“Stand your ground” laws do not deter crime—in fact, they drive up homicides in states where they are enacted.
Stand your ground laws allow a person to use deadly force in public, even if they know they could safely avoid any need for violence by simply stepping away from the incident (or “retreating”). As a result, these laws encourage the escalation of violence in everyday conflicts. Nevertheless, more than half of US states have now adopted stand your ground policies—ignoring centuries of legal precedent and a growing body of research showing these laws significantly increase gun homicides and injuries.
Time-honored legal principles, and codified self-defense laws across the US, have long affirmed people’s right to use proportionate physical force to defend themselves and others against imminent violence. Self-defense laws in the US also typically justify a person’s use of lethal force in situations where it was objectively reasonable for a person to believe that lethal force was necessary to prevent imminent death or serious bodily harm to themselves or another person. Traditionally, these self-defense laws have been clear that taking human life is not necessary, and is therefore not justified, if a person knows they could safely avoid any threat to themselves or othersby simply stepping away from a confrontation.1
Chandler McClellan and Erdal Tekin, “Stand Your Ground Laws, Homicides, and Injuries,” Journal of Human Resources 52, no. 3 (2017): 621–653.
In most US jurisdictions, court precedents and/or state laws have carved out an exception to this duty to de-escalate or “retreat” called the Castle Doctrine. On the theory that ‘a person’s home is their castle,’ this legal principle has traditionally created a rebuttable legal presumption that individuals are justified in using force against someone unlawfully breaking into their occupied home, without having to consider options such as leaving the home to avoid a threat or confrontation.
However, Stand Your Ground laws extend this narrow exception to essentially all public places, encouraging an increasingly armed public to “stand their ground,” escalate confrontations, and resort to vigilante violence in situations where they know they have completely safe alternatives. By definition, “Stand Your Ground” laws only change the legal standard for situations where it can be proven that someone knew they could safely step away from an incident to avoid any serious threat to themselves or others, but chose to kill another human being anyway. In other words, they make it easier to get away with murder. As such, these laws too often allow individuals to use lethal force as a first step, rather than as a last resort. Because of this, these laws are also frequently referred to as “Shoot First” laws.
Stand Your Ground laws first came under the national spotlight when Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old boy, was shot and killed by George Zimmerman while visiting family in Sanford, Florida. Though Zimmerman did not invoke the Stand Your Ground defense in trial, jurors discussed the law before declaring him not guilty of second degree murder or manslaughter.
As one of the first states to implement a stand your ground law, Florida has been an important test case regarding the public health and safety implications of this law. Multiple studies show that Florida’s stand your ground law escalated violence across the state.
- The implementation of Florida’s stand your ground law was associated with a 32% increase in firearm homicide rates and a 24% increase in overall homicide rates. 2
- Importantly, researchers found that Florida’s stand your ground law increased both justifiable and unlawful homicide rates. 3
- The state’s stand your ground law had the largest negative impact on neighborhoods that initially had the lowest homicide rates before the law was enacted. 4
- In 79% of Florida Stand Your Ground cases, the assailant could have retreated to avoid the confrontation, and in 68% of cases, the person killed was unarmed. 5
Jul 28, 2020
Florida’s shoot first law was promoted by the National Rifle Association, and was adopted by the state legislature despite widespread opposition in 2005. Efforts to advance shoot first laws nationwide accelerated later that year, when the conservative, corporate-funded American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) adopted a model law bearing many similarities to Florida’s law. The ALEC model was developed in conjunction with the NRA, which has funded ALEC for years and, until 2011, co-chaired the council’s Public Safety and Elections task force that developed the model shoot first law.
Since 2005, a majority of states have adopted either part or all of the ALEC model law. After widespread outcry and the loss of a number of major corporate sponsors following the death of Trayvon Martin, ALEC announced in 2012 that it was disbanding the Public Safety and Elections task force. The NRA, however, shows no signs of ceasing its efforts to convince states to adopt dangerous, expansive shoot first laws nationwide.
