Stand your ground laws provide for a defense in criminal cases where people have legal allowances to use force, including deadly actions, as a way to defend one’s safety. This defense is possible when people encounter an immediate threat against their life. Some laws allow for this interaction to legally occur when there are perceived threats present as well.
Instead of having a duty to retreat as with other self-defense laws that include interactions in public, a person using a stand your ground law is not required to retreat from the situation. Even if there is a reasonable opportunity for them to do so, the person who feels a real or perceived threat can defend their right to be in a place where they are lawfully present.
It is a different law than the castle doctrine that allows you to defend your personal space at home, in your vehicle, or sometimes at work. Deadly force is only authorized when someone invades your living area. Stand your ground laws permit the application in public. If you are trespassing on someone’s property or are in the act of committing another crime, then you cannot claim this defense.
There are several pros and cons of stand your ground laws that are worth considering when looking at how it applies to specific situations.
List of the Pros of Stand Your Ground Laws
1. It allows anyone to protect themselves from the commission of a crime.
Although the death of Trayvon Martin has created an ongoing national debate about the morality and use of stand your ground laws, this legislation does allow anyone to prevent themselves from being harmed during the commission of a crime. As the Chicago Tribune noted in October 2013, poor African-Americans who live in high-crime urban areas stand to benefit the most from these laws because it makes it easier to protect oneself when law enforcement cannot arrive fast enough.
“Blacks make up 16.6% of Florida’s population,” notes John Lott, “but account for 31% of the defendants invoking the stand your ground defense. Black defendants who invoke the statute are actually acquitted eight percentage points more often than whites.”
2. It eliminates the problems that come with a duty to retreat.
It is easy to forget the reasons why the first stand your ground laws were enacted in the first place. Although Florida is often credited with the initial legislation, states like Illinois had some form of this defense on their books since 1961. Even President Obama, who once said that the laws promoted violence, voted to expand the legislation when he was serving as a state senator in Illinois. The laws remove the requirement to retreat because the act of doing so can prevent someone from defending themselves.
It also eliminates the term “appropriate retreat” from the legal lexicon in many states. Prosecutors sometimes went after victims who defended themselves by saying that they didn’t retreat “far enough” to meet the legal statute for their actions. That’s because the legal standard at times was that you had to turn your back on your assailant.
3. It removes ambiguity from the castle doctrine standards.
If there is an intruder in your home, then a stand your ground law allows you to protect your life and that of your family. There is no obligation to find a place to retreat while that person ransacks your place or tries to hunt you down. Anyone engaging in criminal activity does not have a defense to stand on with this legislation when they attempt to harm you, but your self-defense actions allow for the legal justification for homicide.
Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once wrote that “detached reflection cannot be demanded in the presence of an uplifited knife.” Now imagine that the person in question has a gun. You have a split-second decision to make. Stand your ground laws empower people to take action.
4. It can provide immunity from criminal prosecution.
The stand your ground law in Florida provides immunity from civil actions and criminal prosecution when the defense is valid. Some statutes don’t offer this benefit. Florida also shifts the burden to the state to prove that the shooter didn’t act in self-defense and therefore not be entitled to those immunities. It’s a heavy standard to meet, but there are still instances when police and prosecutors can prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a person’s actions are an attempt to thwart the law.
This protection also applies to police officers as they attempt to perform their duties. If a law enforcement official feels threatened by the conduct of a suspect they encounter, then their actions of force still receive immunity if it follows the letter of the law.
5. It requires a reasonable belief that harm will occur if actions are not taken.
A person is justified with a stand your ground law to use or threaten to use deadly force if there is a reasonable belief that doing so is necessary to prevent great bodily harm or death to themselves or another person. When this incident occurs, then there is no duty to retreat, especially if the use of deadly force does not occur while engaged in criminal activity. A person must be in a place where they have a right to be in order for this statute to apply.
That is why people still get convicted of murder despite their use of this law as a defense. If the average person in the same situation would feel threatened, then the statute would apply. That’s why listening to rap music isn’t the same level of threat as someone who displays a weapon.
