Editor's Note: This column was co-authored by Ken Klukowski
Sadly, some are exploiting the Trayvon Martin shooting to target self-defense laws that protect innocent lives. These laws safeguard law-abiding and peaceable citizens, and are not to blame in the tragic Florida incident. Stand your ground laws did not apply in that situation, and statements to the contrary are irresponsible and misinformed.
In some states the law imposes a duty to retreat from physical confrontations. Whether in your home or on the street, if you fought back, you might be prosecuted as a criminal.
This duty was terrible law. It required you to turn your back on an assailant. Even if he doesn’t have a gun to shoot you in the back, if he’s faster he could attack you from behind, where it is extremely difficult to effectively respond.
Some states did not impose this absurd rule. To the contrary, other states took a common-sense approach to self-defense, which the U.S. Supreme Court in Beard v. U.S. endorsed as early as 1895, when the Court unanimously declared that an innocent person under attack was, “not obliged to retreat, but was entitled to stand his ground, and meet any attack upon him with a deadly weapon, in such a way and with such force as … [he] honestly believed, and had reasonable grounds to believe, was necessary to save his own life, or to protect himself from great bodily injury.”
In states that rejected this common-sense principle, one legislative response to the wrongheaded duty to retreat was the Castle Doctrine. The duty to retreat in some states required you to abandon your own home if confronted with an invader, leaving all your possessions to the invader and possibly endangering others.
Castle Doctrine comes from the maxim that “a man’s home is his castle.” The idea is that if someone breaks into your home, rather than worry about how much evidence there is that he intends you harm and whether you could prove it in a court of law, that the law presumes you have a reasonable fear of death or bodily harm and can respond accordingly.
Castle Doctrine doesn’t apply if you’re in a public place, however, and there is no legal presumption in public that you can reasonably assume someone is trying to kill you. Instead, some states have created a lesser form of protection in public places, called “Stand Your Ground” (SYG) laws. This is the law that has been mentioned in connection with the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman shooting.