As stand your ground laws spread from Florida across the country, they have proven to be a clear threat to public safety, with no evidence that these laws deter crime.6 In fact, studies have conclusively associated these laws with increases in homicides and injuries.
- In any given month, approximately 30 to 50 people across the country are killed as a result of stand your ground laws.7
- Stand your ground laws are associated with an 8% increase in both overall homicides and firearm homicides.8
- Stand your ground laws are also associated with significant increases in firearm injuries resulting in emergency room visits and inpatient hospitalizations.9
Stand your ground laws also have a profound impact on the criminal and civil justice systems, tying the hands of law enforcement and depriving victims of remedies by providing blanket immunity from criminal prosecution and civil lawsuits to individuals who claim they were acting in self-defense. In many cases, the race of the attacker and victim are highly significant factors in whether an attack is determined to be justified.
- Controlling for other factors, the odds a white-on-black homicide is found justified is 281% greater than the odds a white-on-white homicide is found justified.10
- An analysis of Florida stand your ground cases similarly found that a defendant is twice as likely to be convicted in a case that involves white victims compared to those involving non-white victims.11
“Shoot First” Laws and Weak Concealed Carry Laws: A Deadly Combination
Shoot first laws become exponentially more dangerous when paired with weak concealed carry laws that grant large numbers of people licenses to carry concealed firearms in public places or allow concealed carry without a license. As noted above, Florida’s concealed handgun licensing law enabled George Zimmerman, who had been previously arrested for battering a law enforcement officer and had a restraining order issued against him, to legally carry a hidden, loaded handgun in public. Trayvon Martin would not have been killed if George Zimmerman had not been carrying a gun.
Michelle Degli Esposti, et al., “Analysis of “Stand Your Ground” Self-defense Laws and Statewide Rates of Homicides and Firearm Homicides.” JAMA network open 5, no. 2 (2022): e220077-e220077.; Alexa R. Yakubovich, et al., “Effects of laws expanding civilian rights to use deadly force in self-defense on violence and crime: a systematic review.” American journal of public health 111, no. 4 (2021): e1-e14.
Currently, most states require law enforcement officers to issue concealed handgun licenses to individuals who meet very minimal requirements; or allow people to carry concealed weapons statewide without permits. For more information about laws that allow the concealed carry of firearms in public, visit our Concealed Weapons Permitting page.
Nationally, the problem of concealed carry permittees killing innocent people is significant – An analysis of news reports by the Violence Policy Center (VPC) has identified at least 1371 people, including 24 law enforcement officers, killed nationwide by individuals with concealed handgun licenses since May 2007. VPC also reports that concealed carry licensees have committed 35 mass shootings and 62 murder-suicides during that period. Given the limitations of news reports, the actual number of individuals killed by concealed handgun licensees is likely higher.
Summary of Federal Law
There are no federal Stand Your Ground laws. This is a policy addressed solely by state laws, judicial decisions, jury instructions, or a combination of all three.
Summary of State Law
A majority of states (30) have now enacted Stand Your Ground laws applicable in all public places, starting with Utah in 199412 and then, at the behest of the NRA, Florida in 2005.13 In eight others, court decisions have removed a traditional “duty to retreat” in public.
States with Shoot First Statutes
States with Stand Your Ground by Court Decisions
Eight additional states permit the use of deadly force in self-defense in public with no duty to retreat through a combination of statutes, judicial decisions, and/or jury instructions. These states are distinct from true “Florida-style” laws in several respects, however. For one, many of the shoot first protections established in these states may only be invoked during criminal trials, as opposed to the Florida law and the ALEC model, which enable a shooter to escape liability in a pretrial hearing. Additionally, these states do not have some of the especially onerous elements found in the Florida law, such as the provision preventing law enforcement from arresting a shooter without probable cause that the force used was unlawful.
