'Stand Your Ground Laws': An Unfortunate Necessity

For many years, there has been a presumption in most states that if you are outside your home, you should retreat rather than use deadly force. I understand why most states have this requirement. The concern was that two hotheads might escalate what should have been harsh words into something far more tragic. It has happened before. It will happen again.

The NRA has been persuading states to pass what is popularly called a “stand your ground” law, which changes this presumption. You are not obligated to retreat rather than use deadly force if you are obeying the law, minding your own business, and attacked.

I confess that while I like the theory on this, I still cringe. In a reasonably civilized society (like America used to be, before it became sophisticated and liberated from its narrow-minded Christian roots), if you have to retreat once or twice in a lifetime from some obnoxious jerk, it's not that big of a deal. The fabric of the society isn't going to collapse because you had to put up with some harsh language or even some shoving.

Taking away the obligation to retreat in public when you have that option pretty well guarantees that someone is going to get shot and killed. Likely as not, it is going to be some testosterone-poisoned teenage or young adult male. There’s a chance that he will remain an obnoxious punk and get himself killed in a bar fight. There's also a good chance that in a few more years this obnoxious punk will get married, settle down, raise a family, and turn into a responsible adult. As Clint Eastwood says in Unforgiven: "It's a helluva' thing when you kill a man. You take away everything he's got ... and everything he's ever gonna have." If you have to kill someone in self-defense against death, great bodily injury, or the threat of either, that’s unfortunate, but your attacker made the decision that your life is worth less than your wallet or the joy of beating you to a pulp. The aggressor thus forfeits his own life by the standard that he applied to yours.

In a civilized society, it should not be a common event that you have to retreat in a public place to avoid using deadly force. In America today, that is not the situation. Once bullies and thugs become common, requiring peaceable people to retreat empowers the bullies -- and most of them don’t need encouragement. There’s a social cost that regrettably makes it necessary to change the rules -- and put some fear into the bullies. And sometimes, it means that someone who might grow up into a decent adult ends up dead.