Castle Doctrine is an essential aspect of personal freedom and safety. Originating from the age-old saying, “a man’s home is his castle,” the Castle Doctrine has become a legal principle synonymous with personal protection and the right to self-defense. Sometimes referred to as “castle law,” it provides homeowners with the legal entitlement to use force, potentially even the use of deadly force, for self-protection against an intruder in their homes. It’s a fundamental element of home defense. Understanding castle law is an integral part of responsible gun ownership and represents a strategic approach to home defense.
What Is Castle Doctrine Law?
The Castle Doctrine has been around for a long time — literally since the time of castles. Beginning as a part of English Common Law, it continued as an accepted legal precept after America won its independence from Great Britain.
“For a man’s home is his castle, and each man’s home is his safest refuge.”—Sir Edward Coke, English Jurist, The Institutes of the Laws of England, 1628
Castle Doctrine declared that people have a right to be secure in their homes against all comers. This concept was also enshrined in the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution:
“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue but upon probable cause…”
Castle Doctrine applies to your home, vehicle or business. Laws vary based on your location, but Castle Doctrine allows a person to use deadly force should he or she feel there is an immediate threat of death or great bodily harm.
Can You Shoot a Home Invader?
Castle Doctrine first appeared specific to state and local laws in 1985 in the state of Colorado. Colorado’s law shielded people from criminal and civil liability for using any force against a home invader. This law — and similar laws passed in many states — countered the legal concept of duty to retreat.
Duty to Retreat
The duty to retreat means that if someone breaks into your home, you must withdraw to the farthest point possible from the intruder before you can consider deadly force. For example, under duty to retreat, you cannot confront an intruder at the point of entry — not even to prevent access to the interior of your home and the rest of your family. Castle Doctrine has replaced duty to retreat in nearly every state.
In a Castle Doctrine state, if someone you don’t know enters your home, it is legal to draw your firearm. That’s not to say you won’t face legal troubles, but it’s certainly less likely. If your state has a duty to retreat, however, it’s probably not legal.
To win a self-defense case, you need to show that there was an imminent threat of great bodily harm. With certain triggering criteria met in your case, your defense can create automatic presumptions. There is less of a burden, then, to prove that you saw a weapon or felt threatened. Now the burden of proof is on the government to prove the reverse of your self-defense claim.
The availability of self-defense attorneys accessible to you can vary by region and market. look for someone who handles concealed carry, self-defense and gun laws almost exclusively. Handling self-defense incidents shouldn’t be something they do; it should be the only thing. The USCCA Members’ Attorney Network provides a good starting point for finding an attorney in your area.
If you haven’t chosen and spoken with an attorney prior to a self-defense incident, the Critical Response Team (CRT) can connect you in your time of need. Each member of the CRT has successfully completed education and certification in Critical Incident Stress Management, first response, crisis management and suicide prevention and is a member of the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation. After a self-defense crisis, your Critical Response Team Case Manager will work tirelessly to ensure every benefit the USCCA has to provide is at your full disposal.
Deadly Force as a Last Resort
Castle Doctrine should not determine the tactics you use to defend yourself. In many cases, it may be best that you do retreat to the farthest point in your house. Stand between your family and the threat and let the police clear your home.
By choosing not to retreat to the farthest point, you are putting yourself in greater danger and relinquishing your tactical advantage. Consider, for instance, the case of an Ohio teenager who thwarted a home invasion by confronting the intruder with a 9mm pistol. He was waiting in the living room with the gun drawn as the intruder entered through the front door. However, the intruder fled without any shots being fired.1
This situation could have easily taken a turn for the worse. If the intruder had been under the influence of drugs or acting irrationally, deciding that he could overpower the teen before he could fire, he might have leaped across the living room to disarm him. Most living rooms are between 12 to 20 feet in size, so this scenario isn’t far-fetched. If this had occurred, it would have turned into a life-and-death struggle to prevent the intruder from seizing the gun and using it against the teen.
A more prudent course of action for the teen would have involved retreating to the farthest point within the home, contacting the police and assuming a defensive position behind a locked door with the weapon ready. Material possessions can be replaced, but lives cannot.
While Castle Doctrine has been around for some 337 years now, it has multiple interpretations and variations. Some locales choose to ignore it entirely.
For example, a homeowner in Ohio, a state with a Castle Doctrine law, was tried for attempted murder after shooting two home invaders who, upon realizing the home they had broken into was occupied, tried to flee. The homeowner, even though he saw them trying to escape, still opened fire, injuring both intruders. Prosecutors pressed charges because, at that moment, the homeowner was no longer confronting an immediate threat.2
Make sure you understand the laws in your own state as well as those of other jurisdictions to which you travel while armed. Never consider these laws as something that automatically makes the use of deadly force your first option. Deadly force should always be an absolute last resort.
This article is a compilation of previous blog posts authored by Scott Wagner and attorney Tom Grieve.
(1) Anthony L. DeWitt, “After-School Intruder: Sixteen-Year-Old Foils Home Invasion,” Concealed Carry Magazine 20, no. 5 (July 2023): 42-43. (2) Kevin Michalowski, “Know the Laws: What ‘Castle Doctrine’ Is Not,” Concealed Carry Magazine 18, no. 7 (October 2021): 8.