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Extreme Stand Your Ground Laws
Several states have enacted particularly heinous “shoot first” laws which, among other things, allow for the use of deadly force in response to property crimes or against a fleeing person. These laws make it easier for people to get away with extrajudicial murders.
Several states have provisions in their shoot first laws which prevent law enforcement from arresting a person who claims self defense. This interferes with law enforcement’s ability to properly investigate these deaths. 52
Deadly Force against Property Crimes
Several states allow people to use deadly force to counter non-violent property crimes, including people breaking into unoccupied vehicles, stretching these “shoot-first” statutes past their purported ‘self-defense’ goals.53
Deadly Force against a Fleeing Person
Texas allows the use of deadly force against a person fleeing after a burglary if the person using force reasonably believes that the property cannot be protected or recovered by any other means. 54At least one additional state permits the use of deadly force against fleeing people through a citizen’s arrest statue, which raises similar concerns to “shoot first” statutes with regard to disparate racial impact, and the use of deadly force outside the home more generally.
Key Legislative Elements
The legislative goals in this policy area are to resist the expansion of, and repeal, stand your ground laws in states that already have them, and resist their enactment in states that do not have them.
- See American Bar Association, “National Task Force on Stand Your Ground Laws: Report and Recommendations,” (Sep. 2015): 1.
- David K. Humphreys, Antonio Gasparrini, and Douglas J. Wiebe, “Evaluating the Impact of Florida’s ‘Stand Your Ground’ Self-defense Law on Homicide and Suicide by Firearm: an Interrupted Time Series Study,” JAMA Internal Medicine 177, no. 1 (2017): 44–50.
- David K. Humphreys, Antonio Gasparrini, and Douglas J. Wiebe, “Association Between Enactment of a ‘Stand Your Ground’ Self-defense Law and Unlawful Homicides in Florida,” JAMA Internal Medicine 177, no. 10 (2017): 1523–1524.
- Benjamin Ukert, Douglas J. Wiebe, and David K. Humphreys, “Regional Differences in the Impact of the ‘Stand Your Ground’ Law in Florida,” Preventive Medicine 115 (2018): 68–75.
- Robert J. Spitzer, “Stand Your Ground Makes No Sense,” The New York Times, May 4, 2015, https://nyti.ms/2CcMW4y.
- Cheng Cheng and Mark Hoekstra, “Does Strengthening Self-defense Law Deter Crime or Escalate Violence? Evidence from Expansions to Castle Doctrine,” Journal of Human Resources 48, no. 3 (2013): 821–854.
- Chandler McClellan and Erdal Tekin, “Stand Your Ground Laws, Homicides, and Injuries,” Journal of Human Resources 52, no. 3 (2017): 621–653.
- Michelle Degli Esposti, et al., “Analysis of “Stand Your Ground” Self-defense Laws and Statewide Rates of Homicides and Firearm Homicides.” JAMA network open 5, no. 2 (2022): e220077-e220077.; Alexa R. Yakubovich, et al., “Effects of laws expanding civilian rights to use deadly force in self-defense on violence and crime: a systematic review.” American journal of public health 111, no. 4 (2021): e1-e14.
- Chandler McClellan and Erdal Tekin, “Stand Your Ground Laws, Homicides, and Injuries,” Journal of Human Resources 52, no. 3 (2017): 621–653.
- John K. Roman, “Race, Justifiable Homicide, and Stand Your Ground Laws: Analysis of FBI Supplementary Homicide Report Data” Urban Institute, July 2013, https://urbn.is/2VbN1Ml.
- Nicole Ackermann, et al., “Race, Law, and Health: Examination of ‘Stand Your Ground ’and Defendant Convictions in Florida,” Social Science & Medicine 142 (2015): 194–201.
- See 1994 Utah HB 13 (amending Utah Code Ann. § 76-2-402).
