Know When to Stand Your Ground and When You Have a Duty to Retreat (Part I – Stand Your Ground)

Cases of self-defense are not always simple. In some jurisdictions, you are allowed to stand your ground when exercising self-defense. In other jurisdictions, you have a duty to retreat first if you can do so safely. In this series, we are going to examine your rights and obligations in each jurisdiction. First, let’s examine your rights in jurisdictions that allow you to stand your ground.

For centuries, individuals have had the right to be safe and secure in their homes and to fight back against intruders who threaten harm to them or their families without retreating. Now, states have enacted laws that permit individuals to fight back using deadly force without a requirement to run. These laws are known as stand your ground laws.

What is a Stand Your Groud Law?

Generally, stand your ground laws allow people to defend themselves by responding to threats without fear of prosecution. In other words, someone facing an imminent threat is allowed to use force in self-defense right away without first trying to run away or escape.

The Development of Stand Your Ground Laws

Stand your ground laws developed out of the body of laws related to self-defense. Under traditional self-defense law, a person can use force to defend himself anywhere, but when he is outside his home he cannot use force likely to kill or seriously injure someone if there is a safe way to avoid it.

There is a centuries-old exception to the traditional rule called the “Castle Doctrine.” The Castle Doctrine allows a person who is in his home to defend himself with force likely to kill or seriously injure someone even if he could have safely walked away. The doctrine is based in the notion that a man’s home is his castle. It generally permits a person to use deadly force against someone who has entered his home without permission and who poses an imminent threat of serious injury. The Castle Doctrine does not require a person to retreat or even consider whether retreat was possible. The stand your ground laws extend the Castle Doctrine to confrontations that occur outside of a person’s home.

The first stand your ground legislation was passed in Florida in 2005. The NRA helped to draft the legislation, and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) adopted a model law based upon the Florida legislation.

After Florida passed its stand your ground law, several other states followed suit. Currently, 25 states have enacted stand your ground laws. Those states are:

1. Alabama
2. Alaska
3. Arizona
4. Florida
5. Georgia
6. Idaho
7. Indiana
8. Kansas
9. Kentucky
10. Louisiana
11. Michigan
12. Mississippi
13. Missouri
14. Montana
15. Nevada
16. New Hampshire
17. North Carolina
18. Oklahoma
19. Pennsylvania
20. South Carolina
21. South Dakota
22. Tennessee
23. Texas
24. Utah
25. West Virginia.

*Legislation and laws are constantly changing and all readers should check their own state laws. This list may or may not be accurate at the date and time it’s being read.

Stand your ground laws are controversial

Supporters of stand your ground laws argue that these laws keep law-abiding citizens safe. They also see duty-to-retreat policies as detrimental to victims, placing the burden of protection on them and unfairly making them liable for the outcome of altercations they did not initiate. They believe it is important for people to be able to defend themselves anyplace they have a legal right to be.

Former Illinois Representative Richard Morthland during an interview. (photo/Facebook)

Former Illinois Representative Richard Morthland stated, “[S]tates are turning to these measures to uphold the principles that our laws must protect the innocent over the criminal, the peace-loving over the violent, and the law-keeper over the law-breaker. In a situation where a citizen is under attack, it cannot be incumbent upon the individual to take extraordinary measures to avoid conflict that he or she did not initiate.”

And as former Florida Governor Jeb Bush stated at one National Rifle Association meeting, “You shouldn’t have to choose between being attacked and going to jail.”

Critics of the stand your ground laws believe that the laws encourage violence and allow for racial bias. They believe such policies encourage vigilantism and give malcontents legal protection to escalate altercations until they perceive bodily harm. They further argue that even those acting in good faith may lack the training or understanding to properly assess a situation. They believe that racial stereotypes can cause people to misinterpret innocent behavior as something threatening or violent and stand your ground laws justify that violence. Critics equate stand your ground as a license to kill.

There are also competing arguments on the effectiveness of stand your ground laws on reducing violent crime. Proponents argue that violent crime is significantly decreased by SYG laws. Opponents argue the opposite. Several studies have been done on the subject and there is data from studies to support both positions.

The tensions between competing views have been played out in several high-profile court cases. One such case involved the death of a 17-year-old named Trayvon Martin who was shot and killed by George Zimmerman in Sanford, Florida on February 19, 2012.

On that night, Trayvon, who was black, was walking back to the home of his father’s girlfriend where he was visiting with his father. He had stepped out to walk to the nearby 7-Eleven to buy some Skittles and iced tea. As he was walking through the gated community at dusk back to where he was staying, he aroused the suspicion of George Zimmerman, the lead neighborhood watchman. Zimmerman contacted the police indicating that Trayvon looked like he was up to no good. The police advised Zimmerman to stand down, but he chose to confront Trayvon anyways.

