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Stand Your Ground laws do not allow you to ‘shoot first and ask questions later’

A Taran tactical combat master hand gun
AP Photo/Brittainy Newman, File
A Taran tactical combat master hand gun is displayed for sale in Hempstead, N.Y.

Three recent shootings have, understandably, raised concerns about the legality of using lethal force in self-defense. Sixteen-year-old Ralph Yarl was injured after approaching the wrong house in Kansas City while trying to pick up his siblings. Twenty-year-old Kaylin Gillis was killed after a car she was riding in pulled into the wrong driveway in upstate New York. And two teenage cheerleaders were shot in Austin, Texas, after one of them got into the wrong car in a grocery store parking lot.

Gun violence prevention advocacy groups like Everytown for Gun Safety and Moms Demand Action have used these events to renew criticisms of Stand Your Ground laws for emboldening people “to shoot to kill & claim self-defense.” Everytown even goes so far as to say these laws “give people a license to kill.”

These groups and even scholars studying gun violence refer to Stand Your Ground (SYG) laws as “shoot first” laws, short for “shoot first and ask questions later.” As a gun scholar, gun owner and opponent of gun violence, I fear that equating SYG with the legal right to “shoot first” could unintentionally mislead people into thinking that self-defense laws truly give them a blanket license to kill with impunity.

They do not.

Self-defense laws actually place significant limits on the ability of individuals to use lethal force in self-defense lawfully. Whether people fully understand those limitations is an empirical question, but critics should drop the language of “shoot first” in referring to these laws. Instead, in the interest of public safety, why not educate people on the limited range of behaviors they in fact allow?

First, the shootings of Ralph Yarl and Kaylin Gillis took place at the shooters’ homes, not in public spaces. Therefore, SYG law does not apply to these cases. (Not to mention that New York does not even have a SYG law.) If anything, they would fall under the common-law principle of “castle doctrine,” which allows people to use reasonable force — up to and including lethal force — to protect themselves and their loved ones at home. It allows people to stand their ground in their own “castle.”

SYG laws can be understood as extending castle doctrine into public space. They apply, in the language of Florida’s landmark law, to any individual “who is not engaged in an unlawful activity and who is attacked in any other place where he or she has a right to be.” These are significant limitations in themselves. Someone mistakenly getting into your car and then immediately exiting cannot reasonably be considered an attack, so no lawful acts of self-defense are justified. The shooting in the Austin grocery store parking lot looks much more like an act of criminal assault.

Second, even under SYG, all the other legal requirements for using lethal force in self-defense still apply. In addition to innocence, there is the issue of proportionality: A person only has a right to “meet force with force, including deadly force.” This also highlights that the individual claiming self-defense must establish their reasonableness. The person must convince a prosecutor or a jury that other reasonable people in the same circumstances would similarly believe they were in danger of death or great bodily harm.

From where I stand, shooting someone through the locked glass of your front door or at a car in your driveway does not rise to the reasonableness standard required by self-defense law. These cases are reminiscent of the killings of Renisha McBride in Detroit and Jordan Davis in Jacksonville. Both shooters claimed self-defense but are now incarcerated for murder.

Reasonableness, of course, is determined in the criminal justice system, which is marred by racial inequality. But the flawed application of law and a flawed law are not the same. People of goodwill can disagree about whether Stand Your Ground laws are, on balance, good or bad. But both gun owners and non-owners must understand what self-defense laws actually allow and prohibit — politically charged rhetoric like “shoot first” is harmful.

Stand Your Ground does not allow anyone to “shoot first and ask questions later.” Not within the law, at least. Please stop saying it does.

David Yamane (@davidyamane) is a professor of sociology at Wake Forest University and author most recently of “Understanding and Misunderstanding American Gun Culture and Violence.” He is currently completing a book on American gun culture called “Gun Curious.

Tags Castle Doctrine Everytown for Gun Safety Gun rights Gun violence in the United States Moms Demand Action Self-defense Stand your ground laws

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