Stand-Your-Ground, the Castle Doctrine, and Public Safety

By Robert J. Spitzer

A recent series of shootings all have one thing in common. As a recent New York Times headline said, “Tiny Missteps Led to Tragedy.” A Black 16-year-old was shot by an 84-year-old man in Kansas City, Missouri, when the teen mistakenly knocked on his door looking to pick up his siblings. The homeowner shot the teen through a locked glass door. In rural New York, a 20-year-old woman was shot and killed when the car she was riding in, along with three other people, mistakenly turned into the wrong driveway. After the vehicle turned around and was leaving, a man standing on his porch fired two shots at the car, killing the woman. Two teenage cheerleaders were shot in a grocery store parking lot in Austin, Texas, when one of them mistakenly opened a car door at night, thinking it was her car. A man sitting in the car got out and fired a gun at them. This blog explores the development of stand-your-ground (SYG) laws and a variety of recent studies that examine their consequences.

The Castle Doctrine and Stand-Your-Ground: Origins and Expansion

These incidents turn attention to two separate but related self-defense doctrines: the castle doctrine and SYG laws. The first of these is an old legal principle. Dating back to the Middle Ages, it asserts that a person’s home is one’s castle, meaning that a person is entitled to seek refuge in one’s home and can resist unlawful intrusion rather than withdraw to avoid conflict.

Stand-your-ground laws, dating in the US to the nineteenth century, in effect, extend the castle doctrine to the public realm, saying that individuals who encounter a threat in a public place need not retreat, but instead can meet force with force. This principle is opposed by another, the duty to retreat, which says that individuals encountering a threat in a public place must withdraw to avoid conflict if they can do so safely (this was the longstanding standard in British common law). Stand-your-ground laws “are essentially a revocation of the duty to retreat.”

In the last two decades, more than thirty states have adopted some version of stand-your-ground laws. Most of these were passed from 2005 to 2011. Police agencies and prosecutors have mostly opposed these laws, while organizations such as the National Rifle Association have advocated for their passage. (The principle of “safe retreat” continues to be the law in about a third of the states.) This shift began with Florida in 2005 when the state legislature adopted an aggressive version of this law that gave significant legal protections to those who claimed it as a defense. Florida’s prior legal standard was “safe retreat.”

Stand-your-ground laws “are essentially a revocation of the duty to retreat.”

Under the Florida law and ones like it, a person who has harmed or killed another in a public place can presumptively claim self-defense to avoid prosecution or make conviction far less likely. In so doing, police must accept the claim’s validity, limiting their ability to investigate. That is, the individual need only assert the belief that the use of force was necessary to prevent serious harm or death—that the person (as the Florida law says) “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.” Coupled with that is special legal protection granting the person “immunity from criminal prosecution and civil action.” Prosecution is still possible, but much more difficult to do successfully. In part, this is because the burden of proof shifts to those challenging the SYG claim, meaning that prosecutors have to prove that the self-defense claim is not legitimate—reversing the usual standard.

SYG defendants can also request a special pretrial hearing. If they can demonstrate through a “preponderance of evidence” that they acted lawfully under the stand-your-ground standard, they win immunity and no criminal trial is held. This is notable for two reasons: it is a lower standard than the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard applied in criminal cases and it is a unique option unavailable in other proceedings.

In the aftermath of a violent confrontation between individuals, authorities can be confronted with competing SYG claims if the individuals survive a violent encounter. But if only one person survives, no competing SYG claim can be offered. It is for this reason, in particular, that SYG laws have been labeled “shoot first,” since only a survivor can make a SYG claim, whereas contradictory claims by two surviving opponents muddy the waters. While some take issue with this label, even claiming that these laws “do not allow you to ‘shoot first and ask questions later,’” it is supported by considerable evidence. Law professor Mary Anne Franks asserts that SYG is “essentially stacking the deck repeatedly in favor of people shooting other people.”

