Castle Doctrine: What is it, and Does Your State Have it?

Castle Doctrine is a term that’s thrown around on a regular basis in the gun world, but not everyone who talks about it truly understands what it entails from a legal perspective. In fact, the Castle Doctrine law varies by state, and although many states in the country have some form of Castle Doctrine in place, not all do. In fact, even the states that have a Castle Doctrine law in place might apply it to one location, but not another. Do you understand the Castle Doctrine where you live?

image of a castle surrounded by a moat with bridge leading to front doorway
Castle Doctrine varies by state (if your state even has it). (Photo credit: Hotels.com)

What is Castle Doctrine?

Generally speaking, the Castle Doctrine is a law or laws pertaining to the defense of a person’s home. Perhaps the most commonly understood definition is that the Castle Doctrine means a person is legally allowed to use deadly force to defend their place of residence, but that tends to be an over-simplification. There are a lot of nuances in Castle Doctrine law as well as a number of extreme differences based on location.

For the purposes of generalizing, and for a start, Castle Doctrine could be explained as a law that lets a person defend their house. But what does that really mean, and where did the term even come from?

image of man leaving the bed with a pistol indicating a home defense situation
Do you know if your state has some version of the Castle Doctrine law? (Photo credit: Walther)

Where did the term “Castle Doctrine” come from?

Mossberg mc2c
If you own a firearm for self-defense purposes, you need to understand the Castle Doctrine. (Photo credit: Mossberg)

Originally, “Castle Doctrine” was a phrase used in English common law. Its roots can be traced back to Semayne’s Law, which dates back to 1604. The case involved a pair of roommates—Richard Gresham and George Berisford—who lived in a house in London. Unfortunately, Berisford passed away, and when he died he was seriously in debt to a man named Peter Semayne. Interested in getting repaid, dead debtor or no dead debtor, Semayne managed to get a writ of attachment that basically allowed him to take the late Berisford’s belongings. However, those belongings were inside the house where Gresham still lived.

Semayne felt he could simply take what he wanted, so he sent the Sheriff of London to retrieve Berisford’s property. Gresham—who remained in residence—refused to allow the sheriff inside. Semayne’s solution was to sue Gresham.

The resulting court case went on for some time. At first, the Lords were evenly divided and unable to rule. As some sort of luck or timing would have it, King James VI and I’s coronation happened, and a new Lord was appointed to the court. This was the appointment that lead to what we now know as the Castle Doctrine.

In the end, the Court of the King’s Bench didn’t rule in favor of Semayne, they ruled against him. The incident was reported on by then-Attorney General of England Sir Edward Coke, who famously noted the following:

…the house of everyone is to him as his castle and fortress, as well for his defence [sic] against injury and violence for his response.

This, in turn, leads to the Semayne case influencing a number of legal cases and writings. One often-cited reference to Castle Doctrine was uttered by William Pitt, the 1st Earl of Chatham, when he was speaking to Parliament in 1763:

The poorest man may, in his cottage, bid defiance to all the force of the Crown. It may be frail; its roof may shake; the wind may blow through it; the storm may enter; but all his force dares not cross the threshold of the ruined tenant.

All of this is how the legal concept came about that a man’s home is his castle.

judge's gavel
When it comes to the Castle Doctrine, the law varies by state. (Photo credit: The Town of West New York)

What is the legal definition of Castle Doctrine?

According to the 11th edition of Black’s Law Dictionary, which is considered one of the preeminent sources of legal definitions, Castle Doctrine is:

Castle Doctrine. (1892) Criminal law. An exception to the retreat rule allowing the use of deadly force to protect one’s own home and its inhabitants from attack, esp. from a trespasser who intends to commit a felony or inflict serious bodily harm. (p. 270)

It’s important to note the Black’s definition is a generalization, not a specific guideline for all states—or any one state’s—actual laws.

What is Use of Force?

black and white image of three handguns
There are a lot of different words used to describe different parts of self-defense and it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with them. (Photo credit: NPR.org)

“Use of force” is a term that is frequently used when discussing self-defense. It refers to the force or actions used to defend oneself against a threat. It’s often phrased as “use of force, up to and including deadly force” to make it clear utilizing force can have deadly results. There are a lot of words and terms used to describe specific facets of self-defense and it can help you understand the related laws if you’re at least somewhat familiar with those words.

What does Castle Doctrine law even do?

If your state has a Castle Doctrine law in place, it means you are legally allowed to use force, up to and including deadly force, to defend your home. In some states that do not have Castle Doctrine laws, the homeowner or resident is legally expected to attempt to flee their own home rather than defend themselves against a home invader. What Castle Doctrine law does is it gives you what some states refer to as a legal presumption of reasonableness, meaning you were not legally required to retreat and were likely justified in your use of force.

What is a Reasonable Person?

In the section above, “reasonableness” is mentioned. What, exactly, is considered reasonable? What’s a reasonable person from a legal standpoint?

home defender with a smith & wesson pistol and flashlight
What is a reasonable person? (Photo credit: Smith and Wesson)

Going back to the 11th edition of Black’s Law Dictionary for the definition of a reasonable person, we find:

Reasonable person. (1856) 1. A hypothetical person used as a legal standard, esp. to determine whether someone acted with negligence; specif., a person who exercises the degree of attention, knowledge, intelligence, and judgment that society requires of its members for the protection of their own and of others’ interests. • The reasonable person acts sensibly, does things without serious delay, and takes proper but not excessive precautions. (p. 1519)

This is important for self-defense. Basically, it means a person can and will be judged by the following standard: Would a reasonable person have acted in that way if they were faced with those specific circumstances?