6. It can lead to a drop in crime that occurs.
Dennis Baxley told MSNBC during a 2012 interview about Florida’s stand your ground laws that the state had seen a dramatic drop in the violent crime since the legislation’s implementation. That’s because the design of the law is to protect the people who are attacked without giving immunity or legal benefits to those who are aggressors. “There’s nothing in this statute to protect people who are pursuing and confronting other people,” Baxley said.
Even though there was a rise in justifiable homicides after the passage of the law in Florida, empowering people to stop bad things from happening can save hundreds of lives each year. Between 2005 to 2010, the overall rate of violent crime in the state plunged by 23%.
7. It follows more than 100 years of legal tradition in the United States.
One of the first instances of self-defense and stand your ground theology came from the Beard v U.S. case in 1895. The Supreme Court ruled unanimously that an innocent person under attack is not obliged to retreat. These individuals had a right to stand their ground, meet any attack upon them with a deadly weapon, and do so in such a way and with such force that they honestly believed it would save their life or protect against bodily injury.
8. It does not apply when retreat is not an option.
Stand your ground laws apply only when there is no other option to retreat or the castle doctrine is in play. If you do not have the option to get away from a potential threat, then the standard self-defense laws typically apply in that situation. The stand your ground laws apply when you are in a public place, not committing a crime, and you are not the attacker in that situation. That’s why many people see these laws as a common sense way to eliminate the threat that victims face, either criminally or civilly, when protecting themselves of their family from harm.
List of the Cons of Stand Your Ground Laws
1. It can lead to an increase in homicides.
The Journal of the American Medical Association, in a study led by the University of Oxford, found that the removal of a duty to retreat when confronted with a perceived deadly threat created a 24.4% increase in homicides. There is also a 31.6% increase in the number of firearm-related homicides. Antonio Gasparrini, a co-author of the study and an association professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, says the reason seems to be a change in the perception of an incident.
“Our hypothesis was that these laws prevent people from taking alternative actions instead of using firearms in critical situations,” Gasparrini said.
2. These laws give individuals unfettered power and discretion.
When a stand your ground law is present in society, then it may help to foster the “shoot first” mentality that some people have when encountering an uncomfortable situation. The legislation makes it easier for individuals to pursue, shoot, or kill others without facing legal consequences. It removes any deterrent that might be available for firearm-related homicides because it offers a path to escape without penalty.
Michael Adams allegedly stabbed 17-year-old Elijah al-Amin in the neck because the hip-hop music made him feel threatened. Adams was charged with first-degree murder for the crime. Jordan Davis, an African-American teen killed in Florida, encountered a similar problem over the volume of his music. Davis’s killer was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
3. it can raise the rate of violent crime in the community.
The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights wrote a letter to the U.S. Senate in October 2013 about the status of stand your ground laws. The authors noted that there are several national studies which show that the number of homicides increased in the states that implemented some form of this legislation.
It is a perspective that the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law shares, stating that there is a disproportionate number of adverse effects that occur to people of color in society. This concern was magnified in 2018 when Michael Drejka fatally shot a man who shoved and knocked him to the ground over a parking spot. The Pinellas County sheriff declined to arrest him because of the stand your ground law.
4. There could be a racial bias to stand your ground laws.
The Tampa Bay Tribune collected 112 cases where people who were charged with murder decided to rely on the stand your ground laws as their defense. The first cases in their collection came from 2006 and went to July 2013. Reporters found that 72% of the defendants who killed an African-American person faced no penalty for their actions. When a white individual was the victim of homicide under the same circumstances, then 59% faced no penalty.
“Whether it’s trick-or-treaters or kids playing in the yard of someone who doesn’t want them there, or some drunk guy stumbling into the wrong house, you’re encouraging people to possibly use deadly physical force where it shouldn’t be used,” said former Miami Police Chief John Timoney.
5. It does not always cover situations where your life is not threatened.
Some stand your ground laws require that a person’s life be actually threatened before the doctrine of self-defense can apply. There are some places where a woman could be sexually assaulted, but then face charges for shooting the perpetrator because there wasn’t clear evidence that the individual was trying to take her life. This situation could even result in civil penalties for some people. That’s why states like Florida prefer to err on the side of caution – it gives the benefit of the doubt to the victim. Not every law that extends the castle doctrine to your personal public space provides that coverage.
