#11: Birth of SYG Movement

Table of Contents:

The Stand Your Ground Movement—A Creature of the NRA
How the Shoot First Movement Grew in America
The Trayvon Martin Case—Briefly
Florida’s Efforts to Change the Law Following the Zimmerman Verdict
The Reach of the Stand Your Ground Movement


The Stand Your Ground Movement—A Creature of the NRA

The Second Amendment was ratified in 1791. From then to 2005, American law included the traditional, time-honored form of self-defense. But it had little to do with the right to bear arms. It was just the right to defend yourself, with or without a gun. Self-defense to being arrested and charged with a crime is a carryover from the Bible, Roman law, English common law, and American law. Americans have always had the right to defend themselves, but with a catch—if you could spare human life, it was incumbent upon you to do so. Don’t shoot first. First retreat, if you can. Gene Autry knew that.[1]

The NRA changed a 2,000-year-old tradition with its Stand Your Ground laws. More importantly, they, “Along with the American Legislative Exchange Council, turned 3,000 years of jurisprudence on its head. Now you can provoke a fight, and if losing that fight, kill the person you attacked. The NRA’s law represents a dangerous and unprecedented escalation in the use of force in the public space, allowing individuals to kill when they merely fear “great bodily harm” (i.e., a fistfight, shoving match, etc.). The concept of responding with proportional force has been obliterated. Moreover, Stand Your Ground laws remove the duty to retreat from a conflict in public, allowing individuals to shoot and kill even when they could otherwise walk away safely from an altercation.”[2]

Today, more than thirty-three states have Stand Your Ground laws in force. “The motive of the NRA and ALEC in promoting these laws is financial. Faced with a decades-long decline in gun ownership in America, the gun industry needs to keep selling new guns to old customers. In this case, compact ‘defensive handguns’ that can be carried in public and used without fear of prosecution. The message to would-be killers is now clear. You need not fear carrying your gun in public, or using it. If you do, just make sure you are the only one remaining to testify about the nature of the confrontation in question.”[3]

The SYG movement engendered many scholarly works. One of the first empirical studies was published in 2012. The abstract is succinct. The paper is exhausting.

“The controversies surrounding Stand Your Ground laws have recently captured the nation’s attention. Since 2005, eighteen states have passed laws extending the right to self-defense with no duty to retreat to any place a person has a legal right to be, and several additional states are debating the adoption of similar legislation. Despite the implications that these laws may have for public safety, there has been little empirical investigation of their impact on crime and victimization. In this paper, we use monthly data from the U.S. Vital Statistics to examine how Stand Your Ground laws affect homicides. We identify the impact of these laws by exploiting variation in the implementation of these laws across states. Our results indicate that Stand Your Ground laws are associated with a significant increase in the number of homicides among whites, especially white males. According to our estimates, between 4.4 and 7.4 additional white males are killed each month as a result of these laws. We find no evidence to suggest that these laws increase homicides among blacks. Our results are robust to a number of specifications and unlikely to be driven entirely by the killings of assailants. Taken together, our findings raise serious doubts against the argument that Stand Your Ground laws make America safer.”[4]

How the Shoot First Movement Grew in America

One of the first legal magazines to track the “shoot first” movement was the National Law Journal.[5] Its 2006 headline was news in most states: “Shoot First Laws Hit Courtroom; States Allow Leeway in Defensive Force.”[6] The essential point of the story was the opening line. “Recently enacted laws that give citizens more leeway in using deadly force against attackers are already being invoked as a defense in several criminal cases across the country. Last October, Florida became the first state to pass the so-called ‘shoot first’ or ‘stand your ground’ law which allows a person to use deadly force, in their home or in a public place, without having to retreat.”[7]

The NRA’s gun campaign was plain, simple, and successful—leeway, using deadly force, shoot first, without having to retreat. Everyone knew this was not about anger, baseball bats, bayonets, fistfights, or even rifles. This was about handguns in the hands of trained shooters who could get away with murder by insisting they were scared to death just before they put someone else to death. No one thought the NRA wanted its disciples to kill. What they wanted was to advance gun sales and gun usage by advancing the right to shoot first without first retreating. What good is a gun if you have to retreat? Gene Autry was just a movie star. What did he know?

