What ‘stand your ground’ laws actually mean

Two commenters on the McCullen v. Coakley threads have posted:

If I ask someone to stop impeding me and stop shouting at me, and that person continues to move toward me loudly and aggressively … it seems to me that people have been shot for less in “stand your ground” states.

and

I wonder what will happen when the first young woman feels fearful for her life and shoots a protester in a SYG state?

Seems to me that there’s either a lot of misinformation about what “stand your ground” means, or attempts to sow misinformation.

Here’s the deal:

1. 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.)

2. What if you just feel fearful for your life, but it’s not reasonable for you to feel such fear (again, of death, serious bodily injury, etc.), and you shoot and kill the person you fear? In some states, that would still be murder; in others, it will still be a crime, but a lesser one, usually called involuntary manslaughter or negligent homicide. But of course if your fear is unreasonable, a jury might conclude that it was insincere, too (even given that the prosecution must disprove your defense beyond a reasonable doubt, in all states but Ohio).

3. The stand-your-ground vs. duty-to-retreat distinction comes up in the relatively unusual case in which you are faced with a threat of death, serious bodily injury, etc., but you can escape with perfect safety. If you’re facing an assailant with a gun, it generally doesn’t matter what state you’re in, because you generally can’t escape a gun with perfect safety. So if you’re in the fortunately very rare scenario in which you reasonably believe that the person outside the clinic will imminently shoot you, you can shoot him in any state (if you’ve got a gun, that is). And if you’re in the much more common scenario in which you just think the person might slap you or block your entrance or insult you, you can’t shoot him in any state. Only in the very rare scenario in which you think the person might kill or seriously injure you, but with a deadly weapon that you can flee with perfect safety would it matter whether you’re in a stand-your-ground state or a duty-to-retreat state.

4. In Florida, the “stand your ground” principle is also used to refer to certain statutory procedural protections that are provided to people who claim reasonable self-defense; the cases against them can be dismissed at an early pretrial stage, if the judge concludes that they were likely innocent. That’s an important procedural protection, but it doesn’t affect the substantive rules I describe here.

Eugene Volokh teaches free speech law, religious freedom law, church-state relations law, a First Amendment Amicus Brief Clinic, and tort law, at UCLA School of Law, where he has also often taught copyright law, criminal law, and a seminar on firearms regulation policy.
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Eugene Volokh | June 27