Jon Stoltz, a veteran of the Iraq war, made this observation: “These laws give anyone with a gun more permissive rules of engagement in America’s communities than our troops have on the battlefield.”
6. There is no deterrent on serious crimes with stand your ground laws.
The American Bar Association completed a 12-month study on the effectiveness of stand your ground laws in 2014. They used a decade’s worth of data to look at the impact of the law from a criminal standpoint. The ABA found that the presence of this doctrine in place of a duty to retreat did not have a deterrent on serious crimes. There were even incidents where law enforcement actions were impeded because of the presence of this legislation.
Even of the information on racial bias is itself biased by those collected the data, the results of criminal activities are shared across various studies by groups from both sides of the political aisle. If it does not have a positive effect, then is it useful to keep the law on the books?
7. It may inspire others to take violent actions.
The mother of Jordan Davis told ThinkProgress in 2015 that she believed the presence of stand your ground laws in Florida empowered an older white man to shoot her son because of his loud music. There is no denying that the presence of the law played a significant role in the acquittal of George Zimmerman after killing Trayvon Martin, who was unarmed at the time.
Even high-ranking officials like Ben Carson suggest that the presence of the laws is intended to allow people to take violent actions. “The people have a right to any type of weapon that they can legally obtain in order to protect themselves,” Carson wrote in his book A More Perfect Union. “They would be at a great disadvantage if they were attacked by an overly aggressive government and all they had to defend themselves with were minor firearms.
8. Violent crime declines were occurring before the implementation of stand your ground laws.
When Politifact took a look at Florida’s violent crime numbers dating back to 2000, they found that the trend of decline was occurring before 2005 when the first version of the statute went on the state’s books. Between 2000 to 2005, the rate of violent crime dropped 12% in the state. What was most notable about their research was that in 2006 and 2006, the rates actually went up when compared to the 2005 numbers. The trends for crime in Florida also match what the United States experienced as a nation during that time – even in states where stand your ground laws were not enacted. Even Baxley admitted that he didn’t think that the legislation was the main reason for this outcome, but said it could be one of several reasons responsible for it.
9. It causes people to act on their implicit biases.
The implicit biases in the United States link African-Americans with negative concepts in the minds of the majority. It’s the reason why the color of a person’s skin is directly associated with danger or crime for some people. When people are in uncertain situations with little time to react, then they act upon this approach instead of trying to think logically about the situation. It is the rule of heuristics, when people use unconscious, rapid decisions to create frequently accurate outcomes.
The conscious mind can override this approach, but it rarely does when danger is involved. People make judgments about potential criminality quickly. They base their conclusion on a small slice of data, behavior, and their stressful reactions. That’s why mild aggression from an African-American is perceived as more threatening than the identical behavior from a white person.
Verdict of the Pros and Cons of Stand Your Ground Laws
There were 27 states that had some form of a stand your ground law in place as of 2018. Florida tends to receive the most attention because of its liberal application and famous cases, but liberal states like New Hampshire have it on their books as well. Several states allow for lethal self-defense actions in public through other means, including case law, and Wisconsin, Ohio, and North Dakota have applied the precedent to defending one’s vehicle.
Critics of the stand your ground laws say that its presence leads to a “shoot first, ask questions later” attitude. Cases like Trayvon Martin’s (which wasn’t a stand your ground case initially) make it seem like there would be more deaths in the future instead of less with this right given to the average person.
The pros and cons of stand your ground laws will continue to evolve as cases come before the court. Everyone can agree that making society safer is the ultimate goal of this approach and other self-defense statutes. There may never be 100% agreement on both sides, but there are some places of common ground where some meaningful reforms may be possible.
Natalie Regoli is a child of God, devoted wife, and mother of two boys. She has a Master's Degree in Law from The University of Texas. Natalie has been published in several national journals and has been practicing law for 18 years.