There were no direct witnesses to what happened next. There are 911 recordings in which you can hear people calling for help in addition to other conflicting second-hand accounts. In the end, all that is known for certain is that Zimmerman confronted Trayvon. An argument ensued and by the time the police arrived, Trayvon was dead. Zimmerman claimed that he had shot Trayvon in self-defense.

Zimmerman was charged with 2nd Degree Murder. At trial, the jury in Zimmerman’s case found him not guilty by reason of self-defense. This sparked a major debate over Florida’s stand your ground law.

Things to remember when you stand your ground.

It is important to remember the following if you are in a self-defense situation and choose to stand your ground:

• The laws in the 25 states that allow you to stand your ground are all slightly different. It is recommended that you consult with an attorney in your jurisdiction to make sure you understand the applicable law and the requirements and limits for standing your ground.

• Stand your ground laws do not change the law on when you are allowed to use deadly force. Stand your ground only gives you the right to defend yourself without first retreating. Generally, it is only when an aggressor uses or attempts to use deadly force that you have a right to respond with deadly force.

• Stand your ground does not prevent arrest or prosecution. Even if it is ultimately determined that you properly acted in self-defense, you may be arrested, jailed and charged with a crime if you choose to stand your ground and use deadly force.

Ultimately, stand your ground laws expand a person’s right to defend himself from harm. There is a strong disagreement as to whether the laws increase or decrease violent crime. It is likely that the debate on the issue will continue for the foreseeable future as more states embrace stand your ground legislation.

In Part II, we will examine jurisdictions in which a person has a duty to retreat before exercising a right to self-defense along with the right of self-defense in general.

About the author: John Thomas is a U.S. Navy veteran, and a former prosecutor and defense attorney with over 20 years of experience in state and federal courts. He has handled everything from traffic tickets to first-degree murder cases and is a long-time supporter of Second Amendment rights and the rights of individuals to defend themselves, their families and their property.

{ 20 comments… add one }
  • Roger Finzel July 28, 2020, 12:38 pm

    New Mexico had a law that you could stand your ground for years before 2005. ( one of only 4 western states with this right). You fail to include it in your lists.

  • RSC July 27, 2020, 9:41 am

    Without dwelling too much on the GZ case (it’s been covered amply in other comments), SYG was not invoked in this case. It was NEVER ABOUT SYG (while the press and anti-gunners made it so).

    There’s some (obvious) “misunderstandings” of a SYG (as least as it applies in Floriduh), sInce we were the first (why, oh why)…

    SYG arose out of an issue regarding “castle doctrine” here in Florida. “Castle Doctrine” being a common-law principal going back to English Common Law.

    The issue was – that leftie prosecutors were charging homeowners in cases of LAWFUL SELF DEFENSE IN THE HOME – and causing a lot of pain, suffering and EXPENSE for the citizens who were exercising deadly force in an OBVIOUS CASE of it’s lawful use.

    The problem was – “Castle Doctrine” was not actually ENSHRINED IN FLORIDA STATUTE – so while it was “assumed to be” a legal principal, there was no ACTUAL LAW that made that determination one way or another.

    SYG was created to remedy this, and WENT ONE STEP FURTHER BY REMOVING THE DUTY TO RETREAT OUTSIDE THE HOME.

    Honestly – I thought it was a little bit of an OVERSTEP personally. Florida having 2 million permits (probably more at this point), and a large number of them held by WHOLLY UNTRAINED PEOPLE (and believe me, I’ve TRAINED A NUMBER OF THEM). And the issue I had (and still do to an extent), is less around the removal of the “duty to retreat”, and more around a “largely untrained population” having to make the decision when to shoot, or WHEN THEY DON’T HAVE TO (which is just as important as making the decision TO SHOOT).

    As a WELL TRAINED DAILY CARRIER (for 30 years now – and I mean, I don’t walk out my door unarmed), I have had 3 instances where I was compelled to draw. The old adage: “Don’t draw unless you intend to shoot” certainly applies. But there is a INTELLECTUAL/MORAL COMPONENT in the decision NOT TO. It’s called: MINDSET. And most gun owners LACK IT.

    In all three instances – the presence of the weapon and my obvious willingness to use it – deescalated the situation. In two of the instances – I STILL HAD THE LEGAL JUSTIFICATION TO SHOOT – and OPTED NOT TO. It wasn’t a LEGAL DECISION – it was a MORAL ONE. Not that folks lack MORALS – but like the MINDSET to be able to make that decision in a critical defense situation.

    But I digress….

    At any rate. SYG (in Florida at least) is not a DEFENSE AT TRIAL, it is a PRE-TRIAL DEFENSE (hearing). Most of the time (when used) it occurs EVEN BEFORE THE ARRAIGNMENT (if your attorney is familiar with it), or at least well before any trail. It is a SEPARATE PROCEEDING. And if you are found to have properly used lawful self defense – charges are DROPPED.

