You should not have to flee from an assailant — especially in your own home. If someone breaks into your residence, you should have greater legal latitude to defend yourself and your family than you might in public. The law should recognize the obvious and imminent danger a home invasion presents to a victim. Even so, two of the most misunderstood concepts in the national gun-policy debate are Castle Doctrine and so-called “stand your ground” laws.
Fallacies on both sides of the debate have led to a cartoonish “Wild West” misperception that you can shoot a person simply for being in your home. Some even ridiculously suggest that if you shoot an assailant who is off of your property, you should drag him or her onto your property to strengthen your legal case. I am no lawyer, and I am not in the business of giving legal advice, but as a fellow citizen, I urge you to learn more about the self-defense laws in your area and make sure you understand exactly what Castle Doctrine means in your specific jurisdiction and whether it applies to your personal situation. That understanding will serve you well as you continue your journey in personal safety, and it will help you when you enter debates over gun policy.
While statutes and court rulings vary, the general legal principle of self-defense means that you can employ proportionate force to protect yourself from imminent harm. The burden is on you to prove a self-defense claim. Some states, however, require that you exhaust lesser alternatives before resorting to deadly force. In other words, in those states, if someone is escalating a situation into an altercation, you should try to leave the scene before doing anything else — especially drawing your pistol. Some states acknowledge that you have no duty to retreat from an attacker, which is known as “stand your ground.” Other states distinguish that you have no duty to flee your own home; that is known as “Castle Doctrine.” Some states have both.
Self-defense law is tricky because it varies so much by location and is subject to interpretation by law enforcement, prosecutors and juries. Ultimately, it comes down to whether a “reasonable person in the same situation” would make the same choices. You don’t have the legal authority to shoot someone who is stealing an item from you or even necessarily someone who is striking you. But if you are in your home, car or workplace and an intruder enters, you deserve the legal presumption that you have a reasonable fear of imminent death or great bodily harm — and that is what we are seeking when we advocate for Castle Doctrine. It is not just some partisan talking point. Even California recognizes that principle in California Penal Code Section 198.5:
Any person using force intended or likely to cause death or great bodily injury within his or her residence shall be presumed to have held a reasonable fear of imminent peril of death or great bodily injury to self, family, or a member of the household when that force is used against another person, not a member of the family or household, who unlawfully and forcibly enters or has unlawfully and forcibly entered the residence and the person using the force knew or had reason to believe that an unlawful and forcible entry occurred.
Explaining Castle Doctrine or Stand Your Ground to the Other Side
The easiest way to explain Castle Doctrine or stand your ground to a skeptic is to delve into what its absence means in a self-defense situation: The law would be placing a duty to retreat on the victim of a crime. Are we really going to ask a victim why she didn’t run from her would-be rapist before she shot him? Are we really asking a man being robbed to turn his back on someone with a knife? Given that self-defense, in general, is a positive claim that must be proven by the defense in court, how do you prove the reasonableness of a split-second judgment call that you didn’t think you could outrun an assailant or the determination that running might have been counterproductive?
Castle Doctrine and stand-your-ground clauses in the law don’t change the classic requirements for a defendant to claim self-defense. They simply remove a nuanced, tactically dubious and nearly impossible-to-prove expectation that a victim should try to run from an aggressor. This flies in the face of the hysterical predictions gun-control proponents make about our communities turning into the next Dodge City, Deadwood or Tombstone. And as gun-rights advocates, we need to make a strong case for rational self-defense laws that favor victims over victimizers.
Some states want to send a clear legislative message that no person should go looking for a fight and that every party in a conflict should be making reasonable efforts to de-escalate, act rationally and maintain civility. That desire is understandable and, indeed, admirable. But particularly in your own home, car or workplace, you deserve the presumption that you are minding your own business and that a criminal invading such a place can be presumed to mean you harm.
Jim is a concerned citizen and gun-rights advocate. His opinions are his alone and do not reflect the official position of his agency. References and links to other gun-advocacy groups do not imply endorsement of those organizations. He can be reached at [email protected].