- See Mike Spies, “The N.R.A. Lobbyist Behind Florida’s Pro-Gun Policies,” The New Yorker, March 5, 2018, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/03/05/the-nra-lobbyist-behind-floridas-pro-gun-policies; Chris Brown, “Marion Hammer: The NRA Lobbyist Behind Florida’s Stand Your Ground Legislation,” Media Matters for America, March 22, 2012, https://www.mediamatters.org/national-rifle-association/marion-hammer-nra-lobbyist-behind-floridas-stand-your-ground-legislation; “NRA Presents ALEC Model Legislation in Grapevine, Texas,” NRA-ILA, Aug. 12, 2005, https://www.nraila.org/articles/20050812/nra-presents-alec-model-legislation-in.
- Ala. Code § 13A-3-23(b).
- Alaska Stat. §§ 11.81.335(b)(5); 11.81.350(f).
- Ariz. Rev. Stat. §§ 13-405(B); 13-411(B); 13-418(B).
- 2021 AR SB 24, amending Arkansas Code § 5-2-607.
- Fla. Stat. §§ 776.012(b); 776.031(b); 776.032(2).
- Ga. Code Ann. § 16-3-23.1.
- Idaho Code § 19-202A(3).
- Ind. Code Ann. § 35-41-3-2.
- Iowa Code § 704.1(3).
- Kan. Stat. Ann. §§ 21-5222(c); 21-5230.
- Ky. Rev. Stat. Ann. §§ 503.050(4); 503.055(3); 503.070(3); 503.080(3).
- La. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 14:19(C), (D); 14:20(C), (D).
- Mich. Comp. Laws Serv. § 780.972(2).
- Miss. Code. Ann. § 97-3-15(4).
- Mo. Rev. Stat. § 563.031.3(3).
- Mont. Code. Ann. § 45-3-110.
- Nev. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 200.120(2).
- N.H. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 627:4(III)(a); State v. Etienne, 163 N.H. 57 (2011).
- N.C. Gen. Stat. § 14-51.2(f); 14-51.3.
- N.D. Cent. Code § 12.1-05-07(2)(b)(2), as amended by 2021 ND HB 1498, effective August 1, 2021.
- Ohio Rev. Code §§ 2307.601 (civil) 2901.09 (criminal).
- Okla. Stat. Ann. tit. 21, § 1289.25(D).
- 18 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 505 (2.3), (2)(ii); 506(b); 507(c)(3).
- S.C. Code § 16-11-440(C).
- S.D. Codified Laws §§ 22-18-4; 22-18-4.1; 22-18-4.8 (regarding immunity from criminal prosecution and civil liability for use or threatened use of force); 2021 SD HB 1212.
- Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-11-611(b)(2).
- Tex. Penal Code §§ 9.31(e); 9.32 (c).
- Utah Code Ann. § 76-2-402.
- W. Va. Code § 55-7-22(c).
- Wyo. Stat. Ann.§ 6-2-602(a), (e), (f).
- See e.g. People v. Ye Park, 62 Cal. 204 (1882); People v. Collins, 189 Cal. App. 2d 575 (1961); People v. Hughes, 107 Cal. App. 2d 487 (1951); People v. Hatchett, 56 Cal. App. 2d 20 (1942).
- Idrogo v. People, 818 P.2d 752 (Colo. 1991).
- People v. Rodriguez, 187 Ill. App. 3d 484, 490.
- State v. Horton, 57 N.M. 257, 261 (1953).
- State v. Sandoval, 342 Ore. 506, 513-514.
- See Foote v. Commonwealth, 11 Va. App. 61; Jackson v. Commonwealth, 96 Va. 107; McCoy v. Commonwealth, 125 Va. 771, 775, 99 S.E. 644, 645 (1919).
- State v. Hatcher, 167 Vt. 338, 348 (1997).
- See State v. Redmond, 150 Wn.2d 489; State v. Studd, 137 Wn.2d 533, 549, 973 P.2d 1049 (1999); State v. Williams, 81 Wn. App. 738, 744, 916 P.2d 445 (1996).
- See above list for citations to statutes.
- See above list for statutory citations.
- Tex. Penal Code § 9.42.