Two of the most commonly discussed legal aspects and topics among gun owners in the United States are Castle Doctrine and the Stand Your Ground Law. Both of these terms refer to specific types of self-defense legislation governing when and where lethal force is legal and justifiable.
If you’re unfamiliar with these laws, learn what they are, what they cover in detail, which states possess such laws, and how to deal with them.
What is Castle Doctrine?
In common law, the principle known as “Castle Doctrine” (sometimes “Castle Defense”) refers to a particular set of circumstances in which an individual has the legal right to use reasonable force, up to and including deadly force, to protect themselves against an intruder in the home.
In general terms, the term “intruder” refers to an uninvited person trespassing inside the home, such as a home invader. However, many state legislatures expand the definition of what constitutes “in the home” to exterior parts of the house (e.g., patio, porch, deck). Some states, such as Colorado, also allow individuals to apply Castle Doctrine to their place of business.
Castle Doctrine laws trace their origins back to English common law, as per the words of 17th-century English jurist Sir Edward Coke: “For a man’s home is his castle, and each man’s home is his safest refuge.”
The current American incarnations of this principle are a development of what was then known as “Make my day” laws, first enacted in the 1980s.
The original Make my day law was passed in Colorado in 1985. It granted immunity from prosecution to anyone who used deadly force against individuals who forcibly entered their homes.
The name of this law is a reference to a line uttered by Inspector “Dirty” Harry Callahan in the 1983 movie Sudden Impact: “Go ahead, make my day,” which really means “give me a reason.”
Which States Have Castle Doctrine Legislation?
As of June 2021, the following states have Castle Doctrine laws:
Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, and West Virginia.
This list does not include states that possess legislation that legal experts may interpret as containing castle doctrine-like statutes, which are usually part of their Stand Your Ground laws.
What is a Stand Your Ground Law?
Although often conflated with Castle laws, the principle of a Stand Your Ground law refers to a different legal concept.
Under a Stand Your Ground law (also known as a “No Duty to Retreat” law), a person may justifiably use lethal force to defend themselves against a threat to their lives or (in some jurisdictions) livelihoods. An individual’s life is in danger when they reasonably believe they may face death, great bodily harm, or rape.
This concept exists in contrast to a Duty To Retreat legislation, meaning that an individual in danger must first make every attempt to retreat safely and get away from the danger before resorting to lethal force. Under Stand Your Ground, no such requirement exists, allowing a person to defend themselves where they stand.
In the United States, Stand Your Ground laws are typically viewed as a state law issue. All but two jurisdictions (American Samoa and Virginia) have settled laws on the books.
At the federal level, the result of the 1921 Supreme Court case Brown v. United States established that if an individual is attacked and reasonably believes to be in immediate danger of death or grievous bodily harm, that person has no duty to retreat. In addition, the holding stated that if the threatened person uses lethal force on their attacker, they have not exceeded the bounds of lawful self-defense.
As a result, this means that a form of Stand Your Ground law is in effect everywhere in the United States so long as you are threatened with death or severe injury.
Thirty-eight states (plus two territories) are Stand Your Ground states. Of these, 30 states and one territory are stand-your-ground by statute, while the remaining states and territories became stand-your-ground by case law, established precedent, or jury instructions.
Stand Your Ground by statute: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, West Virginia, Wyoming.
Stand Your Ground by case law, precedent, or jury instruction: California, Colorado, Illinois, New Mexico, Northern Mariana Islands Oregon, Vermont, Virginia, Washington.
The remaining 12 states and one territory are "Duty To Retreat," imposing a duty to retreat from danger as long as it is possible to do so in absolute safety.
Duty To Retreat states and territories: Connecticut, Delaware, Guam, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Wisconsin.
In Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, and Nebraska, the duty to retreat does not apply to the workplace.
In Wisconsin and Guam, the duty to retreat does not apply in your vehicle or at the workplace, but only if you are the owner of that business.
In New York, the duty to retreat statute does not apply when threatened with robbery, burglary, kidnapping, or sexual assault.
Certain areas have ambiguous or differing approaches regarding the subject:
Washington D.C.: The capital city adopts what they refer to as the “middle ground” approach, stating that there is no duty to retreat. However, juries must consider whether a person using deadly force in self-defense had the opportunity to get away safely yet deliberately chose not to.
Virginia, American Samoa: The state law books in these jurisdictions do not have settled rules or laws regarding Stand Your Ground or Duty To Retreat.
Misconceptions and Myths
Opponents of Castle Doctrine and Stand Your Ground often and controversially refer to these statutes as “shoot-first” or “license to kill” laws, under the misguided notion that they allow a person who feels threatened to shoot first and kill someone with impunity.
In reality, this is not the case; a defendant claiming self-defense must still be able to prove before the court that they were justified in using lethal force. Claiming self-defense does not automatically grant a person immunity.
Don’t forget that even if you are attacked, there may be situations where retreating may be a more tactically sound decision. Deadly force should always be your last resort.
When Do These Laws Apply to Me?
Many gun owners have asked themselves or others whether there are any situations when they are allowed to shoot another person in self-defense.
Far from being an unreasonable question to ask, knowing when you should and shouldn’t shoot is a critical element of self-defense and gun laws education.
If you live in a Castle Doctrine state, you are typically legally allowed to draw your firearm in response to an unknown, uninvited person breaking into your home (or attempting to do so).
However, you should only prepare to shoot if you have ascertained the intruder is armed or has made statements suggesting they intend to cause you harm.
Regardless of the situation, if you managed to remove a home invader from your property, never follow them outside or shoot at fleeing attackers; this may count against you in a court of law, and you may face serious repercussions, even if you were initially justified.
On the street
If you are outside your home, your workplace, your vehicle, or anywhere with a Castle Doctrine statute, then the legal ability to draw in self-defense depends primarily on whether your state is Stand Your Ground or Duty To Retreat.
However, remember that a jury must determine whether your use of a deadly weapon, even if you do not fire it, fell under the purview of reasonableness. You cannot draw on anyone just because they look scary or suspicious; there must be a threat against your life or a reasonable belief of a threat.
Being insulted, heckled, or harassed without severe physical violence involved typically does not constitute a threat to your life. If you find yourself in such a situation, even merely brandishing your firearm can result in charges against you.
As a gun owner, you should always strive to be a responsible and law-abiding individual. Every situation is different, and you may only have seconds to react, but part of the mental preparation you should do ahead of time is learning all your local and state laws regarding self-defense.
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