What is Stand Your Ground Law? Understanding Legal Deadly Force

On December 16, 1971, Roberta E. Shaffer sat down to breakfast with her violent and abusive fiancé, John Ferruzzo. Her two children from a previous marriage were downstairs in the basement. As a woman suffering from physical and mental abuse, Shaffer was scared of the consequences of leaving Ferruzzo. He had previously threatened to kill her if they broke up. An argument over breakfast that morning escalated between the two and Ferruzzo once again threatened Shaffer. Frightened for her life, Shaffer sought safety in the basement with her children. Ferruzzo stood at the top of the stairs yelling to Shaffer that if she did not come back up he would go into the basement and kill both her and her children. Before Shaffer could get law enforcement on the phone, Ferruzzo started to descend the stairs. Terrified for her and her children’s lives, Shaffer loaded a .22 LR rifle and shot Ferruzzo dead. Shaffer was convicted of manslaughter. The Massachusetts court found:

We prefer instead to follow our long-established rule that the right to use deadly force by way of self-defense is not available to one threatened until he has availed himself of all reasonable and proper means in the circumstance to avoid combat.

In other words, Shaffer had a legal duty to retreat instead of using force. The duty to retreat means that people must attempt to remove themselves from a deadly situation.

Massachusetts has since enacted the Castle Doctrine, meaning one does not have to retreat from their home when threatened with bodily harm or imminent death: “There shall be no duty on said occupant to retreat from such person unlawfully in said dwelling.”

Stand Your Ground extends the rights to defend ourselves outside the home with no duty to retreat.
Stand Your Ground extends the rights to defend ourselves outside the home with no duty to retreat. Picture By: Oleg Volk

What if Shaffer and Ferruzzo’s altercation had occurred at her mother’s house, at Shaffer’s place of employment, the local park, or on a street corner? In states were Shaffer would have been justified in killing her fiancé in a public place are called “stand your ground law” states. “Stand your ground laws” extend the Castle Doctrine, where legally committed homicide is justified in a public space without the obligation to attempt escape.

You have no duty to retreat if
•You are lawfully in the place you are
•You are not engaged in criminal activity
•You feel your life is in imminent danger

All but 19 states (California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, New Mexico, Rhode Island, Vermont, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Virginia, Washington and the District of Columbia) has some sort of Castle Doctrine. Some states have a Castle Doctrine that extends outside the home, but only in a personal vehicle: Missouri, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin.

“Stand your ground laws” are not new. In fact, in the 1921 United States Supreme Court case of Brown v. United States, (read more about the case at the following link: Brown v. United States) the court ruled in favor of the defendant who justly killed a man displaying aggressive and threatening behavior outside of the defendant’s home.

Florida was the first state to enact a “stand your ground law” in 2005, with many states following. Now over 20 states have some form of no duty to retreat law. Misinterpreted as “shoot first” laws, many people do not understand that a Stand your Ground Law is simply an extension of the Castle Doctrine. Self-defense and firearms expert Massad Ayoob presents an explanation of the law stating that Stand Your Ground Laws do have restrictions. It is not a shoot first ask questions later law. One cannot shoot simply because they are afraid. In all justified homicides, in the public domain and in your home, the person you shoot must have the ability to harm you, the opportunity, and have put you in jeopardy. You cannot legally apply unreasonable force.

Texas A&M University studied crime rates in over 20 states that have some form of Stand Your Ground law and found that crime did not increase. Studies in Florida show justified homicide rates have increased. However, there is no proof the two—stand your ground and increased deaths—are related. Studies in other states found the same laws did not increase justified homicide rates. It is difficult to prove causation because self-defense outside the home has always been legal if deemed necessary. Extension of the Castle Doctrine makes sense, as Daniel Webster, director of Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research put it, “the very general notion that citizens should be able to protect themselves and you shouldn’t have to, in essence, run from crime.”

“Stand your ground laws” have no intention of allowing people to justify unreasonable force. For example, you cannot legally shoot someone yelling threatening comments at you from across the mall parking lot. Remember necessity is part of every state’s self-defense law when you can use deadly force:

•Was it justified?
•Was it necessary?
•Was deadly force reasonable?
•Was death or serious bodily injury imminent?

For a further explanation on when you can use deadly force, read When can you Use Deadly Force?

Stand Your Ground extends the rights to defend ourselves outside the home with no duty to retreat. Therefore, the woman pinned up against the wall in the underground parking lot, threatened with rape can justly use her weapon of choice to fend off an attack without having to endure a long and expensive trial. These laws allow us to defend ourselves rightfully outside the home from a dangerous attack.