Question: Can you explain the so-called “Stand Your Ground” law? Why do we need a law to say we can defend ourselves?
Answer: Brace yourself because we’re about to enter a partisan/cultural/societal minefield. There is also a racial and ethnic component that adds even more fuel to an already heated debate.
“Stand Your Ground” laws, passed in individual states, typically permit people to defend themselves with force — often including lethal force — in places where the person is legally allowed to be. While that might seem like it has always been that way, this is actually a change in the law.
Under the common law, which is where many of our legal doctrines and principles originate, people typically have a duty to retreat before using lethal force. The idea is that law enforcement should be keeping the peace, rather than having confrontations between individual citizens. For example, prior to “Stand Your Ground,” a Florida appellate court wrote, “Before taking a life, a combatant must ’retreat to the wall’; using all means in his power to avoid that need.”
However, in many jurisdictions, an individual is not required to retreat if they are in their home. This is called the “Castle Doctrine,” and it allows self-defense for someone in their home with no duty to retreat if attacked or threatened.
Essentially, a person has a right to defend their “castle.”
“Stand Your Ground” laws essentially take the “Castle Doctrine” and make it mobile. One way to think about it is that each person has their own traveling castle, without an actual castle. In some states where this has been adopted, there is no longer a general duty to retreat. While laws and circumstances can vary between states, the general effect is that if you have a right to be there, you do not have to give ground.
While these principles are relatively clear in the abstract, it can be complicated in application. The implications of “Stand Your Ground” were debated publicly after the tragic shooting death of Trayvon Martin in 2012. But it’s worth pointing out that the law was not a significant part of the trial in that case.
George Zimmerman was acquitted using a more typical self-defense argument.
A more direct example occurred in 2018, when Markeis McGlockton was shot and killed by Michael Drejka after an argument. The Pinellas County Sheriff originally announced no charges would be filed because of Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law. But that decision was reversed by the state attorney, and Drejka was eventually charged and convicted of manslaughter.
Whether “Stand Your Ground” laws are good policy is the subject of much debate across the nation; and opinions tend to fall along partisan, cultural and even racial lines.
Supporters argue that it allows citizens to defend themselves and deter crime without the risk of criminal prosecution. They also note that total violent crime decreased in some states where these laws were passed.
Opponents contend it leads to greater amounts of violence. That it stokes fear, feeds vigilantism and encourages people to confront others rather than retreat. They also argue that it does not deter crime.
Kevin Wagner is a noted constitutional scholar, and political science professor at Florida Atlantic University. The answers provided do not represent the views of the university.
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