    SYG also give the LEO more “latitude” in whether or not to CHARGE IMMEDIATELY AND ARREST – if the shooter asserts “self defense”. This allows for further investigation into the shooting, before actually charging the shooter. This isn’t solely for a SYG assertion – but for ANY SELF DEFENSE use of deadly force that is claimed (again, SYG DEFENSE itself, is a pre-trail procedure).

    There was also some additional legislation that was passed at the same time – which I found to be a hoot.

    There were many instances, where in lawful self defense – the person that got shot in the commission of the criminal act (assault, home invasion, robbery, etc.), was filing CIVIL SUIT for their injuries (or wrongful death suits). So if you shot Joe Blow in your house, and crippled him – he would SUE YOU for crippling him (even though he was arrested and charged for the crime that forced you to shoot him).

    The legislation BARRED CIVIL SUIT against the shooter, if it was in the exercise of LAWFUL SELF DEFENSE. It would be DISMISSED WITH PREJUDICE. It also went a step further (and this is the part I found really cool): if the offender attempted to sue you, and then was CONVICTED OF THE CRIME that forced you to shoot – they LOSE ALL THEIR PRIVILEGES IN PRISON (commissary, visitation, etc.). Not sure whether or not that particular sanction as overturned – but I found it particularly funny. But not as funny as someone who was committing a crime against someone, that got hurt in the commission of the crime, turning around and SUING.

    On another note: the anti gunners LOST THEIR MINDS when SYG was passed. Taking out advertising to discourage tourism (because you might get shot), etc. Statistically – self defense shootings remained pretty level. Most SYG pre-trail defenses (if it even gets that far), find in favor of the citizen exercising lawful self defense (and I know a few attorneys that have successfully gotten SYG dismissals). There is NO STATISTICAL EVIDENCE to prove that the implementation of SYG legislation INCREASED the number of unjustified shootings (despite the number of untrained yahoos that shouldn’t really be walking around with a gun). Having a gun on hand, give a “sense of security” (false or otherwise).

  • AmericanIcon July 20, 2020, 2:56 pm

    Using the Martin case in a discussion of ‘stand your ground’ laws betrays a total ignorance of both the facts of the case and what those laws mean. Even if this was a state with an idiotic ‘duty to retreat’ law, how the hell was Zimmerman supposed to ‘retreat’ when he was flat on his back being pummeled?

    If you’re going to present a ‘factual’ explanation of a law, try using facts, not propaganda – and definitely a biased scribbler.

    • james knotts July 21, 2020, 4:38 pm

      Point is, that untrained police wannabe (he was turned down when he applied to the dept), shouldn’t have been out playing cop. He was told to not persist, but he still followed an innocent citizen, and whatever confrontation occurred, was as a direct result of his actions.

      Untrained yahoos acting like Zimmerman did are the crux of one of the pivotal arguments the left uses. “People should not carry guns because most are not trained in either their use, or when they should be employed”. And every time someone tried to support idiots like Zimmerman, the Left turns to everyone in the middle (who we NEED to keep our 2nd Amendment Rights) and says “See! They’re just a bunch of violent morons who will excuse anything and you can’t reason with them!” God know it’s hard enough to have anyone listen to you seriously (no matter how solid you facts) since Trump took office with all his “Fake News!”, and lies.

      • Al Friend July 27, 2020, 7:13 am

        Untrained yahoos? Is that a technical term. I see your comment as hurting your own case. If you stand by your comment, you shouldn’t even be able to own a firearm as you could be considered as an “untrained yahoo” by someone vastly superior to yourself. Every situation should be reviewed on its own merits and not your short sighted quick review of the blurbs you’ve read and heard on TV.

  • Ti July 20, 2020, 2:38 pm

    Great discussion on this one! I’m on the Zimmerman side of this incident.

    This particular author happens to be a very prolific commenter himself on GA articles. You can see the COLOR of his law vision all day long in the commentary section from days gone by.

    • David Beall July 20, 2020, 7:33 pm

      George Zimmerman NEVER INVOKED “Stand Your Ground” in his defense.

      Also, he did not “Choose to confront Trayvon Martin.” He was on his way back to his truck when Martin jumped him after backtracking multiple blocks to confront ZIMMERMAN. Get your facts straight. This was proven in court!

  • Long Wheelbase July 20, 2020, 12:47 pm

    Mr. Douglass is correct, your article is lacking in important ways. “Hard” vs “Soft” SYG for example. The Zimmerman portion is completely wrong, as noted. The whole article is very fuzzy. Please do as he suggests, and look-up Andrew Branca at Lawofselfdefense.com. Legal Insurrection also has his coverage of the Zimmerman trial. Buy and read his book, or better yet, take his live online class this Saturday. I am not affiliated in any way, BTW.

