There are laws throughout the U.S. that allow people to defend themselves when threatened, but the latitude that they have to do so varies from state to state. Many states have enacted so-called stand your ground laws that remove any duty to retreat before using force in self-defense. Florida passed the first such law in 2005, generally allowing people to stand their ground instead of retreating if they reasonably believe that doing so will "prevent death or great bodily harm."
Some states have self-defense laws on the books that are similar to stand your ground laws, often with one key difference. While they also remove any duty to retreat, these laws usually apply to specific locations such as one's home or business and are often referred to as "castle doctrine" or "defense of habitation" laws. Most U.S. states have castle doctrine laws, including California, Illinois, Iowa, Oregon, and Washington.
Variations of Self-Defense Laws
Other states followed Florida's lead with laws specifically affirming the right of their residents to defend themselves, even outside of their homes and with deadly force if necessary. Although some states may use a blend of self-defense doctrines, their laws generally fall into the following three categories:
Stand Your Ground States
It's important to understand that even states that have stand your ground laws still have certain restrictions when it comes to using force in self-defense. For example, they may require that the threat of perceived harm be objectively reasonable and that the force used be proportional to the threat. Stand your ground laws may also require that the person using self-defense be at the location lawfully (and not trespassing, for example) and that the person using self-defense was not the initial aggressor in the altercation.
Here are the states that have passed stand your ground laws and generally removed the duty to retreat:
Note: Some states have adopted stand your ground-like doctrines through judicial interpretation of their self-defense laws -- but they're not included on this list.
States That Impose a Duty to Retreat
On the other end of the legal spectrum, some states impose a duty to retreat. A duty to retreat generally means that you can't resort to deadly force in self-defense if you can safely avoid the risk of harm or death (by running away, for example). If that's not an option, say if you were cornered or pinned down and facing serious harm or death, then you would be authorized to use deadly force in self-defense.
It's important to note that many of the states that impose a duty to retreat, don't impose that duty when a person is in a residence, meaning that they adhere to the castle doctrine. So, even if you're in a state that imposes a duty to retreat, it's important to read the letter of the law because there may be an exception to the duty if a person is using self-defense in their home.
Ask an Attorney About Stand Your Ground Laws in Your State
New laws on self-defense crop up all the time and can vary widely from state to state. They may also have minor, but crucial differences in their language and application. To learn more about self-defense laws in your state and whether they would apply to you, contact a local criminal defense attorney.