Many states have enacted so-called stand your ground laws that remove the duty to retreat before using force in self-defense. Florida passed the first such law in 2005, generally allowing people to stand their ground instead of retreating if they reasonably believe doing so will “prevent death or great bodily harm.”
Other states followed with laws specifically affirming one’s right to defend themselves, even outside of their homes and with deadly force if necessary. The wording of each state’s laws will vary, but typically require you to have the right to be at a location. State self-defense laws may also overlap, but generally fall into three general categories:
- Stand Your Ground: No duty to retreat from the situation before resorting to deadly force; not limited to your property (home, office, etc.).
- Castle Doctrine: Limited to real property, such as your home, yard, or private office; no duty to retreat (use of deadly force against intruders is legal in most situations); some states, like Missouri and Ohio, even include personal vehicles.
- Duty to Retreat: Must retreat from the situation if you feel threatened (use of deadly force is considered a last resort); may not use deadly force if you are safely inside your home.
Here are the states that have passed stand your ground laws:
- New Hampshire
- North Carolina
- South Carolina
- South Dakota
- West Virginia
Note: Some states have adopted stand your ground-like doctrines through judicial interpretation of their self-defense laws — but they are not included on this list.
Some states have self-defense laws on the books that are similar to stand your ground laws, often with at least one key difference. These laws generally apply only to the home or other real property (such as an office) and are often referred to as “castle doctrine” or “defense of habitation” laws. Most U.S. states have castle doctrine laws, including California, Illinois, Iowa, Oregon, and Washington.
Duty to Retreat States
On the other end of the legal spectrum, some states have laws imposing a duty to retreat. A duty to retreat generally means that you can’t resort to deadly force in self-defense if you can safely avoid the risk of harm or death (by running away, for example). If that is not an option, say if you were cornered or pinned down and facing serious harm or death, then you would be authorized to use deadly force in self defense. The following states impose some form of duty to retreat before using deadly self defense:
- New Jersey
- New York
- North Dakota
- Rhode Island
Note: Some states with castle doctrine laws also include a limited duty to retreat (like if simply going into your house and locking the doors is sufficient for self-defense).