GunMag 101: Understanding Stand Your Ground

As someone interested in or practicing concealed carry, you should be familiar with certain terms and laws. That includes Stand Your Ground laws, which are frequently misunderstood or have their purpose misstated. But don’t worry, we’re here to explain the basics of Stand Your Ground laws and what they do and do not have to do with the Castle Doctrine. As always, this content is not legal advice and should not take the place of information or advice from an attorney. This is meant as a general information article only.

kyle carruth and chad read - stand your ground
The Kyle Carruth and Chad Read case made national headlines and involved discussions on Stand Your Ground laws. (Photo credit: Lubbock Avalanche Journal)

What is Stand Your Ground?

It’s important to understand that while the general concept of Stand Your Ground might be simple, it can vary significantly by location. Generally speaking, Stand Your Ground laws have to do with whether or not you have a legal duty to retreat from a threat. Some states have both Stand Your Ground laws and Castle Doctrine laws, and in those cases, the two help shore one another up. But in some states, there’s only a Stand Your Ground. And in yet another subsection of states, there are Stand Your Ground laws in place that only apply to specific locations, such as your vehicle. It’s important for you to check your state’s current laws to find out precisely what laws are in effect and what specific locations they cover.

In layman’s terms, Stand Your Ground laws tell you if you have a legal obligation to try to leave the scene of a potential attack rather than defend yourself.

kyle rittenhouse kicked in head - stand your ground case
Caught on video: Career criminal Maurice Freeland kicks Kyle Rittenhouse, who has been knocked to the ground, in the head. (Photo credit: Chicago Tribune)

Does a Stand Your Ground law mean you’re immune from prosecution?

The answer to whether or not a Stand Your Ground law grants you immunity from prosecution depends on numerous factors. In the broadest sense, no, a Stand Your Ground law being in effect in a state doesn’t mean you’re automatically immune from criminal prosecution. The specific parameters of the law must be met in order for you, the victim, to be protected in any way by the law’s existence. Simply having a law exist doesn’t translate to magical powers that mean you can’t be charged.

Two cases come to mind when discussing Stand Your Ground laws or the lack thereof: George Zimmerman and Kyle Rittenhouse. Zimmerman’s case took place in Florida, which just happens to have put a Stand Your Ground law in effect in 2005. It’s worth noting Florida already had the right to self-defense for the purpose of preventing imminent death in place for well over a century prior. For reference’s sake, that’s covered in Florida by Lovett v. State, 30 Fla. 142, 163-64 (Fla. 1892) (“to excuse homicide there must exist on the part of the slayer an actual necessity to kill in order to prevent the commission of a felony or great bodily harm, or a reasonable belief in his mind that such necessity exists”).

The Zimmerman case began in 2012 and went into 2013, when he was acquitted. Yes, George Zimmerman was charged and went through a lengthy, expensive trial, despite being in Florida where there was a Stand Your Ground law in place.

Kyle Rittenhouse’s case took place more recently in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Now, Wisconsin does not technically have a Stand Your Ground law. The state does have a Castle Doctrine law in place that extends to place of residence, place of work, and vehicle (all must be occupied, of course). That said, it is true that Wisconsin’s statute regarding self-defense and defense of others can be construed as a Stand Your Ground law of sorts. Rittenhouse’s case spanned from August 2020 to November 2021. After a media frenzy that just might have outdone Zimmerman’s case, Rittenhouse was found not guilty of all charges.

Bottom line: both Zimmerman and Rittenhouse were charged and had to go through incredibly expensive trials that had a tremendous impact on their lives. Zimmerman was in a Stand Your Ground state and Rittenhouse was not. Their trials had similar outcomes, but those trials still happened. Just having the Stand Your Ground law in effect doesn’t mean you won’t be prosecuted. If you are confused about how Stand Your Ground works, consult a qualified attorney.

Does it give you permission to fight?

Quite simply, no, the Stand Your Ground law doesn’t give you carte blanche to get into a fight. Depending on the state in question, Stand Your Ground laws have certain parameters that must be met, including the presence of an immediate, credible threat. And while you might feel the presence of that law gives you permission to fight, it’s always best practice to simply leave the area whenever possible. Walking away from a potential fight is a win.

Similarly, a Stand Your Ground law doesn’t give anyone the legal permission to kill. That’s a common misconception in the media and among many non-gun owners. One case to look into regarding this topic is Texas v. Raul Rodriguez. Let’s just say Rodriguez went to prison.

What a Stand Your Ground law can offer is the legal right to defend yourself against an immediate, credible threat. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t leave if you can, and it doesn’t mean people can do whatever they want.

civil court
Civil court is not the same as criminal court, and Stand Your Ground laws don’t mean you can’t be touched in civil court. (Photo credit: Gothamist)

Can you be sued in civil court if you’re acquitted in criminal court under Stand Your Ground?

This is one of those questions that depends on the state due to the many nuances in laws. Generally speaking, you can still be sued in civil court even if you’ve been found not guilty or acquitted under Stand Your Ground. There are certainly exceptions, but there is no golden ticket ensuring you can’t or won’t be used in civil court once criminal court comes to an end.

two handguns
There are a lot of nuances to self-defense law, and it’s smart to get familiar with them. (Photo credit: Kat Stevens)

What good is Stand Your Ground?

Stand Your Ground laws mean you don’t have a duty to retreat. Certain legal criteria must be met for your actions to fall under Stand Your Ground, and that criteria can vary by state. What Stand Your Ground laws do is strengthen your right to self-defense in the face of an immediate, credible threat. They might sound unimportant, but they’re not.

This is why it’s so important to have access to a qualified attorney to answer your questions before anything ever happens, not just after. Every state is different. Consider getting self-defense coverage that includes access to ask attorneys non-emergency questions to help educate yourself. Knowledge is power.

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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