What is Stand Your Ground Law? Understanding Legal Deadly Force

By Suzanne Wiley published on in News

On December 16, 1971, Roberta E. Shaffer sat down to breakfast with her violent and abusive fiancé, John Ferruzzo. Her two children from a previous marriage were downstairs in the basement. As a woman suffering from physical and mental abuse, Shaffer was scared of the consequences of leaving Ferruzzo. He had previously threatened to kill her if they broke up. An argument over breakfast that morning escalated between the two and Ferruzzo once again threatened Shaffer. Frightened for her life, Shaffer sought safety in the basement with her children. Ferruzzo stood at the top of the stairs yelling to Shaffer that if she did not come back up he would go into the basement and kill both her and her children. Before Shaffer could get law enforcement on the phone, Ferruzzo started to descend the stairs. Terrified for her and her children’s lives, Shaffer loaded a .22 LR rifle and shot Ferruzzo dead. Shaffer was convicted of manslaughter. The Massachusetts court found:

We prefer instead to follow our long-established rule that the right to use deadly force by way of self-defense is not available to one threatened until he has availed himself of all reasonable and proper means in the circumstance to avoid combat.

In other words, Shaffer had a legal duty to retreat instead of using force. The duty to retreat means that people must attempt to remove themselves from a deadly situation.

Massachusetts has since enacted the Castle Doctrine, meaning one does not have to retreat from their home when threatened with bodily harm or imminent death: “There shall be no duty on said occupant to retreat from such person unlawfully in said dwelling.”

Stand Your Ground extends the rights to defend ourselves outside the home with no duty to retreat.

Stand Your Ground extends the rights to defend ourselves outside the home with no duty to retreat. Picture By: Oleg Volk

What if Shaffer and Ferruzzo’s altercation had occurred at her mother’s house, at Shaffer’s place of employment, the local park, or on a street corner? In states were Shaffer would have been justified in killing her fiancé in a public place are called “stand your ground law” states. “Stand your ground laws” extend the Castle Doctrine, where legally committed homicide is justified in a public space without the obligation to attempt escape.

You have no duty to retreat if

  • You are lawfully in the place you are
  • You are not engaged in criminal activity
  • You feel your life is in imminent danger

All but 19 states (California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, New Mexico, Rhode Island, Vermont, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Virginia, Washington and the District of Columbia) has some sort of Castle Doctrine. Some states have a Castle Doctrine that extends outside the home, but only in a personal vehicle: Missouri, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin.

“Stand your ground laws” are not new. In fact, in the 1921 United States Supreme Court case of Brown v. United States, (read more about the case at the following link: Brown v. United States) the court ruled in favor of the defendant who justly killed a man displaying aggressive and threatening behavior outside of the defendant’s home.

Florida was the first state to enact a “stand your ground law” in 2005, with many states following. Now over 20 states have some form of no duty to retreat law. Misinterpreted as “shoot first” laws, many people do not understand that a Stand your Ground Law is simply an extension of the Castle Doctrine. Self-defense and firearms expert Massad Ayoob presents an explanation of the law stating that Stand Your Ground Laws do have restrictions. It is not a shoot first ask questions later law. One cannot shoot simply because they are afraid. In all justified homicides, in the public domain and in your home, the person you shoot must have the ability to harm you, the opportunity, and have put you in jeopardy. You cannot legally apply unreasonable force.

Texas A&M University studied crime rates in over 20 states that have some form of Stand Your Ground law and found that crime did not increase. Studies in Florida show justified homicide rates have increased. However, there is no proof the two—stand your ground and increased deaths—are related. Studies in other states found the same laws did not increase justified homicide rates. It is difficult to prove causation because self-defense outside the home has always been legal if deemed necessary. Extension of the Castle Doctrine makes sense, as Daniel Webster, director of Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research put it, “the very general notion that citizens should be able to protect themselves and you shouldn’t have to, in essence, run from crime.”

“Stand your ground laws” have no intention of allowing people to justify unreasonable force. For example, you cannot legally shoot someone yelling threatening comments at you from across the mall parking lot. Remember necessity is part of every state’s self-defense law when you can use deadly force:

  • Was it justified?
  • Was it necessary?
  • Was deadly force reasonable?
  • Was death or serious bodily injury imminent?

For a further explanation on when you can use deadly force, read When can you Use Deadly Force?