  • Pseudo July 20, 2020, 11:30 am

    Question? Who is this person? Is there a book?

    “Also, the best lawyer in the USA on Use-of-Force Law has published everything you need to learn this subject for a bargain price, the best in the industry. I suggest you avail yourself of this education.”

  • bill cattell July 20, 2020, 11:07 am

    looks like this writer should find something he is capable of doing correctly.

  • Matt July 20, 2020, 10:42 am

    Garbage article for to completely incorrect info about the trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case.

  • Louis July 20, 2020, 9:28 am

    Zimmerman’s lawyer never technically invoked the stand your ground defense.

  • FAL Phil July 20, 2020, 8:06 am

    “Critics of the stand your ground laws believe that the laws encourage violence and allow for racial bias. They believe such policies encourage vigilantism and give malcontents legal protection to escalate altercations until they perceive bodily harm. They further argue that even those acting in good faith may lack the training or understanding to properly assess a situation. They believe that racial stereotypes can cause people to misinterpret innocent behavior as something threatening or violent and stand your ground laws justify that violence. Critics equate stand your ground as a license to kill.”

    This is called projection. Since most opponents of stand-your-ground laws are SJWs, this is how they perceive they themselves would act. It’s the third law of SJW: SJWs always project.

  • Mike sieverding July 20, 2020, 7:32 am

    Iowa also has stand your ground aspects to it laws since 2017. If you have legal rights to be in a public place you dont have to retreat. 704 code sections I believe.

  • David P Douglass July 20, 2020, 7:21 am

    Your Zimmerman-Martin account is completely incorrect. You’re understanding is the one which was debunked after the complete audio of the phone call by Zimmerman was published. The one NBC edited to frame Zimmerman is the one your account is based on.

    First, the police in fact did ask Zimmerman to follow Martin, in order to observe, which he did. Police wanted to know which way Martin went, to which Zimmerman volunteered to attempt to find out.

    And the most egregious error of your article John Thomas, was that, “In the end, all that is known for certain is that Zimmerman confronted Trayvon. An argument ensued and by the time the police arrived, Trayvon was dead”, which is completely backwards from what happened.

    Fact: Zimmerman was following police requests to witness but not engage the suspect. And as Zimmerman lost sight of Martin, he walked through the area and was ambushed by a waiting Martin who was much larger and had the element of surprise, knocking the much smaller Zimmerman to the ground and began “Ground and Pound, MMA Style” assault to create serious bodily injury.

    When the prosecutor attempted to surprise Zimmerman at trial with a deceptive lie that there was a video of the attack, Zimmerman responded with great relief, “Thank God….” because he knew he was 100% innocent of the altercation.

    To learn the complete facts on the case, might I suggest that you visit Andrew Branca’s website, Thelawof selfdefense.com Everything you need to learn the truth on this case is available there.

    Also, the best lawyer in the USA on Use-of-Force Law has published everything you need to learn this subject for a bargain price, the best in the industry. I suggest you avail yourself of this education.

    • George Hart July 20, 2020, 8:40 am

      David Douglas is 100% correct… Spot on 👍debunking the slanted bias author Thomas portrays. Thomas should have spent time reviewing the court case, documents, & audio testimony, not media hype. Would have been time well spent. Thomas shows a lack of responsibility to the truth & seriously degrades his value to the readers!

    • Tj July 20, 2020, 9:46 am

      I agree with David Douglas your account is extremely wrong and your feeding the anti-gun narrative with this article.
      As a volunteer LEO I have seen the original reports and medical report and your conclusion is way off.

      TJ

    • Ethan Sackett July 21, 2020, 2:01 pm

      You sir have stated it correctly! Martin was hiding in the bushes and did infact ambush Zimmerman.

  • Arthur Pence July 20, 2020, 7:01 am

    SYG was not applicable or cited in the Trayvon incident.

  • J. Smith July 17, 2020, 7:21 am

    If you assess a threat with these three principles before using deadly force to stop a threat you will almost always be within the law.. i cant speak to cities like St Louis with communist, leftist AG’s that disregard law. Intent, did the subject express verbally or physically their intent to do you harm? Opportunity, does the subject have the presence physically to follow through with their intentions to commit harm. Capability, does the subject have, possess, represent the capability to do harm? Example a guy on the phone yelling at you saying he will smash you head in with a shovel lacks opportunity. A guy holding a shovel, standing in front of you telling you he is going to smash your head in has intent, as stated, opportunity, he is physically present, and capability as he is holding a shovel. Be safe be smart. The greatest weapon you have is your brain, use it first.

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