The castle doctrine and stand your ground laws are not one and the same, although they’re often spoken of as if they were interchangeable. It’s no surprise that a lot of confusion surrounds these terms, as the media often misuses them in its reporting. It’s important to understand these laws for yourself, not just listen to outside sources.
First let’s look at the definition of each.
The castle doctrine can also be called the “castle law” or “defense of habitation law.” It designates that a person’s living quarters, or any legally occupied place, is a place in which a person has protections and immunities that permit her, in certain circumstances, to use force (up to and including deadly force) to defend herself against an intruder, free from legal prosecution for the consequences of the force used. A person’s living quarters is generally thought of as her house, but the idea can often include a camping trailer or even a tent.
Many states also extend the castle doctrine to include your vehicle and your place of business to allow you to defend yourself against an intruder who enters such places. The castle doctrine is primarily designed to allow you, as well as the court system, to assume that if someone breaks into your home, their intent is to do you harm.
So, does the castle doctrine give you free rein to use deadly force merely because someone is on your property? Absolutely not. According to the law where I live in Missouri, a person may not use deadly force upon another person unless “he or she reasonably believes that such deadly force is necessary to protect himself, or herself or her unborn child, or another against death, serious physical injury, or any forcible felony” (RSMO Chapter 563). Someone knocking on your front door should not immediately be considered a threat. However, if that same person starts trying to kick in the door and enter your home, deadly force might be viewed as justifiable in a court of law under the castle doctrine. Each state has a legal definition for what constitutes a justifiable use of lethal force.
Some states also allow the use of lethal force in defense of property (as opposed to a threat to life) in certain instances, but generally most do not.
Outside of the “castle,” however, an individual has a duty to retreat, if able to do so, before using reasonable force—that is, unless the state they’re in has a stand-your-ground law. Stand-your-ground laws, also known as “line in the sand” or “no duty to retreat” laws, generally state that, under certain circumstances, an individual can use force to defend herself without the duty to retreat from the danger.
Stand-your-ground laws are written to protect a person as long as he or she is not the aggressor, if he or she has a legal right to be in that place, and if he or she is not committing any type of crime at the time. You still must determine and be able to express verbally your aggressor’s intent. Did the aggressor have the means and opportunity—that is, the ability and the correct set of circumstances—to commit the crime that you stopped by firing your gun?
Even if your state has a stand-your-ground law, I’d strongly suggest using an avenue of retreat, if there is one, rather than using deadly force. I’m sure you’ve heard the saying, “The only gunfight you’re guaranteed to win is the one you don’t have.” It’s best to do what you can to avoid a violent situation when possible.
According to the College of William & Mary Law School, there are several requirements that must be met for a self-defense claim to be advanced when a defendant has killed his or her attacker. Those are as follows: the defendant must have been faced with a threat of death or serious bodily injury from the attack; the threatened attack must have been “imminent”; and the defendant at that moment must honestly and reasonably believe that the use of deadly force is necessary to prevent such injury or death.
Remember that not all states have a castle doctrine law or a stand-your-ground law, and those states that do have their own versions which can place limitations on where, when, and who can use deadly force, and the extent of force allowed. It’s up to you to review and understand your own state’s laws, as well as how they apply where you reside and where you travel.
Also, keep in mind that other restrictions may still exist, such as carrying openly vs. carrying concealed in public. Be sure to carry in a legal manner. It’s your responsibility to be informed.
Freelance writer Stacy Bright holds instructor certifications from the NRA in Pistol & Rifle, as well as being an Range Safety Officer and Refuse to be a Victim instructor. In addition to her NRA credentials, she also is a Missouri CCW instructor and teaches various other home and personal defense courses. “In a field dominated by men, I feel I bring a unique perspective to firearms and training, especially to women. I'm passionate about educating, empowering and developing confidence in those I train. In November of 2014, I started the Southwest Missouri chapter of The Well Armed Woman,” said Stacy. Stacy lives in southwest Missouri, and has been married for 20 years. Visit TWAW Facebook page: The Well Armed Woman-Springfield, MO Chapter. View all posts by Stacy Bright