The February 26 shooting of Trayvon Martin has ignited a media firestorm surrounding so-called “stand your ground” or “castle doctrine” laws in the United States. It’s escalated to a point where on Friday, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights voted 5-3 to examine whether “stand your ground” laws across the country have a racial bias.
These laws allow individuals to use deadly force to defend themselves in certain situations without being compelled to retreat. Nearly half of all states have a “stand your ground” law or similar law on their books, and many of these laws were passed recently. Even states without such laws are not immune to the controversy, as their state legislatures have proposed, sometimes repeatedly, bills that would authorize the use of deadly force.
“Stand your ground” or “castle doctrine” laws have their roots in English common law, which states that a person’s home is his castle and he has a duty to defend it. The legal basis for such laws in the United States is provided by a Supreme Court case from 1895, Beard v. the United States. In this case, the court ruled that any individual who is attacked on his own property by someone with a deadly weapon is not obligated to retreat but may “stand his ground” and defend himself, provided that he does not intend to kill his attacker or do anything beyond what is necessary to save his own life.
In 2005, Florida took the court’s ruling a step further and passed legislation eliminating the duty to retreat not only from one’s home, but in “any place where the person has a right to be.” The Florida law states that deadly force is authorized, with any duty to retreat, if the person “reasonably believes” that the force is necessary to avert his or another’s imminent death or great bodily harm, or in order to avert a forcible felony such as rape, robbery, or murder. The law does not authorize force against law enforcement officers, or if the person using force is in some way the aggressor or engaged in unlawful conduct.
Unlike self-defense laws in other states, the Florida law provides total immunity from prosecution, which means that the individual cannot be arrested, detained, or brought to trial – he or she can simply walk away. Other states, such as Arizona, California, and Utah, do not specify that the individual is immune from prosecution. In such cases, the individual simply has an affirmative defense against charges of homicide.
In recent years, other states have attempted to pass less-restrictive “stand your ground” laws that authorize the use of deadly force in situations outside the home. In 2010, Pennsylvania passed a bill that authorizes an individual who is not engaging in criminal activity to use deadly force in any place where he or she has a right to be. The individual must believe that he or she is under the threat of death and is unable to retreat. Furthermore, the attacker must have displayed or used a firearm or other lethal weapon. The bill passed both houses of the legislature but was vetoed by Gov. Ed Rendell.
In 2011, the Alaska House passed a bill that amended its self-defense laws to include any place where an individual is authorized to be. House Bill 80 failed to gain traction in the Senate, however, and remains stalled in the Senate Finance committee.
The Minnesota legislature attempted to pass HF 1467, a bill that would authorize self-defense not only in a person’s home, but also hotels, cars, boats, motor homes, and tents. Although both the House and Senate approved the bill, it was ultimately vetoed by Gov. Mark Dayton.
Indiana’s “stand your ground” law may be unique: just this year, a bill was signed by Gov. Mitch Daniels that would authorize the use of deadly force against law enforcement officers. The law does make exceptions for situations in which the law enforcement officer is executing official police duties, or if the individual using force is committing or escaping after committing a crime.
Proponents and opponents of “stand your ground” laws are sharply divided on the effects of the laws. Academic researchers, most notably Dr. John R. Lott, Jr. who has written a book and a number of articles on the topic, have provided statistical evidence showing that concealed-carry laws and other laws expanding the number of situations in which firearms can be used (including “stand your ground”/Castle Doctrine laws) decrease violent crimes even when other external factors, such as poverty, are held constant.
Others academics have disputed Lott’s findings directly, or published competing empirical studies suggesting that the expanded use of firearms increases the incidence of violent crimes. Although further research is needed to determine with certainty the effect of these laws on public safety, the laws themselves are gaining in popularity in many states and continue to generate controversy in the media and among the public. More information about “stand your ground” or castle doctrine laws, as well as other recent state and congressional legislation, can be found at Project Vote Smart.
Julia Michaels is the Director of Legislative Research in the Austin, Texas, office of Project Vote Smart, an online resource for information about presidential, congressional, and state races.