The headline in the September 17, 2006 story in St. Charles, Missouri read, “Shoot First Laws Spread Across Nation.” The story revealed how the castle doctrine was moved outside. “Defense lawyers in a growing number of states have an added tool to employ on behalf of clients charged with firearms offenses—castle doctrine laws. These laws, which have been proliferating since Florida passed the first one in February 2005, essentially, expanded the range of permissible self-defense from the home to public spaces. Now on the books in some 15 states. Castle doctrine laws eliminate the ‘duty to retreat’ standard that was widely accepted for years. In its place they gave people the right to use deadly force wherever they felt threatened.”[8]

Law Professor Robert Batey, Stetson University College of Law, was not impressed. “As a matter of policy, I don’t think most criminal defense lawyers think it’s a very wise statute, but I’m sure they’re happy to have another argument to take.”[9] Some prosecutors have been outspoken in their opposition. Leon County State Attorney Willie Meggs, the 2005 president of the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association, has called the new provision the “shoot your Avon lady” law. Florida’s law became effective last October. Since then, according to an interview with Jacksonville, Fla., Russell Smith, president-elect of the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers said, ‘the real impact is its making filing decisions difficult for prosecutors. It’s causing cases not to be filed at all or filed with reduced charges.’[10]

In August 2006, the New York Times cited two Florida demonstrative cases of the new age of stand your ground. In one case, a prostitute shot and killed a seventy-two-year-old customer with his own gun rather than flee. In the other, a man shot a neighbor after a shouting match over putting out garbage.[11]

Predictably, Democratic officeholders disagreed with Republican officeholders. Arizona Governor Jan Brewer disagreed with US Attorney General Eric Holder in 2013. Holder had said, “Stand your ground laws sow dangerous conflict. These laws try to fix something that was never broken,” Holder said in a previously scheduled speech to the NAACP convention in Orlando that marked the Obama administration’s first new policy announcement since neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman was acquitted last weekend in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. By allowing and perhaps encouraging violent situations to escalate in public, such laws undermine public safety.”[12]

Brewer disagreed and said her “state’s version of the law was important and a constitutional right.”[13]

Florida state senator David Simmons said Holder’s comments were “inappropriate and inaccurate, stand your ground laws may be getting more attention now after the Zimmerman verdict, but the laws themselves don’t like they’re going anywhere.”[14] New Hampshire Attorney General called for another look at his state’s SYG law, saying, “I think what it can do is cause a situation to escalate that doesn’t need to.”[15] In hindsight, the comments in the National Journal’s July 18, 2013, article eerily predicted what happened on the NAU campus two years later when Steven Jones shot four of his fellow college students. He brought his gun to a fistfight.

The Legal Intelligencer’s Matthew T. Mangino reported in August 2013: “Pennsylvania’s expanded castle doctrine was enacted in 2011. Governor Tom Corbett signed the self-defense bill into law only months after his predecessor; former Governor Ed Rendell vetoed the legislation. . . . In December 2010, after Rendell vetoed the castle doctrine, he unequivocally explained his rationale. . . The bill as passed encourages the use of deadly force, even when safe retreat is available, and advances a shoot first, ask questions later mentality. . . . I do not believe that in a civilized society we should encourage violent and deadly confrontation with the victim can safely protect themselves.”[16]

Governor Rendell, a former prosecutor, fell in line with his former colleagues in the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, as well as the Pennsylvania State Police and several mayors and police chiefs, all of whom opposed the bill.[17]

There was limited and ineffective opposition to the movement. In 2012, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a democrat from Texas, submitted an act called “Justice Exists for All of Us Act.”[18] It would have outlawed any state statute that did not impose a duty to retreat before using force, outside the realm of domestic abuse. It died at the end of the 112th US Congress.[19]

