Yesterday, a Senate Judiciary subcommittee chaired by Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin held a hearing on Stand Your Ground laws. My Cato Institute colleague Ilya Shapiro testified (video link here) and I recommend his written testimony, a condensed version of which is also online at National Review.
On the history of these laws in America:
…there’s nothing particularly novel, partisan, or ideological about these laws. All they do is allow people to assert their right to self-defense in certain circumstances without having a so-called “duty to retreat.” The SYG principle has been enshrined in the law of a majority of U.S. states for over 150 years, originating as judge-made common law and eventually being codified by statute.
At present, about 31 states — give or take, depending on how you count — have some type of SYG doctrine, a vast majority of which had it as part of their common law even before legislators took any action. So even if these statutes were repealed tomorrow, SYG would still be the law in most states because of preexisting judicial decisions. And, of course, some states, like California and Virginia, maintain SYG only judicially, without having passed any legislation.
It’s also worth noting that of the 15 states that have passed variations of the law since 2005, the year Florida’s model legislation became law, eight — a majority — had Democratic governors when the laws were enacted. None issued a veto. Democratic governors who signed SYG bills, or otherwise permitted them to become law, include Kathleen Blanco of Louisiana, Jennifer Granholm of Michigan, Brian Schweitzer of Montana, John Lynch of New Hampshire, Brad Henry of Oklahoma, Phil Bredesen of Tennessee, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, and Janet Napolitano of Arizona. The bills in Louisiana and West Virginia passed with Democratic control of both houses in the state legislatures, in 2006 and 2008, respectively. Even Florida’s supposedly controversial law passed the state senate unanimously and split Democrats in the state house. Conversely, many so-called “red states,” or those that have a significant gun culture — such as Arkansas, Missouri, Nebraska, and Wyoming — impose a duty to retreat.
The Supreme Court has noticed the issue as well:
At the Supreme Court, SYG dates back to the 1895 case of Beard v. United States, in which the great Justice John Harlan wrote for a unanimous Court that the victim “was not obliged to retreat, nor to consider whether he could safely retreat, but was entitled to stand his ground, and meet any attack upon him with a deadly weapon, in such a way and with such force as, under all the circumstances, he, at the moment, honestly believed, and had reasonable grounds to believe, were necessary to save his own life, or to protect himself from great bodily injury.”
And Ilya does not allow to pass unremarked the browbeating tactics of subcommittee chairman Dick Durbin (D-Ill.):
Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention before concluding one episode in the leadup to this hearing that has unfortunately contributed to the sensationalism surrounding discussions of SYG laws: Chairman Durbin’s attempt to intimidate businesses and organizations that have had any affiliation with the American Legislative Exchange Council (because ALEC had sponsored model SYG legislation, among other reforms that may not have curried Chairman Durbin’s favor). Chairman Durbin’s letter noted that responses would be included in this hearing’s record, but just to be safe, I’m submitting with this statement both the Chairman’s letter and the response by Cato’s president, John Allison.