This project was produced by News21, a national investigative reporting project involving top college journalism students across the country and headquartered at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University
Americans are more empowered than they have ever been by stand your ground or similar laws to use firearms to protect themselves and their property, though the laws are applied inconsistently across the country, a News21 analysis shows.
Since 2005, 31 states have adopted stronger self-defense laws, making it more difficult for police and prosecutors to prove a person breaks the law when acting in self-defense and making it more difficult to sue those people if they are found not guilty of a crime.
The laws have been invoked for everything from road rage that ended in gunfire to suspected thieves who were shot to death as they tried to flee.
In a recent Texas case, a woman is expected to claim self-defense for fatally shooting her neighbor through her locked front door because she thought he was trying to break in. The man she killed was an off-duty Houston firefighter who, for reasons unknown, was at the woman’s door following a day of drinking with friends on St. Patrick’s Day this year.
Almost all these laws came well before the highly publicized 2012 shooting death in Florida of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman. News21 found 28 attempts in state legislatures to scale back self-defense laws after Martin’s death, but all of them failed.
Some states have expanded the castle doctrine, which allows people greater leeway to act in self-defense in their homes. Texas and Louisiana, for example, passed laws that treat self-defense in workplaces and vehicles the same as if a person was at home.
Other states, including Hawaii and Idaho, approved laws to protect people from civil lawsuits if they are found innocent of criminal charges.
In many of the states, like North Carolina and Mississippi, a person in a public place does not have to retreat from a confrontation before shooting to kill in self-defense. The same states also placed a greater burden on prosecutors, requiring that they prove a person was not acting in self-defense to win a conviction.
“I think the reason most states have adopted this (no duty to retreat in public) is because the nature of homicidal violence in our country is normally manifested in the form of a firearm,” said legal expert Geoffrey Corn of South Texas College of Law. “Stand your ground is now the majority rule in the United States.”
However, News21 has found the likelihood of a person being charged with or convicted of a crime after a claim of self-defense involving a firearm may depend more on the state or region where the shooting occurred than the circumstances of the case.
Even cases in the same county produced disparate outcomes, News21 found, based on a review of 200 cases in Michigan, Kentucky, Florida, Louisiana, Texas and Arizona — six of 31 states to recently expand their laws.