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Is Stand Your Ground A License To Kill? - Facts & Infographic

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In the wake of Florida’s recent trial of George Zimmerman for the killing of Trayvon Martin, Stand Your Ground laws have come under scrutiny around the world. Many public figures have spoken out for changes to the laws. The definition of “self-defense” and what constitutes a reasonable response to a threat has been at the forefront of the news.

Self-defense, or the right to use force to protect oneself, has been considered a natural or common right for centuries. Justifiable homicide, killing without evil or criminal intent, for which there can be no blame, such as self-defense to protect oneself or another, has been allowed by US courts for over 100 years. Under this legal justification, in most cases where self-defense has been established, immunity is given, the ruling is reduced, or results in an acquittal.


While the notion of self-defense may seem straight-forward, the specific qualifications for what is considered legal self-defense is a bit trickier, as they vary from state to state. One such requirement is whether the person being attacked has a duty to retreat (if there's a way to get out of the situation, deadly force is not justifiable) when possible before meeting a deadly force with an equally deadly response. Other specifics that depend on the state include whether laws apply solely within the home or property or extend to any place legally permissible to be, and just how much force can be used. These many variables are the reason it must be examined on a case by case basis.


Castle Doctrine – There is no duty to retreat within your home. Also known as dwelling defense, this is a common law in which people have the right to defend themselves against trespassers who demonstrate intent to inflict serious bodily harm or commit a felony on the premises of a home, in a vehicle, or sometimes in the workplace. Trespassing alone is not enough for a justifiable homicide. In places outside of the home, deadly force can be used in self-defense only after retreating as far as possible – when there are no other options.


More than half the states have some form of Castle Doctrine, but many have taken the definition of self-defense to new levels.


Stand Your Ground Laws

AKA “Shoot First” laws - build on the Castle Doctrine, extending it to apply to places outside the home, like:

  • vehicles

  • workplaces

  • (in some states) anywhere one has a legal right to go


The most controversial part of the law is the concept that the person defending himself does not have a duty to retreat before using deadly force, even if it would be possible to safely exit the scene.


Stand Your Ground is a justification for using deadly force when under the threat of imminent death or bodily harm, and can be used as a defense or immunity to criminal charges or a civil suit. In many cases, immunity is granted, preventing them from getting arrested or charged in the first place, or having to stand trial at all, under the Stand Your Ground law.


The law's broad scope has been the source of legal confusion and controversy, and the source of a national political and moral debate. Supporters of the law say that it allows self-defense protection when under attack without having to second-guess themselves during a situation that is chaotic and dangerous. Opponents of the law believe it gives citizens too much power, with no accountability, and can be used to justify all kinds of situations where it is not intended to be applied. A major flaw in the law, critics say, is that it creates a legal situation in which it is possible to use deadly force and claim self defense, when the only other party involved has been killed.

States with Stand Your Ground Laws














New Hampshire

North Carolina



South Carolina

South Dakota






Colorado - Make My Day Law

Idaho – No official Stand Your Ground law, but effectively allows it through court decisions.

[State v. McGreevey (1909) established Stand Your Ground as a defense for justifiable homicide during trial.]

Washington – No official Stand Your Ground law, but effectively allows it through court decisions. [Washington Supreme Court has ruled that there is no duty to retreat when someone is assaulted in a place where they are lawfully allowed to be in State v. Studd and State v. Redmond.]


A Brief History of United States Self-Defense Laws

Early state laws were based on the English common law system. Self-defense laws had a requirement to retreat, which was meant to discourage violence and taking action against a perceived aggressor yourself.


The language of the “Stand Your Ground” law came from the US Supreme Court case – Beard v U.S. (1895) – It upheld the right to defend “his premises” when it can be shown that the accused did not provoke the assault, and had a good faith belief that the attacker wanted to take his life or hurt him.


Babe Beard was confronted and threatened at his home by three brothers who were trying to regain possession of their cow, which was on the premises. One of the brothers threatened to kill Beard and made movements toward him, despite warnings from Beard to stop. When he didn't, Beard hit him over the head and he died. In his trial, Beard was convicted of manslaughter on the grounds that he had the duty to retreat when threatened, despite being on his own property. The case was brought before the US Supreme Court, and the conviction was overturned in a unanimous decision. Beard was not obligated to retreat or even consider whether he could before using deadly force on his own property – he was entitled to “stand his ground, and meet any attack made upon him with a deadly weapon, in such a way and with such force as, under all the circumstances, he, at the moment, honestly believed, and had reasonable grounds to believe, were necessary to save his own life, or to protect himself from great bodily injury.”



Stand Your Ground in Florida


Prior to 2005, Florida's requirement for self-defense claims were that an aggressor must be trespassing on someone’s property and deadly force was used as a last resort. In 2005, the Stand Your Ground law was passed, removing the duty to retreat before using force. The law, signed by then-Governor Jeb Bush (son of a US President and brother of another US President), was also extended to apply to places outside of the home, and uses a “reasonable person” standard.