What is reasonable behavior? It depends on the person asked, but in self-defense cases, it’s typically safe to assume the jury will be considering whether the use of force was proportionate to the situation. For example, would a reasonable person use force, up to and including deadly force, to defend their home against a gun-wielding home invader who kicked in their front door? “Yes” seems obvious here. However, would it also be concerned reasonable for a person to use force, up to and including deadly force, against an elderly, confused Alzheimer’s patient who just happened to wander through an unlocked or open door and poses no credible threat? Take a moment to stop and consider what your reaction would be to someone walking into your home and what might be reasonable—or not.

Keep in mind the reasonableness of a person’s actions in a home defense case will be weighed by the jury. A jury is supposed to be made up of a person’s peers, but in reality, the jury is full of people from different walks of life with totally varying backgrounds. The odds that someone will get a jury that includes people well-versed in self-defense or firearms aren’t good. This means that your personal idea of reasonable behavior might not match what others believe.

Are Castle Doctrine and Stand Your Ground the same thing?

Cabot Guns 1911
Do you understand the difference between Castle Doctrine and Stand Your Ground laws? (Photo credit: Cabot Guns)

It’s vital to understand that the Castle Doctrine and Stand Your Ground laws are two entirely separate things. The Castle Doctrine law applies to a person’s legal right to defend their residence—or, depending on the state, their vehicle, or place of business—using force up to and including deadly force. As for Stand Your Ground, it has to do with whether or not a person is legally expected to retreat from a potential attacker while in public. This is known as a duty to retreat, which is defined by Black’s Law Dictionary as follows:

Duty to retreat. Criminal law. The duty that if a person is under attack, they should first seek retreat as preferred alternative to using force to act in self-defense.

Although there is some logical crossover between what Castle Doctrine and Stand Your Ground mean in layman’s terms, (because Castle Doctrine gives the homeowner the legal footing required to remain in their home and defend themselves rather than retreat), they’re not the same law. Do not confuse one with the other but understand they are separate and must be treated as such. That said, states that have both laws in place are nice from a legal perspective because Stand Your Ground can strengthen the Castle Doctrine.

Is Castle Doctrine a ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ Card?

No, the Castle Doctrine isn’t a free pass to do whatever you want in your place of residence or, if it applies in your state, in your vehicle. In many states, what the Castle Doctrine law gives a gun owner is a presumption that their actions were justified. That doesn’t mean a person cannot or will not be charged in a self-defense case, it just means the jury will be instructed to consider the case in a certain way based on the existence of the Castle Doctrine. It also doesn’t mean the prosecution can’t challenge that presumption and win, because anything and everything can happen in court. Your personal belief that your actions will be or were justified does not mean, by any stretch of the imagination, that the legal system will agree.

Get out of jail free Monopoly card
Sorry, the Get Out of Jail Free card is only a thing in Monopoly. (Photo credit: Monopoly)

Taking things a step into the strictly-legal world, here’s what Black’s Law Dictionary says about legal presumption:

Presumption. (15c) 1. Something that is thought to be true because it is highly probable. 2. A legal inference or assumption that a fact exists because of the known or proven existence of some other fact or group of facts. • Most presumptions are rules of evidence calling for a certain result in a given case unless the adversely affected party overcomes it with other evidence. A presumption shifts the burden of production or persuasion to the opposing party, who can then attempt to overcome the presumption. (p. 1435)

Is my car considered a castle?

Whether or not your vehicle is considered a castle under the Castle Doctrine law depends on the specifics of your state’s laws. In some states, such as Texas, the Castle Doctrine extends not only to vehicles but to modes of transportation you might not consider to be part of the law, such as horses. No, that doesn’t mean your attempt to use the Castle Doctrine to justify an act of self-defense while you’re riding your horse is going to work simply because you’re in the Lone Star State, it’s just an example of some things that have been or could potentially be covered. In other states, only the person’s place of residence is covered.

Glock 19 Gen five in vehicle as a truck gun
Whether or not the Castle Doctrine law extends to cover your vehicle depends on how the law is written in your state. (Photo credit: Chillywhale21 via reddit)

Check your local laws.

This gives you a general idea of what the Castle Doctrine means. To find out whether or not your state of residence has a Castle Doctrine law in place, check your local legal listings. Keep in mind the law is not necessarily going to be labeled as “Castle Doctrine” but will have some other title attached to it. Familiarize yourself with the particulars. Claiming ignorance of the law is not a valid legal defense.

Kat Ainsworth Stevens is a long-time outdoor writer, official OGC (Original Gun Cognoscenti), and author of Handgun Hunting: a Comprehensive Guide to Choosing and Using the Right Firearms for Big and Small Game. Der Teufel Katze has written for a number of industry publications (print and online) and edited some of the others, so chances are you've seen or read her work before, somewhere. A woman of eclectic background and habits, Kat has been carrying concealed for over two decades, used to be a farrier, and worked for a long time in emergency veterinary medicine. She prefers big bores, enjoys K9 Search & Rescue, and has a Master's Degree in Pitiless Snarkastic Delivery.

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