Stand Your Ground: What Does it Really Mean? By: Kat Ainsworth

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Stand Your Ground laws are the source of frequent confusion for many gun owners. It’s understandable, considering how much legal and firearms-related terminology exists. There’s a lot to learn and a great deal of misinformation out there, and it’s your responsibility as a gun owner to be familiar with your local laws. Whether you’re wondering what exactly the law means or if your state has such self-defense laws in place, we’re here to help.

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Smith & Wesson pistol
What does Stand Your Ground even mean? (Photo credit: Smith & Wesson)

What is Stand Your Ground?

Basically, Stand Your Ground refers to a law that gives a person the legal right not to attempt to flee a location before defending themselves against an immediate, credible threat. In states without a Stand Your Ground law, there is a “duty to retreat” which means a person is required to attempt to leave the area before resorting to self-defense.

It’s important to understand that is a bit of an oversimplification of the Stand Your Ground laws. The specifics of the law depend on the state. From a strictly legal perspective, it is accurate to say that a Stand Your Ground law is basically simply a No Duty to Retreat law.

Some states clearly outline that a person has a right to use force, up to and including deadly force, to defend their lives when out in public. However, there are states where the law is written as “no duty to retreat” without getting into details, and others have “duty to retreat” in place with specific exceptions written into it. This is why it’s so vital to familiarize yourself with the self-defense laws not only where you reside but wherever you intend to visit. The laws can vary substantially depending on location.

What’s a Make My Day law?

There are some states that have a law called a “make my day” law, such as Colorado and Oklahoma.

Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry, Make My Day
Do you know what a Make My Day law is? No, it doesn’t have anything to do with Dirty Harry. (Photo credit: imdb.com)

Colorado

In the state of Colorado, the Make My Day law applies to a person’s legal ability to defend themselves while they’re in a residence, including a hotel room. As you might have guessed, the Make My Day law in Colorado is their version of the Castle Doctrine, not Stand Your Ground. It also applies only inside the residence, not in the yard or on a porch. So, does Colorado have a Stand Your Ground law?

Colorado Revised Statute §18-1-704, on the use of physical force in defense:

(1) Except as provided in subsections (2) and (3) of this section, a person is justified in using physical force upon another person in order to defend himself or a third person from what he reasonably believes to be the use or imminent use of unlawful physical force by that other person, and he may use a degree of force which he reasonably believes to be necessary for that purpose.

(2) Deadly physical force may be used only if a person reasonably believes a lesser degree of force is inadequate and:

(a) The actor has reasonable ground to believe, and does believe, that he or another person is in imminent danger of being killed or of receiving great bodily injury; or

(b) The other person is using or reasonably appears about to use physical force against an occupant of a dwelling or business establishment while committing or attempting to commit burglary as defined in sections 18-4-202 to 18-4-204; or

(c) The other person is committing or reasonably appears about to commit kidnapping as defined in section 18-3-301 or 18-3-302, robbery as defined in section 18-4-301 or 18-4-302, sexual assault as set forth in section 18-3-402, or in section 18-3-403 as it existed prior to July 1, 2000, or assault as defined in sections 18-3-202 and 18-3-203.

Oklahoma

In Oklahoma, the Make My Day law refers to an expansion of the Castle Doctrine. Lawmakers in Oklahoma used a babysitter as their example when writing the Make My Day law, stating that without that law in place, a babysitter wasn’t granted immunity from prosecution under the Castle Doctrine for acts of self-defense taking place in the residence owned and lived in not by them, but by the person employing them to watch the kids.

Castle Doctrine already existed in Oklahoma. Make My Day broadened it to cover anyone in a dwelling who was allowed to be there, not only residents.

As for Stand Your Ground laws, Oklahoma does have them in place. However, like many such laws, it’s vital a person understands and adheres to the law.

For example, in Dawkins v. State, which took place in Oklahoma in 2011, the would-be defender left the scene of the threat to retrieve a sawed-off shotgun, then returned to fire on the attacker. Dawkins attempted to argue that he was protected from prosecution under the state’s Stand Your Ground law. Several things hurt Dawkins in that case including the fact that he was wielding an illegal weapon and that he left the scene, then came back.

sawed off shotgun
A person’s choice of weapon can affect the outcome of a self-defense case. For example, do you know if a sawed-off shotgun is legal? (Photo credit: ArtStation.com)

Understand this: Stand Your Ground, and self-defense in general, applies to an immediate, credible threat. Leaving the area to grab a weapon, then returning to use it, will at the very least cast doubt on the validity of the threat’s immediacy. This means the person loses the protections of the related laws, whether it’s Stand Your Ground or Castle Doctrine. At worst, it could cost a person the entire case, landing them in prison.

All this to explain there are both significant and subtle variations in different state’s laws, and it would behoove you to know them.

What’s a Duty to Retreat?

Some states have a Duty to Retreat law in place when it comes to potential self-defense scenarios. This means a person is required by law to attempt to leave the area before resorting to the use of force to defend themselves from a threat.