Arizona Senator John McCain was one of the few Republican officeholders who questioned the efficacy of the SYG laws, including Arizona’s version. “He does not question the decision of the jury in the Trayvon Martin case, [but] all states, including his own, should review their ‘stand your ground’ laws. . . I can also see that the stand your ground law may be something that needs to be reviewed by the Florida Legislature or any other Legislature. . . I am confident that the members of the Arizona Legislature will, because it’s very controversial legislation. . . McCain also praised President Barack Obama’s speech about Trayvon Martin and the racial profiling that black men regularly face. While many have called Obama’s speech ‘divisive’ for emphasizing issues of race, McCain thought the remarks were appropriate. . . . Events like this highlight and emphasize that we have a long way to go. . . The president very appropriately highlighted a lot of that yesterday, as only the president can.”[20]

The Trayvon Martin Case—Briefly

On February 6, 2012, George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin with a handgun, at night, following or during an altercation. Eventually Zimmerman was charged with second-degree murder. He pled self-defense, arguing his “reasonable belief” he was about to be harmed by his victim. Political moderates and liberals strongly supported the victim—Trayvon Martin. Mr. Zimmerman’s jury unanimously acquitted him of all charges. After his acquittal Mr. Zimmerman sued Trayvon Martin’s family and others for $100 million. He alleged the case against him rested on false evidence, abuse of civil process, and conspiracy.[21] In February 2020, Mr. Zimmerman sued Democratic presidential candidates Pete Buttigieg and Elizabeth Warren for $265 million, claiming they defamed him in tweets about the Trayvon Martin case.[22]

Trayvon Martin was a seventeen-year-old black high school student. He and his father, Tracy Martin, were visiting his father’s fiancée and her son at her home in Sanford, Florida. She lived in an apartment complex called The Retreat at Twin Lakes, a gated community. Martin was returning from a walk to a convenience store when he encountered George Zimmerman, who lived in the same neighborhood, and was part of a neighborhood watch group. They did not know one another. Zimmerman, aged twenty-eight, was an insurance fraud investigator. He was driving his car in the neighborhood when he saw Martin. “Zimmerman contacted the nonemergency line of the Sanford Police Department, mentioned that there had been burglaries in the neighborhood, and told the dispatcher that he had observed ‘a real suspicious guy’ who was ‘walking around, looking about’. . . up to no good, or he’s on drugs or something.”[23]

The dispatcher told Zimmerman “the police did not need him to follow Martin, but Zimmerman, nevertheless, left his vehicle. He later said he had done so in order to ascertain his location by taking a closer look at a street sign. A violent confrontation ensued, and Zimmerman fired his weapon at Martin at close range, causing Martin’s death. When police arrived, Zimmerman argued that he had been assaulted by Martin, who was unarmed, and fired in self-defense. Concluding that they could not hold Zimmerman—because no evidence contradicted his version of the event and because state law permitted the use of deadly force in self-defense—the police released him.”[24]

By 2012, Florida’s Stand Your Ground law had been in place since 2005. The driving element was a doctrine known as meeting “force with force.” It allowed Zimmerman to argue he was in danger of being seriously harmed by Martin and therefore could use deadly force. He could argue he was not engaged in an unlawful activity, was being attacked in a place he has a right to be, and reasonably believed his life was in danger. He could argue that he was being attacked by Martin, not the other way around. His defense would rise or fall depending on the facts admitted in evidence to the jury.

At trial, the judge instructed the jury that Zimmerman “had no duty to retreat and had a right to stand his ground and use deadly force if he reasonably believed doing so was necessary to defend himself.”[25] Zimmerman’s account of what happened the night of the shooting was the only account that mattered. Trayvon Martin didn’t live to give his version. There was little physical evidence admitted at trial. Zimmerman “told investigators he was returning to his vehicle after locating an address on Retreat View Circle when Martin approached him from his left and confronted him. . . Martin then punched him in the face, knocking him down, and began beating his head against the sidewalk. Zimmerman said he had called out for help while being beaten, and at one point Martin covered his mouth to muffle the screams. According to Zimmerman’s father, during the struggle while Martin was on top of Zimmerman, Martin saw the gun Zimmerman was carrying and said something to the effect of ‘you’re donna die now’ or you’re gonna die tonight and continued to beat Zimmerman. Zimmerman and Martin struggled over the gun and Zimmerman shot Martin once in the chest at close range.”[26]

