In speaking out against "Stand Your Ground" self-defense laws this week, Attorney General Eric Holder criticized legislation that has been enacted in some two dozen states and has been backed by powerful gun lobbyists since the first such law was passed in Florida in 2005.
Stand Your Ground laws — sometimes referred to as "Shoot First" laws by detractors — change the legal definition of self-defense for citizens who feel they are being confronted with deadly force or imminent danger. They have been part of the public discussion around the George Zimmerman trial; although the legal team arguing on behalf of the man who was found not guilty of shooting Trayvon Martin did not ask for an immunity hearing under the law, the instructions given to the jury borrowed language from the statute.
Normally, a citizen has a duty to retreat when confronted with what they perceive to be deadly force. The Stand Your Ground doctrine mostly removes that, meaning citizens who feel threatened are no longer required to try to quell a situation first before having the right to use deadly force in self-defense.
With major support from the National Rifle Association under a Republican state legislature during Gov. Jeb Bush's administration, Florida became the first state to enact a Stand Your Ground law on Oct. 1, 2005. Since then, Stand Your Ground law has been invoked in more than 200 cases in Florida where charges were dismissed or defendants were acquitted or not charged at all, according to The Tampa Bay Times.
There are three parts to Florida's Stand Your Ground law. It states that a person is presumed to have reasonable fear of imminent death or great bodily harm when using defensive force if an intruder has broken into his or her home or vehicle and is justified in using force; it states that a person does not have a duty to retreat if he or she believes death or bodily harm is imminent; and it provides immunity from criminal prosecution and civil action for justifiable use of force.
What made it such radical legislation was the automatic presumption of reasonable fear. Inside Florida homes and cars, it overrode previous self-defense laws that required proof that an individual felt a reasonable enough level of fear to use self-defense.
Florida as a model
In other states, "Stand Your Ground" laws are strikingly similar to Florida's.
"The biggest difference in any of the laws are where they have the right to defend themselves. Some require that you be in your home or your car. Some have expanded that to say you can just be on the street corner," said Ryan Sibley, a writer and researcher at the non-profit think tank Sunlight Foundation.
Here are several other notable Stand Your Ground differences by state, as well as some court cases where it's been applied:
Texas: A person can only use Stand Your Ground if they have the right to be present at the location where the deadly force is used, and has not provoked the person against whom the deadly forced is used.
In November 2007, Joe Horn, 61, of Pasadena, Texas, saw two burglars break into his neighbors' home, according to The New York Times. He grabbed his shotgun and called 911, offering to the 911 operator, "I've got a shotgun; do you want me to stop them?" Despite the emergency operator telling him no, he allegedly went over and killed the two men. Horn claimed self-defense and wasnot indicted when he went before a grand jury.
North Carolina: Exceptions to the use of deadly force as listed in North Carolina's law are against police officers or law enforcement, bail bondsmen and landlords. Stand Your Ground passed in North Carolina in 2011.
Kansas: Kansas' Stand Your Ground law specifies the person can't be engaged in illegal activity while defending him or herself. The law, enacted in 2006, has rarely been applied in Kansas, The Wichita Eagle notes.
Louisiana: Byron Thomas, 21, of Lafourche Parish, La., was cleared by a grand jury in the death of 15-year-old Jamonta Miles in February 2012 because he claimed he acted in self-defense when he shot an SUV the boy was in. The two may have been in rival gangs, according to Louisiana's HoumaToday.com; Thomas fired on the vehicle after getting into an argument while trying to buy marijuana. Louisiana's Stand Your Ground law passed in 2006.
Arizona: In April 2012, Cordell Jude, 22, was driving in Phoenix when Daniel Adkins Jr. walked in front of him with his dog. "Watch it!" Jude yelled to Adkins, who was mentally disabled, according to USA TODAY. Adkins then swung what looked like a pipe in the air and Jude shot and killed him — the pipe-like object turned out to just be a dog leash. Jude claimed self-defense; he remained free for three months, but now faces second-degree murder charges and is set to go to trial next month, according to the Maricopa County Sheriff's office. The Arizona Stand Your Ground law passed in 2010.
Oklahoma: In 2010, Carl England of Tulsa was shot in the chest and killed after attacking another man he accused of breaking into his daughter's apartment. His killer, Pernell Jefferson, 37, was not charged with the murder, due to Stand Your Ground, but is serving a six-year sentence on a weapons charge, according to The Associated Press. Oklahoma enacted its Stand Your Ground law, which closely mirrors Florida's, in 2006.
Georgia: John McNeil hired Brian Epp, a construction company owner, to build a new house for him in Cobb County, Ga., in 2005. In December 2005, McNeil's son got into an argument in the backyard with Epp, who allegedly pulled out a pocketknife. Upon hearing this, McNeil rushed home and fired a warning shot with his gun, reported Salon.com. But Epp charged toward him, allegedly reaching for his pocket knife again. McNeil fired another shot, this time hitting Epp in the head and killing him. In 2006, despite the state passing a Stand Your Ground law earlier in the year, McNeil was sentenced to life in prison, which was later reduced after he pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of manslaughter.
The laws' origins
Many of the 20-plus states that have this type of legislation passed it quickly after Florida did.
"It happened very, very quickly, in rapid succession," said Jeannie Suk, a Harvard law professor who has written extensively about self-defense and criminal law. "The National Rifle Association at the time stated its intention to do it in Florida and then use it as a jumping-off point for a sweeping change in self-defense law across the country. They were not at all shy or apologetic about that. This was the goal."
The laws, while less than a decade old, are steeped in centuries-old principles.
"There's a lot of misperception right now going on about these Stand Your Ground laws, as if they sprung out of nowhere, with no precedence or no history to them," Suk said.
In fact, they have their foundation in the Castle Doctrine — a 17th century English common law that was eventually brought to all states in the U.S. — which says that if an intruder breaks into an individual's home, the individual is not obligated to try to retreat before defending him or herself with force.
Everywhere else, according to the Castle Doctrine, individuals can use deadly force to defend themselves only after retreating as far as possible — "the phrase was to the wall at one's back," said Suk — with the idea being that in a public place in the 1600s, the king and his men were supposed to keep the peace while all other people stepped aside. But at home, or inside the castle, deadly force without retreating first was allowed.
"In no states were you obligated to try to retreat from your home if attacked in your home," Suk said. "Both in England and when it was transplanted to the U.S., every single state said you didn't have to retreat from an intruder."
But, she added, that doesn't mean one is excused from the requirements of the regular self-defense law, which generally requires citizens show they're in reasonable fear of serious bodily injury or death that is imminent.