'Stand Your Ground' Laws Are Back in the News, but It's Not Clear Why

The duty to retreat from public confrontations has nothing to do with the cases cited in recent stories about seemingly unjustified shootings.


"Stand your ground" self-defense laws have been back in the news recently, although it is not clear why. That mystery highlights longstanding journalistic confusion on this subject, which misrepresents such laws as a license to kill anyone who looks at you cross-eyed.

"A string of recent shootings have put renewed attention on the self-defense laws often known as 'stand your ground' laws," NPR's Adrian Florido reports. "In the span of a week, 16-year-old Ralph Yarl was shot twice after ringing the doorbell of the wrong house in the state of Missouri as he was trying to pick up his siblings. In upstate New York, Kaylin Gillis was shot and killed after her boyfriend pulled into the wrong driveway as they searched for a friend's home. And in Texas, two cheerleaders were shot after one accidentally got into a car that she thought was her own."

Florido adds that "the shooters in these cases have not yet invoked their state's 'stand your ground' laws." There are good reasons for that.

The distinguishing feature of "stand your ground" laws is that they eliminate the duty to retreat for people confronted by threats of violence in public places. The shooting of Ralph Yarl did not happen in a public place; it happened on the doorstep of the man who shot him. The shooting of Kaylin Gillis likewise happened on the property of the man who killed her. New York, in any event, is not one of the 28 states with "stand your ground" laws. And as Reason's J.D. Tuccille notes, the Texas cheerleaders, Payton Washington and Heather Roth, "were chased by their assailants, which isn't self-defense by any understanding."

So why does NPR suggest that any of these defendants might successfully invoke a "stand your ground" defense? You got me.

A recent New York Times article that begins by citing the shootings in Missouri and New York is equally hazy on the relevance of "stand your ground" laws. Reporter Adeel Hassan compounds the confusion by mentioning a Florida jury's 2013 acquittal of George Zimmerman, who was charged with second-degree murder and manslaughter after he shot 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.

Zimmerman argued that he reasonably feared for his life when Martin pinned him to the ground, punched him, and smacked his head against the pavement. That account was supported by physical evidence and witness testimony. Given those circumstances, the absence of a duty to retreat did not figure in Zimmerman's defense or in the verdict.

Politico reporter Brakkton Booker nevertheless asserts that Florida's "stand your ground" law was "central" to Zimmerman's trial. Booker also thinks the shooting of Ralph Yarl "has all the ingredients to revive the national debate over 'stand your ground' laws," although he never explains why.

Hassan at least correctly distinguishes between "the common-law 'castle doctrine'" and "stand your ground" laws. The castle doctrine says people have no duty to retreat when they are confronted by intruders in their own homes. "Stand your ground" laws, Hassan notes, "go further" because they "apply anyplace where a person has a legal right to be, not just at home." He cites Florida's law as an example.

Under Florida's self-defense statute, "a person is justified in using or threatening to use deadly force if he or she reasonably believes that using or threatening to use such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the imminent commission of a forcible felony." The law adds that "a person who uses or threatens to use deadly force in accordance with this subsection does not have a duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground if the person using or threatening to use the deadly force is not engaged in a criminal activity and is in a place where he or she has a right to be."

Texas has a similar law. It allows someone to use deadly force when he "reasonably believes" it is "immediately necessary" to protect himself against the "use or attempted use of unlawful deadly force." It adds that "a person who has a right to be present at the location where the force is used, who has not provoked the person against whom the force is used, and who is not engaged in criminal activity at the time the force is used is not required to retreat before using force as described by this section."

Note that both of those statutes, like self-defense laws generally, require that the fear justifying the use of force be reasonable in light of the circumstances. A Texas Tribune story about Daniel Perry, who was convicted this month of murdering Garrett Foster, a protester he encountered at a 2020 Black Lives Matter march in Austin, elides that crucial point. Reporter William Melhado says "the case sparked debates over Texas' 'stand your ground' law, which allows people to use deadly force against someone else if they feel they are in danger."

As Perry discovered, a feeling is not enough. Perry argued that he reasonably believed shooting Foster was immediately necessary because Foster had aimed a rifle at him. That situation would justify the use of deadly force regardless of any general duty to retreat. But Perry's statements to police were the only evidence supporting his claim, which was contradicted by several witnesses. The prosecution maintained that Foster never raised his rifle, and the jury evidently agreed.

Left-leaning critics of "stand your ground" laws are not the only people promoting myths about what those laws entail. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who the day after Perry's conviction promised to pardon him if asked, also implied that the duty to retreat had something to do with the case. "Texas has one of the strongest 'stand your ground' laws of self-defense," he wrote on Twitter, and that law "cannot be nullified by a jury or a progressive District Attorney."

Contrary to Abbott's implication, Perry could have offered the same defense in a state without a "stand your ground" law. After Foster raised his rifle, Perry's lawyer told the jury, Perry "had two-tenths of second to figure out whether he was going to live or die." The jurors' rejection of Perry's defense hinged on their skepticism of that account, not on their belief that the shooting would have been unjustified even if Perry had actually raised his rifle.

Homicide defendants do sometimes invoke the absence of a duty to retreat in public places, although often implausibly and unsuccessfully, and there is a legitimate debate about whether that extension of self-defense law is fair and prudent. But that debate is muddied whenever news outlets bring up the controversy in contexts where it is plainly irrelevant.