Police reports said Zimmerman “appeared to have a broken and bloody nose and swelling of his face.”[27] Zimmerman’s trial received intensive media coverage. The prosecution argued that Martin’s death resulted from Zimmerman’s profiling of him as a criminal and trying to take the law into his own hands. The defense argued that the evidence corroborated Zimmerman’s version of the event—namely, that he fired his weapon because Martin was attacking him and that he felt that his life was threatened.

To find Zimmerman guilty of second-degree murder or manslaughter, “the jury had to find not only that Zimmerman had caused Martin’s death but also that he did not do so in self-defense. The issue of self-defense was linked to Florida’s law permitting the use of deadly force to defend oneself against a perceived threat—known as a ‘stand-your-ground.’ Instructions to the jury referenced the law, but Zimmerman’s lawyers ultimately did not invoke Zimmerman’s rights under it, because, they argued, he did not have the option to retreat anyway. On July 13, 2013, after more than 16 hours of deliberation, the all-female jury declared Zimmerman not guilty.” [28]

Florida’s Efforts to Change the Law Following the Zimmerman Verdict

In October 2013 bills to revise Florida’s Stand Your Ground law provisions in accordance with several suggestions offered in 2012 by the governor’s task force advanced through the Florida legislature with bipartisan support.[29] “A proposal to clarify language in the law to deny aggressors in a confrontation from being able to claim immunity under the law, would allow innocent bystanders harmed by a person standing his or her ground to sue for negligence, and would require the establishment of guidelines and training protocols for neighborhood watch programs that would restrict neighborhood watch volunteers to only observing and reporting. The proposal was received favorably by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the Florida Sheriffs Association, the Florida Public Defender Association, and the NAACP, although several Republican state legislators voted to block the bill’s passage and gun rights.”[30] It did not pass.

The Reach of the Stand Your Ground Movement

There is no debate about the GOP’s connections to gun rights issues and the SYG movement. This was made clear on April 26, 2019, in Indianapolis, on a stage shared by Indiana’s Republican governor, Eric Holcomb, Sen. Todd Young (R. Indiana), and Vice President Mike Pence, who was in town to speak before the 2019 NRA meeting.

“Gov. Eric Holcomb signed a bill on-stage during the National Rifle Association annual leadership forum on Friday strengthening Indiana’s “stand your ground” laws and removing the fee for certain firearm carry permits. House Enrolled Act 1284. . . allow[ed] people to carry firearms to church, even if there is a school on the grounds, unless the owner of the land specifically prohibits it. The bill also requires civil court and attorney fees to be awarded to defendants in those cases, in order to discourage frivolous lawsuits. The actual criminal self-defense statute wouldn’t be changed. . . While Hoosiers would have to pay for a lifetime firearm permit carry fee, the short-term permits would be free starting in 2020. . . For years, lawmakers have tried to work that language into state law, only to receive push-back due to concerns about the fiscal impact. According to a fiscal analysis from Legislative Services Agency, the state general fund would lose between $460,000 and $575,000 in fiscal year 2021 due to the change.”[31]

Another shining example of SYG’s reach was reported by Everytown Research on March 3, 2018.[32]

“Bottom Line: Stand Your Ground laws upend centuries of traditional self-defense doctrine and threaten public safety by encouraging armed vigilantism and giving civilians in public places more leeway to shoot than the U.S. military gives soldiers in war zones . . . Under traditional self-defense law, a person can use force to defend himself anywhere, but when he is outside his home he cannot use force likely to kill or seriously injury someone, if there is a safe way to avoid it. Traditional self-defense gives a person the right to protect himself, while recognizing that it is always best to avoid killing someone if possible. Traditional self-defense does not require that a person retreat from a situation if doing so would put him in danger. It only requires a person to avoid killing another person if there is a clear and safe way to do so. In this way, traditional law respects both a person’s right to self-defense and the sanctity of human life. It recognizes that it is always better to avoid taking a life if there is a safe and clear alternative. There is a centuries-old exception to this rule—called the Castle Doctrine—that allows a person who is in his home to defend himself with force is likely to kill or seriously injure someone, even if he could have safely walked away.”[33]


