What It Means to Stand Your Ground in a Changing United States

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Issue 9, Volume 111

By Lauren Chin 

Cover Image

The United States has become increasingly dangerous over the past year. Even with the ongoing lockdown, riots and attacks have become more and more common. Many are prepared to defend their lives from those with opposing viewpoints, no matter what it takes. Yet when is it truly justified to use lethal force?

In Ohio, the Stand Your Ground law allows civilians who legally own guns to use lethal force when faced with life-threatening circumstances. Up until January 4, the legislature only applied if a person was in their home or vehicle. In any other instance, they were required to retreat from the situation first. Now, the law has been expanded to allow lawful use of lethal force in any place in which the person lawfully has a right to be at.

While this expansion may seem extreme, Ohio’s decision is merely the most recent in a large number of doctrines. Some form of the Stand Your Ground law exists in every state in America, but in only 14 states, New York being one of them, are citizens asked to attempt retreat before using lethal force.

The purpose of this law is clear: to provide more safety and freedom to those who are legally allowed to own and carry guns. After all, as citizens of the United States, we have the right to bear arms and act in self-defense according to the Second Amendment. In a perfect world, the Stand Your Ground law would allow citizens to successfully protect themselves, their families, and their communities from violent attacks.

Unfortunately, the reality is a bit more complicated. Despite its intentions, the Stand Your Ground law may do more harm than good. RAND Corporation compiled multiple studies related to the Stand Your Ground law and similar doctrines in April of 2020. Research gathered from seven separate experiments indicated that the law may lead to more violent crime, as criminals would prepare for civilians armed with guns. This may incentivize criminals to carry more dangerous weapons or use lethal force more liberally in order to prevent attempts of self-defense. The same study also explains that there is no evidence that these laws actually prevent any gun-related misconduct.

Furthermore, those who carry guns aren’t always the perfect protectors. It’s unreasonable to expect every citizen to behave as a trained officer would. There is always a possibility that someone will make a mistake and further escalate the situation. When officers arrive at the scene, it may be difficult to discern who the initial attacker actually was.

In addition, some people have attempted to use these and similar laws as justification for their actions that would otherwise be condemned as criminal. The first time the Stand Your Ground laws came under intense scrutiny was in 2012, when high school student Treyvon Martin was fatally shot. George Zimmerman, the shooter, claimed that he had acted in self-defense and was ultimately acquitted of all charges. This supposed claim of innocence sparked outrage throughout the nation as people wondered what threat an unarmed teenager could pose. Though his attorneys did not explicitly claim that Zimmerman was “standing his ground,” many still attributed this not-guilty verdict as a direct result of the Stand Your Ground law.

More recently, in late August of 2020, a teenager named Kyle Rittenhouse brought a rifle to Kenosha, Wisconsin. There, many rioters were protesting on behalf of Jacob Blake, who had been paralyzed in a police shooting. By the end of the night, Rittenhouse had wound up killing two people and severely injuring a third. Public statements from his lawyer and supporters claimed that he had the right to draw a gun, as he was only there to keep the peace in Kenosha and thus acted in self-defense. Rittenhouse was officially charged with homicide but pled not guilty on January 5.

The definition of “self-defense” becomes blurry in situations like these. Often, it can create a situation of one person's word against another’s. There is no clear boundary on when the Stand Your Ground law should actually be used, especially since there seems to be a racial disparity between those who are successful in using it and those who are not. For example, soon after Zimmerman was exonerated, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center conducted a study on successful Stand Your Ground cases throughout the United States. He found that white people who killed Black people were far more likely to be found justified in their killings than any other pairings, especially in states with a Stand Your Ground law. Once again, the Stand Your Ground law fails to establish a concrete definition of “self-defense.”

Ultimately, the initial idea of the Stand Your Ground law is not the issue. Though giving citizens the right to protect themselves from danger is well-meaning, it is not necessarily practical in a place as politically volatile as the United States. In order to ensure its true success, a clear definition of self-defense must be included in its policies. This clarification would ensure that these laws aren’t subject to a different interpretation each time they are brought up in court, setting a coherent standard for all cases.

At the very least, other states could follow New York’s precedent. Here, citizens are tasked with a duty of retreat before using lethal force. In other words, they can only claim self-defense and use the Stand Your Ground law if they attempt to disengage from the situation. Of course, there are always exceptions; when a person is inside their own home or vehicle or if they are threatened with kidnapping or assault, no duty to retreat is necessary.

It’s important to realize that laws and regulations do not always work perfectly in the real world. Many proponents of a policy only advocate on behalf of the hypothetical benefits without looking at its actual impact. The Stand Your Ground law is an unfortunate example of this situation where people see it solely as a way to protect themselves without acknowledging the unnecessary danger that it can cause.