How Stand-Your-Ground Laws Affect Your State

Certain states have stand-your-ground laws — is yours one of them? Learn more about laws surrounding self-defense in each state.

American citizens are not normally subject to violent crime. On the rare occasions when it happens, you need to know the legal right of self-defense granted by your state’s law.

Can you use deadly force to defend yourself, or do you have an obligation to retreat first? If you stand your ground, are you subject to criminal prosecution?

Every state recognizes a self-defense claim against imminent death or serious bodily harm. Under the Second Amendment, most people have a right to buy a firearm in this country. Stand-your-ground statutes and other such laws do not change those rights. However, they do provide important checks and balances on that right in order to ensure public safety.

The right to use lethal force in self-defense is a powerful one. You have to use it responsibly. If you don’t understand your state’s self-defense laws, you may be sued for assault, battery, or wrongful death. And if you acted carelessly in enforcing your rights, you could be liable for negligence.

Even worse than civil liability, you could be convicted of a crime and sent to prison. This article will show you the self-defense laws in the various states and discuss how to follow them.

What Is a Stand-Your-Ground State Law?

Woman rounds corner while man with knife waits

Stand-your-ground laws (sometimes described as no-duty-to-retreat laws) provide that, in the event that you are violently attacked or in danger of great bodily harm, you may respond with deadly force without running away.

Threats justifying the use of deadly force vary by state. Threats of murder, kidnapping, and rape are typical crimes that can result in justifiable homicide.

These statutes relate to another concept found in the laws of many states: the castle doctrine.

Under the castle doctrine, an attack in a person’s home — perhaps during a home invasion — does not oblige the victim to run away from their attacker. The victim may use deadly force against the attacker if a reasonable person would believe that it is necessary.

Stand-your-ground laws build on the castle doctrine and go a step further. Rather than limit the right to use physical force inside your home, stand-your-ground statutes allow the use of physical force anywhere that you have a legal right to be, so long as you are not yourself doing something illegal at the time.

States with stand-your-ground laws have therefore extended the “castle” beyond one’s home. Generally speaking, you still need to be in imminent danger of harm (usually a felony) from the attacker. The use of deadly force should also be necessary to repel the attacker, based on what the average reasonable person would think.

What Do Stand-Your-Ground Law States Require?

Man stands his ground with gun in hand

The most important requirements of stand-your-ground laws are that you have a right to be where you are and that you are not engaged in illegal activity.

This does not mean, however, that you can shoot first and ask questions later. On the contrary — if a reasonable person would see you as the aggressor, you are in trouble.

This question was famously examined in the case of Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman.

On February 26, 2012, Zimmerman (a neighborhood watch volunteer) shot Martin dead after reporting him a “suspicious person” in his neighborhood.

After a year and a half of legal proceedings, Zimmerman was acquitted on the basis of Florida’s stand-your-ground law. In other words, Zimmerman did fall within the protection of the stand-your-ground law as a defense to the criminal charges.

A shooter like Zimmerman, however, can still be vulnerable to federal civil rights charges and/or a wrongful death lawsuit. (Note that in Zimmerman’s case, federal authorities investigated but did not bring charges.)

States That Have Stand-Your-Ground Laws

Gavel sitting atop map of United States

Though several states have common law that provides for self-defense similar to stand-your-ground laws, 27 states currently have statutes that are true stand-your-ground laws.  Those states are:

  • Alabama
  • Alaska
  • Arizona
  • Florida
  • Georgia
  • Idaho
  • Indiana
  • Iowa
  • Kansas
  • Kentucky
  • Louisiana
  • Michigan
  • Mississippi
  • Missouri
  • Montana
  • Nevada
  • New Hampshire
  • North Carolina
  • Oklahoma
  • Pennsylvania
  • South Carolina
  • South Dakota
  • Tennessee
  • Texas
  • Utah
  • West Virginia
  • Wyoming

States With Duty To Retreat or Castle Doctrine

Robber kneels on ground and picks the lock of a building

The remaining states do not have codified stand-your-ground laws. In these states, if you are attacked outside your home, you usually must try to escape your attacker before using deadly force.

There are two states with a duty to retreat with no specific stand-your-ground or castle doctrine law:

  • District of Columbia
  • Vermont

State legislatures passing stand-your-ground statutes is not the only way that states can legally protect self-defense. In some states, other statutes provide similar protections. In others, the courts have found stand-your-ground-type rights in the common law (case law).

These four states have no specific stand-your-ground statute, but do have protections in other sources of law:

  • California (state law presumes reasonable fear of death or injury when lethal force is used against an attacker in the home)
  • Colorado (recently amended law in July of 2020 to justify reasonable use of force)
  • New Mexico (limited common law castle doctrine applied by New Mexico Supreme Court in State v. Couch)
  • Washington (common law and jury instructions provide an equivalent of a stand-your-ground law)

The remaining states follow the castle doctrine. In those states, there is no duty to retreat in your own home. These laws tend to give deference to you in a home, and generally require that the use of deadly force is reasonable (according to the average person) in order to be justified.

These 18 states have statutes establishing the castle doctrine (with no duty to retreat), but not stand-your-ground laws:

  • Arkansas
  • Connecticut
  • Delaware
  • Hawaii
  • Illinois
  • Maine
  • Maryland
  • Massachusetts
  • Minnesota
  • Nebraska
  • New Jersey
  • New York
  • North Dakota
  • Ohio
  • Oregon
  • Rhode Island
  • Virginia
  • Wisconsin

You Can Be Sued for Standing Your Ground

Judge looks at witness in court

Keep in mind that stand-your-ground laws generally justify homicide and are a defense against homicide charges. In some states, however, it’s still possible that you can be sued by the attacker or their family for their injuries or death from the confrontation.

The idea that you can be found not guilty of a crime, yet liable for injuries or death, is confusing to many people. You must understand that criminal and civil questions are legally distinct. The solution lies in the respective burdens of proof in criminal and civil trials.

You may be familiar with the idea that, in a criminal prosecution, the state must prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt. In numerical terms, that requires a very high amount of evidence. “Beyond a reasonable doubt” is generally understood to mean 90% or more certainty by the jury that its conclusion is correct.

Civil cases, however, have a lower burden of proof: preponderance of the evidence. This standard means that when all the evidence is weighed, there is simply more to support the jury’s conclusion. A jury using this standard would only have to have 51% of the evidence supporting its conclusion to render a verdict under this standard.

So, in the case of a fatal shooting, let’s say that 60% of the evidence supports the fact that you wrongfully used lethal force against a home intruder. In a criminal case, that would not be enough to convict you of homicide. In a civil case, it would be enough to find you liable by a preponderance of the evidence.

Stay Safe and Be Smart

Though we live in a much safer society than we did a century ago, we still occasionally need to defend ourselves. We also need self-defense laws to make sure that, when people defend themselves, they do not maliciously or accidentally hurt others.

The right to use lethal force in defense of yourself or your family is a right that comes with great responsibility. If you have concerns about self-defense laws in your state, or if you have been injured by somebody you believe was in violation of those laws, please contact a qualified attorney in your state for a free consultation.

Matthew Carter, Esq. has been a licensed attorney since 2004. He’s admitted to practice law in California and Nevada, where he was awarded the Martindale.com rating of AV – Preeminent. Matthew has successfully handled a variety of personal injury and wrongful death cases, as well as trials, appeals, and evidentiary hearings throughout state and federal... Read More >>

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