Stand Your Ground extends the rights to defend ourselves outside the home with no duty to retreat. Therefore, the woman pinned up against the wall in the underground parking lot, threatened with rape can justly use her weapon of choice to fend off an attack without having to endure a long and expensive trial. These laws allow us to defend ourselves rightfully outside the home from a dangerous attack.

Do you have any questions about the Stand your Ground Law? Ask them in the comment section.


Introduced to shooting at young age by her older brother, Suzanne Wiley took to the shooting sports and developed a deep love for it over the years. Today, she enjoys plinking with her S&W M&P 15-22, loves revolvers, the 1911, short-barreled AR-15s, and shooting full auto when she gets the chance. Suzanne specializes in writing for the female shooter, beginner shooter, and the modern-day prepper. Suzanne is a staff writer for Cheaper Than Dirt!

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Comments (28)

  • 1992 HDMD


    Where does Florida Stand on this?


  • Bill Vencill


    This article is inaccurate in that it claims that California does not have a castle doctrine. Cal. Penal Code § 198.5 is the castle doctrine:

    198.5. Any person using force intended or likely to cause death or
    great bodily injury within his or her residence shall be presumed to
    have held a reasonable fear of imminent peril of death or great
    bodily injury to self, family, or a member of the household when that
    force is used against another person, not a member of the family or
    household, who unlawfully and forcibly enters or has unlawfully and
    forcibly entered the residence and the person using the force knew or
    had reason to believe that an unlawful and forcible entry occurred.
    As used in this section, great bodily injury means a significant
    or substantial physical injury.

    Although not codified as a statute, California has recognized the principle of “stand your ground” since 1895. This principle is restated in a jury instruction for claimed self-defense. The instruction is contained in Caljic 5.50 as follows:

    A person threatened with an attack that justifies the exercise of the right of self-defense need not retreat. In the exercise of [his] [her] right of self-defense a person may stand [his] [her] ground and defend [himself] [herself] by the use of all force and means which would appear to be necessary to a reasonable person in a similar situation and with similar knowledge; and a person may pursue [his] [her] assailant until [he] [she] has secured [himself] [herself] from danger if that course likewise appears reasonably necessary. This law applies even though the assailed person might more easily have gained safety by flight or by withdrawing from the scene.


  • Hugh


    Dear Mr. King,

    When the police identify themselves to you, then you have a legal duty to submit to their authority. Unless the police shoot at you without any prior warning or demand, you do NOT have the right to shoot at them. On the other hand, if the police identify themselves to you and you fail to respond to their authority and don’t submit to their lawful authority, they do have the legal authority to shoot you. Don’t put your theory to the test.




  • John A


    Do SYG laws allow someone who is witnessing a shooter shoot or preparing to shoot other innocent bystanders (e.g., Washington Navy Yard) to use deadly force to stop the shooter? To be specific, if other Navy staff in that building (other than MPs) were allowed to carry pistols, could one of them have shot the shooter as he was shooting into the cafeteria, even if they were, say, behind the shooter and not being threatened by the shooter directly at that moment?


  • Daniel


    Does CT have the stand your ground law in effect for law abiding gin owners? Wasn’t sure the way the article read.


  • Bob


    If someone breaks into my home, I would consider them to be a threat and eliminate it as nessesary. If someone try’s to carjack me, I would run them over. This country would be great if we all just got rid of criminals.


  • c. franke


    i have a conceiled carry permit here in the state of Va,i have been told I have the right to shoot an intruder of my home,vehicle and such if I feel for my life. So my question;how come the state of Va is not listed on this “stand your ground” issue?


  • Greg


    Maine Law:
    Title 17-A, Section 104, Paragraph 3:
    A person in possession or control of a dwelling place or a person who is licensed or privileged to be therein is justified in using deadly force upon another person:
    A. Under the circumstances enumerated in section 108; or [1975, c. 740, §26 (NEW).]
    B. When the person reasonably believes that deadly force is necessary to prevent or terminate the commission of a criminal trespass by such other person, who the person reasonably believes:
    (1) Has entered or is attempting to enter the dwelling place or has surreptitiously remained within the dwelling place without a license or privilege to do so; and
    (2) Is committing or is likely to commit some other crime within the dwelling place. [2007, c. 173, §20 (AMD).]
    [ 2007, c. 173, §20 (AMD) .]


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