There are quite a few states with some version of Duty to Retreat law in place. The specific guidelines within the law vary by location, and some states have laws that fall somewhere in the middle or simply fail to address it. States with some sort of duty to retreat in place include:

  • Arkansas
  • Colorado
  • Connecticut
  • Delaware
  • Hawaii
  • Maine
  • Maryland
  • Massachusetts
  • Minnesota
  • Nebraska
  • New Jersey
  • New York
  • Rhode Island
  • Wisconsin
  • Washington, D.C., according to its own case law, has neither a “right to stand or kill” nor a “duty to retreat to the wall before killing.”

It’s important to note this is not a comprehensive or detailed list. For example, certain states that are not listed, such as California, Illinois, New Mexico, Oregon, Vermont, Virginia, and Washington State have a history of not having any state law statute confirming that there is no duty to retreat. This can create an environment where self-defense cases can be significantly more difficult to defend thanks to the lack of clarity in the law.

In those states, a statement regarding a person’s right to stand their ground with no duty to retreat can be given with jury instruction—meaning the person is already on trial—or has previously been upheld through case law (which is not an absolute guarantee for future cases).

There are approximately 36 states with a Stand Your Ground law of some sort in place at this time. As you might have guessed, this means some of the states listed above are being included because they do have a form of a Stand Your Ground law, just not quite as well-defined as in other states.

Is Stand Your Ground like the Castle Doctrine law?

No, Stand Your Ground and Castle Doctrine laws are not the same thing. The Castle Doctrine applies to a person’s residence and, in some states, their vehicle and/or place of business. Stand Your Ground is a No Duty to Retreat law that applies to a person who is not in their home, vehicle, or place of business when they are forced to defend themselves.

Just because a state has a Stand Your Ground law does not mean they have a Castle Doctrine law, and the reverse is also true. However, if a Castle Doctrine state also has a Stand Your Ground law, the latter can shore up the former from a legal standpoint. Yes, one can strengthen the other, but they are not the same law.

stand your ground signs
What’s a Stand-Your-Ground law, and does your state have one in place? (Photo credit: Phoenixcriminaldefenselawyer.com)

What is a credible threat?

To better comprehend self-defense law, it’s important to understand what an immediate, credible threat it. If you’re perusing legal journals, cases, or laws, you’re likely to notice some version of the phrase “immediate, credible threat” being used regularly. For example, as a general rule, you don’t have any legal protections for use of force and self-defense unless the threat was both immediate and credible.

“Immediate” means, of course, there is an in-your-face, right-this-second situation about to take place. An immediate threat is physically present in a way that they’re able to seriously injure or kill you. Someone texting you nasty things is not technically an immediate threat. Keep that in mind as we explain the other half of this.

A credible threat is one that any reasonable person would believe is a true danger. Part of this comes down to an individual’s life experience and knowledge of threats to their well-being.

For example, there are some people who might not understand that a person armed with a knife, standing 30 feet away, is a serious threat. These same people might say because it’s “just a knife” the weapon in question isn’t that bad and, therefore, does not condone your use of force, let alone your defensive firearm.

credible threat - knife - stand your ground law
(Photo: Torchstone Global)

Perspective definitely affects what a person who is an eye witness or a person on a jury might consider credible. To make this simpler, let’s just say that “credible” means you have a logical, rational reason to believe the person in front of you could seriously injure or kill you. Those reasons might include disparity of force—if you’re knocked to the ground, your bad back or hip could permanently remove your ability to defend yourself, while your attacker is young and strong—or other factors.

An immediate, credible threat applies to a person with the means to cause serious bodily harm or death to you or someone in your immediate proximity (but that last half is entirely another topic).

What is a reasonable person?

Generally speaking, a “reasonable person” is a person who thinks logically and clearly about a situation before responding. Their actions made good sense to others, given the correct context, and they’re not prone to outrageous acts.

Legally, Black’s Law Dictionary defines a reasonable person as follows:

Reasonable person. 1. A hypothetical person used as a legal standard, esp. to determine whether someone acted with negligence; specif., a person who exercises the degree of attention, knowledge, intelligence, and judgment that society requires of its members for the protection of their own and others’ interests. * The reasonable person acts sensibly, does things without serious delay, and takes proper but not excessive precautions.

Also termed reasonable man; prudent person; ordinarily prudent person; reasonably prudent person; highly prudent person.

Black’s goes on to cite R.F.V. Heuston from his writings in Salmond on the Law of Torts 56 (17th edition 1977):

The reasonable man connotes a person whose notions and standards of behavior and responsibility correspond with those generally obtained among ordinary people on our society at the present time, who seldom allows his emotions to overbear his reason and whose habits are moderate and whose disposition is equable. He is not necessarily the same as the average man—a term which implies an amalgamation of counter-balancing extremes.

This means that although there are a lot of legal definitions and ideas about what constitutes a “reasonable man” or “reasonable person,” someone who’s being tried for self-defense is going to be subject to the life experiences and knowledge of whoever sits in the jury box. Of course, that same standard of reasonableness will be applied before law enforcement decides whether to press charges…or not.