss Over “Duty to Retreat?”
Lots of fussing, and for good reason. SYG self-defense laws started to codify and get adopted in various states around 2005-2006. Prior to that, most states by letter or in practice followed more closely to the Common Law tenets of self-defense.
Common Law interpretation of self-defense revolved around the concept of “reasonable force” in defense. In short, reasonable force places more of the onus on use of lethal force as an absolute last resort, and even then only after the intended (and soon to be actual) victim has retreated or attempted to retreat to a place of safety.
Sound eminently reasonable, and many of my readers have indeed read my writings proffering my opinion that you should retreat or avoid a threat if at all possible. If at all possible. That’s the difference. The issue with a state-mandated legal duty to retreat is that a good guy or good gal may be forced to attempt to retreat out of fight that has already begun.
To the uninitiated and those who know little about personal violence, this of course makes eminent sense: Get away! The problem is that it is very nearly impossible to withdraw from a pitched fight once engaged without exorbitant risk of injury. Any hobby historian of conflict will confirm that, in any battle once begun, the side that attempts to break and flee usually sustains some serious licks.
That brings us back around to the quandary: any good guy or good gal will of course attempt to follow the law, if not from a sense of moral obligation than from a serious desire to avoid persecution. It has been seen time and time again that citizens who attempt to back out of fight with an attacker who has already closed with them and is intending them harm is often gravely wounded or killed. The defender must do something to catalyze the attacker and stop or diminish the assault before escape can be safely made!
Note here and now that a legal obligation to retreat is still the law of the land in some states and localities. Not nearly as many, thanks to the widespread adoption of SYG laws, but it is still law in some places. Also note that, ethically and practically, if escape is possible, safely, it is always the best solution to your problem as a civilian.
The acme of conflict is to avoid a fight. But the entire purpose of SYG and similar laws is to not unduly burden a potential victim with the onerous legal obligation to retreat from a situation that they practically cannot withdraw from without further endangering themselves. Without SYG laws, a citizen is often placed in classic dilemma: faced with an attacker, the citizen can either use force and risk serious criminal prosecution, or attempt to escape and risk serious injury or death.
When you examine any states’ SYG laws, you’ll see a repeated emphasis on “… legal right to be,” and “… not engaged in any unlawful activity.” Those are core concepts for a couple of reasons.
First, this prevents scumbags from rigging the game and claiming SYG as a defense and cover over the acts that SYG laws explicitly intend to protect citizens against. It sounds crazy, but you know lawyers.
“Mr. Scumbag, why did you shoot the alleged victim Mr. Public outside the mall last week?”
“It was self-defense, sir.”
“How so, Mr. Scumbag?”
“Well, sir, I set out to mug Mr. Public, but I meant him no harm. He clearly objected to my mugging him, and pulled a gun on me. I was afraid for my life, and so I shot him first. Self-defense.”
I know that sounds Looney Tunes bonkers-nuts, but without that specification it could and probably has been used as a defense by a criminal (or at least tried). The other side of that coin though is that a citizen will have no cover for action if you are doing anything illegal at the time you are forced to use deadly force to protect yourself.
For instance, let’s say you are trespassing when you are genuinely attacked by a bad guy. You weren’t up to no good, just on a piece of land that wasn’t yours and you really should not have been on. Otherwise your shoot is as clean as it gets. Not so fast, SYG may not apply since your were trespassing.
Or how about this: your home state has legislation on the books that make “no guns allowed” signs have force of law. Your local coffee haunt has such a sign clearly posted. You ignore it, as you do, and carry your otherwise legal gun in for your morning croissant and coffee. Lo and behold, a robber! You decide to intervene on behalf of your baristas and shoot the baddie.
Bummer: your otherwise clean shoot is now tarnished because you were illegally carrying, meaning you have no Stand Your Ground law protecting you, and ergo may very well have had a duty to retreat instead. Rut ro. Now you will reap the whirlwind.
Basically, contrary to the opinion of detractors and professional scolds, SYG laws do not authorize you to shoot a bad guy or perceived bad guy on a whim. In fact, all other tenets of self-defense law and legal precedent apply. If you should shoot an attacker who, it was later determined, was not presenting a lethal threat, you will not be able to claim Stand Your Ground as any kind of defense. Another bad end.
Stand Your Ground Laws State to State
Presently in 2018, the majority of states in the U.S.A. have SYG laws in one form or another, or effectively apply SYG from legal precedent. A couple odd-balls have SYG apply within one’s vehicle only, while the rest have wither Castle Doctrine only or straight-across duty to retreat, even from one’s home, because they are pinko commies who love poor, persecuted criminal origin stories.
Of most importance: It is crucial that you read, understand and correctly interpret each and every state’s own unique laws that pertain to SYG (or the lack thereof) that you will be in. Ignorance is no excuse. You are solely responsible for your decision to use force of any kind, and especially in instances where lethal force is used, your every thought, decision and action will be dissected with excruciating exactness. You must know the law!
States that have legislatively codified and adopted Stand Your Ground-type laws include:
• Florida (ever leading the way on the 2nd Amendment and citizens’ rights of defense)
• New Hampshire
• North Carolina
• South Carolina
• South Dakota
• West Virginia
States that effectively practice Stand Your Ground but do not have explicit laws codifying such on the books include:
• California (Surprise!)
• Illinois (Double Surprise!)
• New Mexico
Precedent, case law, and jury instruction is all fine and good, but do not forget that you are one bad turn away from being a new precedent, and not a good one, in such places should the political winds blow against you.
The weirdo states I mentioned earlier that have SYG laws covering you in your vehicle or conveyance are:
• North Dakota (Bit of a disappointment)
So you have no obligation to bail out of your vehicle during a carjacking, for instance, but would have to retreat from a mugger if confronted outside a Burger King.
States that have legislatively adopted Castle Doctrine are:
• New York
• New Jersey
• Rhode Island
You will have an obligation to retreat from a public space, legally, in these places, but not from inside your home or occupied dwelling.
The communist prefectures of Vermont and the swarming hive of viciousness and slander known as Washington D.C. require you to flee from an attacker no matter what: in your car, in your home, or even in your own home.
I don’t recommend you go to either of those places. If all of this sounds like a lot to take in, it is, but learn it you must if you hope to navigate the minefield of laws and regulation.
Stand Your Ground laws are a major boon for the armed citizen in any state that they are adopted in. Far from the Wild West enabling legislation they are painted to be, they simply place the defender in their rightful place as victim from the onset when an attack occurs.
Even so, each and every state in our great union is a little different when it comes to SYG laws, and you must be fluent in all of them that you live, work and play in.
Charles Yor is an advocate of low-profile preparation, readiness as a virtue and avoiding trouble before it starts. He has enjoyed a long career in personal security implementation throughout the lower 48 of the United States.