Chapter 776 – Justifiable Use of Force – outlines the legality of a person using deadly force without a duty to retreat under the reasonable belief that the force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to anyone OR to prevent the imminent commission of a forcible felony.


Key parts of Florida's Stand Your Ground law:

776.013 (3) A person who is not engaged in an unlawful activity and who is attacked in any other place where he or she has a right to be has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.

776.032 (1) A person who uses force as permitted above is justified in using such force and is immune from criminal prosecution and civil action for the use of such force


Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law allows the use of deadly force as long as you:

  • Are not engaged in an unlawful activity.

  • Are being attacked in a place you have a right to be.

  • Reasonably believe that your life and safety is in danger as a result of an overt act or perceived threat committed by someone else toward you.


The Supreme Court of Florida upheld the immunity provision in the law in the 2010 case Dennis v. State of Florida. The court found that determination of whether immunity is given is decided by the court, not a jury, before any criminal prosecution can proceed.



Trayvon Martin

Florida's Stand Your Ground Laws have dominated the news since the Sanford, Florida incident, involving Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman. The case has sparked national outrage, and racially charged protests across the nation, with many arguing that Martin, who was black, was racially profiled by Zimmerman, who is white and Hispanic.


On February 26, 2012, 28 year old George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, got into an altercation with 17 year old Trayvon Martin. Martin was walking through the neighborhood in the rain on his way back from the store. He had been staying with his father at a home in the area. Zimmerman, whose duties as part of neighborhood watch would entail observing and reporting suspicious behavior to the police, saw Martin, who had his hood up, and called 911 to report him. Zimmerman exited his car while investigating and was confronted by Martin. A fight ensued, and resulted in Zimmerman shooting Martin once in the chest with a licensed handgun, killing him. When police arrived just minutes later, they questioned Zimmerman and released him under the belief that he killed in self defense. Six weeks later, Zimmerman was charged with second-degree murder and manslaughter. The trial began June 10, 2013, and on July 13, 2013 the jury acquitted Zimmerman on both charges.


Zimmerman claimed self defense, telling police that Martin had attacked him and he feared for his life. He explained that he exited his vehicle, not to pursue Martin, but to find an address to tell the police, though he did say he wanted to see which way Martin had gone. Prosecutors argued that Zimmerman was following Martin, despite being told not to by law enforcement over the phone.


The Stand Your Ground law was not invoked by the defense during the trial. Defense attorneys could have requested a pretrial hearing for immunity under the Stand Your Ground law, but they did not.


However, the law would have influenced the jury deliberations in this trial, because the jury instructions from Judge Debra Nelson said that Zimmerman should be acquitted if “he had no duty to retreat and had the right to stand his ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he reasonably believed that it was necessary.” Before Stand Your Ground was passed, the standard jury instructions would have read that Zimmerman “cannot justify his use of force likely to cause death or great bodily harm if by retreating he could have avoided the need to use that force.”




Effects of the Law

Do Stand Your Ground Laws encourage citizens to solve disputes with aggressive armed confrontation rather than walking away? Will these laws bring on a revival of the Wild Wild West? Did the Stand Your Ground law give George Zimmerman an excuse to bring a gun to a fistfight? Or does the law make the state safer, protecting the liberty of people protecting their own lives?


Trayvon Martin's case isn't the only one affected by this law, though it was the case that brought national media attention to the issue.


Looking at the effects of the Stand Your Ground law is difficult – there are no records that show Stand Your Ground motions filed in Florida, or the ways the law has been applied.

According to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) statistics:

From 2000 to 2004 (before the SYG law) – there were 12 justifiable homicides on average each year.

From 2006-2010 (after SYG) – the average was 36 justifiable homicides each year.

That is an increase of 200%.


These figures may not prove anything. The sharp increase could simply be caused by redefining these types of incidents – more homicides have been ruled justifiable.

These numbers may show that the law:

  • increases tragedies similar to that of Trayvon Martin

  • encourages vigilantes

  • discourages people from walking away from fights

  • is working, and that people defending themselves are not being prosecuted as frequently


According to the Tampa Bay Times findings, from 2005 to 2012, 70% of those who used the law as a defense have gone free. The Tampa Bay Times has found 235 cases where the Stand Your Ground law has been used. The application of the law varies wildly – cases with similar facts have had unequal outcomes, and cases with black victims were more likely to be successful in using the SYG defense. The report also shows that 2/3 of defendants citing Stand Your Ground used guns. In 1/3 of cases, the defendants either started the fight, shot someone who was unarmed, or chased their victims down – and went free.