[1] “In response to his many young radio listeners aspiring to emulate him, Autry created the Cowboy Code, or Ten Cowboy Commandments. These tenets promoting an ethical, moral, and patriotic lifestyle that appealed to youth organizations such as the Boy Scouts, which developed similar doctrines. The Cowboy Code consisted of rules that were a natural progression of Gene’s philosophies going back to his first Melody Ranch programs—and early pictures. According to the code: The Cowboy must never shoot first, hit a smaller man, or take unfair advantage. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gene_Autry.

[2] https://www.csgv.org/issues-archive/shoot-first-laws/.

[3] Ibid.

[4] IZA Discussion Paper No. 6705. 40 Pages Posted: 21 Jul 2012. Chandler B McCellan, AHRQ—Center for Financing, Access & Cost Trends. Erdal Tekin. Georgia State University—Department of Economics; National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER); IZA Institute of Labor Economics. https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2114885.

[5] “Law.com is the industry-leading media platform powering over 18 online U.S. national and regional award-winning legal publications that deliver news, rankings, reports, and strategy all designed with one purpose in mind: to give you the competitive intelligence to prepare for today and anticipate opportunities for future success.” https://www.law.com/static/about-us/.

[6] Tersa Baldas, ALM Media Properties, 1079 words, National Law Journal (Online) July 3, 2006.

[7] Ibid., first paragraph.

[8] <<missing text?>>

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] https://www.politico.com/story/2013/07/eric-holder-stand-your-ground-undermines-public-safety-094294.

[13] Dick Dahl, St. Charles County Business Record, September 17, 2006, 608 words.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Matthew T. Mangino, “For Better or Worse, Stand Your Ground Is Here to Stay.” The Legal Intelligencer, August 6, 2013.

[17] Ibid.

[18] “H.R. 2812—113th Congress: Justice Exists for All of Us Act of 2013.” www.GovTrack.us. 2013. March 22, 2020 https://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/113/hr2812.

[19] https://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/113/hr2812.

[20] https://www.huffpost.com/entry/john-mccain-stand-your-ground_n_3631171.

[21] https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/george-zimmerman-sues-trayvon-martin-s-family-100-million-damages-n1095916.

[22] Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., The Common Law, (1881) at 219-20. 23 Yale L.J. 16 (1913), at 30-32.

[23] “Shooting of Trayvon Martin,” by André Munro. https://www.britannica.com/event/shooting-of-Trayvon-Martin.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Marc Caputo, Miami Herald, July 18, 2013. “Juror—we talked stand your ground before not-guilty Zimmerman verdict.” http://www.maimiherald.com/2013/07/16/350248/juror-we-talked-stand-your-ground.html.

[26] https://www.cnn.com/2013/07/14/us/zimmerman-why-this-verdict/.

[27] https://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/18/us/new-details-are-released-in-shooting-of-teenager.html?_r=3&hp.

[28] https://www.britannica.com/event/shooting-of-Trayvon-Martin.

[29] https://www.orlandosentinel.com/politics/os-trayvon-stand-your-ground-hearing-20131008-story.html.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Kaitlin Lange, “With NRA in Indy, Indiana Gov. Holcomb signs bill strengthening ‘stand your ground’ law.” IndyStarPublished, Wednesday, March 18, 2020, 5:42 p.m. ET April 26, 2019 | Updated 6:04 p.m. ET April 26, 2019 https://www.indystar.com/news/.

[32] https://everytownresearch.org/documents/2018/03/stand-ground-march-2018.pdf.

[33] Ibid.

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