Consequences of Stand-Your-Ground on Public Safety

An exhaustive study of Florida’s law through 2014 found that the law’s chief beneficiaries were “those with records of crime and violence.” Nearly 60 percent of those making self-defense claims when a person was killed had been arrested at least once before, one-third had been accused of violent crimes or drug offenses in the past, and over one-third had illegally carried guns in the past or had threatened others with guns. In 79 percent, the assailant could have retreated to avoid the confrontation. In 70 percent of the cases, the person killed was unarmed. In all, stand-your-ground claims succeeded 67 percent of the time.

The Wall Street Journal studied “justifiable homicides” nationwide from 2000 to 2010. It reported that these killings increased 85 percent in states with Florida-style laws (some states’ versions of the law were more limited), while overall killings, adjusted for population growth, declined during this same period. Over 80 percent of the justifiable killings involved guns, compared with 65 percent of non-justifiable killings.

Researchers at Texas A&M University studied FBI data to analyze the same 10-year period and found no evidence that stand-your-ground laws deterred crime, including burglary, robbery, or aggravated assault. But they did find a homicide rate increase of 8 percent (about 600 additional homicides annually) in states with newly buttressed stand-your-ground laws. A 2012 National Bureau of Economic Research study drew on different data but also found Florida-type laws associated with a 6.8 percent increase in homicide.

An Urban Institute study found significant racial disparities in the adjudication of stand-your-ground laws from 2005 to 2010. Based on FBI data, the study reported that for gun homicides in non-stand-your-ground states, the cases were ruled justified from 3 to 8 percent for white-on-white, black-on-white, and black-on-black killings. But when the shooter was white and the victim black, the justification rate was 29 percent. In stand-your-ground states, justifiable shooting results ranged from 3 to 15 percent in the first three categories. When the shooter was white and the victim black, 36 percent were ruled justified. The gun safety group Everytown for Gun Safety found that “homicides in which white shooters kill Black victims are deemed justifiable five times more frequently than when the situation is reversed.”

A 2017 study in the Journal of Human Resources found that at least 30 people per month died as a direct result of SYG laws. A 2022 study in JAMA Network Open found that SYG laws in 23 states were associated with an 8 to 11 percent increase in homicides and gun homicides. In Southern states including Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and Louisiana, murder rates were found to increase in the range of 16 to 33 percent. A RAND Corporation meta-study found that SYG laws increased the homicide rate and the gun homicide rate even higher.

The gun safety group Everytown for Gun Safety found that “homicides in which white shooters kill Black victims are deemed justifiable five times more frequently than when the situation is reversed.”

A recent Texas case illustrates some of the paradoxes of SYG laws. On April 7, 2023, former Army Sergeant Daniel Perry was convicted of shooting and killing a protestor at a Black Lives Matter protest in 2020. Both Perry and the man he shot and killed were armed. Perry made the stand-your-ground claim, saying that he had feared for his life. Yet the prosecution won a conviction, presenting evidence that Perry had preexisting animosity against the protestors, even speaking about killing protestors before the confrontation, undercutting his SYG defense. Yet less than a day after the conviction, Texas Governor Greg Abbott announced that he planned to pardon Perry at the earliest possible moment, saying that “Texas has one of the strongest ‘Stand-Your-Ground’ laws of self-defense that cannot be nullified by a jury or a progressive District Attorney.”

Perry’s initial conviction illustrates that SYG claims do not necessarily prevail. But the prevailing political winds in places like Texas reflect the larger political environment that, at the least, allows, and at the most, condones gratuitous violence. This is occurring in the midst of a record number of gun purchases—20 million in 2021 alone.

The Future of Stand-Your-Ground

In 2015, an American Bar Association (ABA) report found SYG laws to be racially biased and “a low-cost license to kill.” It recommended that states restore the “safe retreat” standard in public places and the scaling back of legal immunity. The ABA’s recommendation urges a return to the earlier, prevailing standard, not a remaking of American law. To date, no state has returned to the “safe retreat” standard.


Robert J. Spitzer is distinguished service professor emeritus of the Political Science Department at SUNY Cortland. He is the author of six books on gun policy, including “The Gun Dilemma: How History is Against Expanded Gun Rights” (2023) and the new 9th edition of “The Politics of Gun Control,” due out in August.