Unintended Uses

The law can be misused by people claiming self defense after pursuing or starting fights, protecting those who shoot during:

  • fights at house parties

  • neighbor disputes

  • arguments at the park / parking lot / grocery store

  • gang fights



Unusual Cases

The Tampa Bay Times found Stand Your Ground cases involving victims such as: a black bear, Jack Russell terrier, a man doing cartwheels, and two unarmed people at once. (In the cases with animals as victims, judges denied the SYG defense.)


Florida – the “Gunshine” State

The Stand Your Ground debate is closely tied to the debate on gun control.


ABC report shows that since the Stand Your Ground Law, Florida has seen a rise in the number of concealed gun permits, and a record low in firearm violence. Between 2007 and 2011, there was a 33% decrease in the crime rate and a 90% increase in concealed weapons permits. The report also showed that from 2000 to 2005, the murder by firearm rate was under 3.5 per 100,000 residents. In 2011, guns were used in over 70% of homicides.


Concealed weapons permits in Florida have tripled since the Stand Your Ground law – and the state now has the highest number in the country, with more than 1.1. million. Florida has the 13th highest murder-by-firearm rate in the United States.


Fear as a Legal Defense = Racism as a Legal Defense?


The Reverend Markel Hutchins, who is involved in a civil rights lawsuit over Stand Your Ground Laws, explained how the concept of reasonable fear as a legal defense leads to racism becoming a reasonable defense:

“Fear is oftentimes based on ones own bias, so when you have public policy that literally lends itself to people being able to commit crimes or shootings under the color of law, because they're reasonably afraid, it makes a bad public policy and puts the constitutional rights of so many people around the country in jeopardy.”


Nationally, justifiable homicides have gone up about 4% annually from 2006 to 2010 – with 278 justifiable homicides in 2010. According to the Wall Street Journal in April 2012 (using statistics provided by state law enforcement and the FBI), overall homicide numbers went up, but the rate actually declined when adjusted for population growth. The number of justifiable homicide cases rose 85% from 176 in 2000 to 326 in 2010. Kansas, Alabama, Mississippi, Montana, and West Virginia saw no change in justifiable homicides. In Michigan, the number of justifiable homicides dropped. Florida saw the sharpest increase in justifiable homicides after 2005. In Texas and Georgia Justifiable Homicide cases doubled.



Public Opinion on Stand Your Ground


Juror B29, on the George Zimmerman Case “Maddy” - “George Zimmerman got away with murder.”


Senator John McCain (R -AZ) - “I can also see that Stand Your Ground laws may be something that needs to be reviewed by the Florida legislature or any other legislature that has passed such legislation”


Attorney General Eric Holder - “[It's time to question laws that senselessly expand the concept of self-defense and sow dangerous conflict in our neighborhoods […] we must stand our ground to ensure that our laws reduce violence.”


Chris Cox of the National Rifle Association (NRA), which backs the laws, responded - “The Attorney General fails to understand that self-defense is not a concept, it's a fundamental human right. To send a message that legitimate self-defense is to blame is unconscionable.”


President Obama - “Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago.” and “If Trayvon Martin was of age and was armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk? If the answer to that question is at least ambiguous, then it seems to me that we should examine those laws.”


Judge Terry P. Lewis in 2010 - “Each individual on each side of the exchange of gunfire can claim self-defense.”


State Representative Dennis Baxley (R-Fl) co-sponsored the law. In an Op-Ed piece for Fox News written about a year before the trial (March 21, 2012), Baxley explained: “When the 'stand your ground' or 'castle doctrine' legislation passed in 2005, the catalytic event that brought the issue to the attention of the Florida Legislature was the looting of property in the aftermath of hurricanes.”


At that time, Baxley's stance on the Zimmerman trial:

“Mr. Zimmerman's unnecessary pursuit and confrontation of Trayvon Martin elevated the prospect of a violent episode and does not seem to be an act of self-defense as defined by the castle doctrine. There is no protection in the Stand Your Ground law for anyone who pursues and confronts people.”


In an interview with NPR on March 26, 2012, Baxley reiterated this stance, and defended the law: “The duty to retreat puts the person at great risk.”


AZ Gov. Jan Brewer (Republican) - “I support Stand Your Ground.”

GA Gov. Nathan Deal (Republican) - “I do not see any reason to change it.”


Governor Rick Scott - “When you see any violence it's always positive to ... go back and look at existing law and see the impact and the consequences of it.” and “If there's something that we need to adjust, I'm hopeful that the Legislature would be interested in taking that up.”


Boycott Florida – Many public figures have called for a boycott of Stand Your Ground states.

Stevie Wonder announced a boycott on performing in Florida until the laws are changed and several other music artists have joined him.


A petition on MoveOn.org calls for a boycott on Florida tourism until Stand Your Ground is overturned and has over 13,000 signatures. Tourism is Florida's top industry, which brought in over $71 billion last year.


A Change.org petition “Change for Trayvon,” written by Trayvon Martin's parents, Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton, calls for the revision of the law and has reached 200,000 signatures.






































Is Stand Your Ground A License To Kill.

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