The issue: Are ‘Stand Your Ground’ laws justified?
I want to be clear from the start that whether or not George Zimmerman’s acquittal was justified, the fact remains that Trayvon Martin is dead, and that is a tragedy. But in the interest of having a discussion about the merits of a law called “Stand Your Ground,” and not focusing on the Zimmerman trial — which didn’t rely on a “Stand Your Ground” defense — I’ll leave discussion of the ins and outs of what happened in Sanford, Fla., to others.
Before I discuss justifications for “Stand Your Ground” laws, it’s important to say a little bit about what they actually are. “Stand Your Ground” laws are closely related to an old legal concept, the “castle doctrine,” which had its beginnings in English common law. “Castle” states that an individual’s home is his castle, and that within its confines he has no duty to retreat from a potentially dangerous situation and may use force, including deadly force, to defend himself. This is common sense.
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If there is an intruder in your home, and you fear for your life or that of your family, you are under no obligation to run away and you have every right to defend yourself. Many states have some version of a castle doctrine on the books, including California. “Stand Your Ground” laws simply extend castle doctrine protections out of the home and into any place individuals lawfully have a right to be, provided they are not engaging in criminal activity.
So are “Stand Your Ground” laws necessary? Without them, the law requires people who believe they are in serious jeopardy to stop and assess whether it is safe to flee before defending themselves. This might sound reasonable, but in practice is more complicated.
As Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once noted, “ detached reflection cannot be demanded in the presence of an uplifted knife.” In other words, when victims are faced with a split-second decision whether to defend themselves or their families from violent acts, the law should be unambiguous — empowering them to take action.
However, the line between strict self-defense and stand your ground is often obscure, in part because of the nature of these dangerous situations where things can escalate quickly. In California (which does not have a “Stand Your Ground” law), a woman who shoots an aggressor attempting to sexually assault her could be criminally and civilly liable under some circumstances. This is precisely why “Stand Your Ground” laws are needed — wouldn’t it be better to err on the side of victims in these horrific cases? Far from being a “shoot first” law, stand your ground gives the benefit of the doubt to the victim.
Close to two dozen states have some form of “Stand Your Ground” law on the books. Some are more far-reaching than others, and some may need to be reviewed and possibly reformed. But without question, there are justifications for a general conception of a “Stand Your Ground” law. Perhaps this is why a recent Quinnipiac poll found that a majority of Americans support it: It’s just common sense.
John Allan Peschong served in President Ronald Reagan’s administration and later as a senior strategist for the campaigns of President George W. Bush. He is a founding partner of Meridian Pacific Inc., a public relations and public affairs company, and serves as chairman of the San Luis Obispo County Republican Party.