“A man’s house is his castle.” The old aphorism is a belief that has turned into law, now allowing men to protect not only their castles, but their parking spots, disposal rights, and even Taco Bell drive-throughs. These laws, referred to as “Stand Your Ground” (SYG) laws, have been adopted by 25 states since 2005.
Though their implementation is fairly new, SYG laws are based on an old concept. According to Caroline E. Light—author of Stand Your Ground: A History of America’s Love Affair With Lethal Self-Defense—in an interview with Time, the king was the ultimate protector in early English common law practices: one was not to defend themselves. The expectation was that if attacked, one was supposed to seek cover from the “wall behind [their] back” before responding with force.
However, in the early 1600s, attitudes towards the monarchy shifted as Enlightenment philosophers began suggesting that every individual is endowed with unalienable rights, one of which being that to life. Hence, the English adopted another common law practice called “castle doctrine,” which eliminated the duty to retreat if attacked in one’s own home.
In the 1980s, “make my day” laws, which addressed prosecutorial immunity in cases where deadly force was used against someone who unlawfully entered a person’s home, emerged in several states. Florida became the first to extend these protections beyond the home while also removing the duty to retreat in 2005. Twenty-four other states followed suit, with Idaho passing its law as late as March of this year.
While half the nation has these laws, they are not all created equal. Each state’s law is worded differently and has different specifications for what actions are justifiable.
Florida’s SYG laws have been the most controversial, with the most infamous of its cases being the 2012 fatal shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, in which shooter George Zimmerman claimed self-defense and was initially not charged under SYG. As recently as this month, another Florida case has received national attention—Michael Drejka’s fatal shooting of Markeis McGlockton, who shoved and knocked him to the ground during an argument over a parking space.
Both cases sparked outrage and calls for reform, but anti SYG advocates didn’t get the change they were hoping for. The law was amended this year so that the burden of proof that a shooter didn’t act in self-defense, and is therefore not protected under SYG, is now placed on the state, whereas previously it was the shooter’s responsibility to prove that they feared bodily harm to receive the law’s immunities.
Bob Gualtieri, the Pinellas County Sheriff who decided not to arrest Drejka because of SYG, spoke about the law in a press conference following the decision. “Nowhere else is there anything like this in criminal law where somebody asserts something and the burden then shifts to the other person,” said Gualtieri. “That’s a very heavy standard and it puts the burden on the state.”
Another attempt at change has been made by North Carolina’s legislature, this time in favor of those opposed to SYG. The bill, nicknamed the “Gun Safety Act,” is intended to be “an act to repeal the ‘stand your ground laws.’” It passed the first reading in the House and has been sent to the Judiciary I committee. As of April 11th, 2017, no further developments have been made on the act. The future of SYG laws is still being discussed by our elected officials to this day, with demands to change it remain rampant among both politicians and the public. Some consider it a “license to kill,” while others believe it to be a valid and necessary law that should stay in place.
by Sabine Joseph