Stand Your Ground explained for the non-lawyer

I’ve heard more than my fair share of ignorant, biased arguments against Stand Your Ground laws in my time, particularly since the Zimmerman case. The has been a particularly useful tool for low information, anti-gun rights activists because it allows them to blend a combination of straw-men and stereotypes into one toxic mash-up. A typical example along these lines would be; Of course you like SYG laws. That way, when a white person is “threatened” by having too many black faces around they can just gun them down..

The people repeating these fables aren’t the problem here. The issue is the number of less engaged folks who may not know many details on one side or the other and who keep hearing this repeated until they actually begin to believe it. In an effort to stem the tide of intentional ignorance, Eugene Volokh (of The Volokh Conspiracy) removes all the Latin phrases and lawyerspeak and pens a primer for those in need of a clue.

In all states, shooting someone who is simply impeding you, shouting at you, and moving towards you loudly and aggressively (absent more), is a crime. The crime is called, assuming you shoot and kill the person, “murder.” (It could also be attempted murder if you miss, or aggravated assault if you hit and injure the person.) Yup, same crime as if the person wasn’t impeding you, shouting at you, or moving towards you loudly and aggressively (though in some states, it’s conceivable that if the person is shouting insults at you and that is viewed as “adequate provocation” — unlikely, but conceivable — you’d get lucky and get off with a voluntary manslaughter charge).

This is because “stand your ground” simply means that, if you reasonably believe that you face imminent death, serious bodily injury, rape, kidnapping, or (in most states) robbery, you can use deadly force against the assailant, even if you have a perfectly safe avenue of retreat. In non-stand-your-ground states, when you face such threats outside your home (and, in some states, your business), you can only use deadly force against the assailant if you lack a perfectly safe avenue of retreat. In no states are you allowed to shoot someone who is simply shouting at you or moving towards you loudly and aggressively, unless you reasonably believe that you’re in danger of death, serious bodily injury, or the other harms I listed. (When the person is coming into your home, in many states you can indeed shoot, but that doesn’t apply to confrontations on the public street.)

That’s the basic crux of the debate for those who don’t wish to dig too deeply into it, and it should serve as a good primer for the uninitiated. Of course, there’s more to the story when you get down to the nitty-gritty details of individual cases. For example, if you feel “fearful for your life” but the facts of the case are insufficient to convince a jury that the fear was justified, you may not be exonerated. Further, as Volokh notes, a prosecutor may then be able to convince a jury that you were insincere in your claims of being in fear of you life, leaving you facing a full slate of charges.

Also, the “duty to retreat” doesn’t exist in too many states today, but where it does it will lead to frequent confusion and questions after the fact. If you are unfortunate enough to be caught in such a situation in one of these states, you may be forced to prove that you didn’t have a clear path to retreat from the danger at the time you made the decision to discharge your weapon. Volokh points out that you’ll rarely need such a defense if the potential assailant has a gun, since outrunning bullets isn’t generally held to be a viable option. But if the perceived threat was in the form of an assault with a knife or club – or even fists – and you were a fair distance away with safe shelter at hand, SYG will likely not be invoked on your behalf.

I’m not saying this isn’t complicated in some ways – pretty much everything in the legal arena is. But it’s also nothing remotely similar to the picture frequently painted by anti-gun rights nuts. Be forearmed by being well informed.