Using Deadly Force in Self-Defense: Stand Your Ground vs. Duty to Retreat

Woman holding a gun


When faced with a threat and the need to defend yourself, is it legal to use deadly force, such as drawing a gun and shooting? While laws vary significantly across U.S. states, they primarily fall into two categories: “Stand Your Ground” and “Duty to Retreat.”

Principles of using deadly force in self-defense

Stand Your Ground

This means if you face a direct threat to your personal safety, you can use deadly force to defend yourself without any obligation to back down or attempt to flee.

For instance, if someone approaches you in a parking lot with a knife demanding your wallet, and you genuinely believe your life is at risk, and you’re in a state with a “Stand Your Ground” law, you could legally use deadly force in self-defense, like shooting the person, without first trying to run away.

Duty to Retreat

In states with a “Duty to Retreat” law, you must first try to escape or move to safety before using deadly force. Deadly force is only allowed if you cannot safely retreat or if trying to do so would put you in serious danger.

Using the previous example, if you’re in a state with the “Duty to Retreat” law and the situation indicates a safe escape — for instance, there’s an obvious exit, several escape routes, and you’re close to a busy area with many people — then you should try to flee instead of immediately drawing and firing your weapon at the assailant.

Castle Doctrine

Even in “Duty to Retreat” states, if someone breaks (or tries to break) into your home and threatens your safety, you can use deadly force without needing to escape. This concept is known as the “Castle Doctrine,” implying that your home is your “castle” and you need not retreat further.

In some states, the “Castle Doctrine” also extends to your workplace and/or your vehicle. In these scenarios, you can employ deadly force in self-defense without the need to retreat.

Positions of U.S. states illustrated

On the provided map, states colored in deep blue have “Stand Your Ground” laws. Those in light green adhere to the “Duty to Retreat.” Meanwhile, Wisconsin and Washington DC, represented in orange, have laws that fall somewhere in between. Please note that each state’s laws have various nuances. The information in this article is a general overview and not legal advice.

States with “Stand Your Ground” laws

38 states allow you to hold your ground when defending yourself:

  • 30 states have legislation that allows you to defend yourself without retreating if you are lawfully present (eg. you’re not breaking into someone else’s home): Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, West Virginia, and Wyoming. Puerto Rico also adheres to “Stand Your Ground” laws.
  • Another 8 states don’t have explicit laws but based on precedent or jury instructions, there’s no duty to retreat when acting in self-defense: California, Colorado, Illinois, New Mexico, Oregon, Vermont, Virginia, and Washington. The Northern Mariana Islands also fall into this category.

States with “Duty to Retreat” laws

The following 11 states mandate that you have an obligation to retreat if you can do so safely: Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, and Rhode Island. However:

  • If you’re attacked in your own home, there’s no duty to retreat.
  • In Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, and Nebraska, there’s no obligation to retreat when in your own workplace. In Wisconsin and Guam, if you are the business owner (not an employee), there’s no duty to retreat in your place of business.
  • In Wisconsin and Guam, there’s no duty to retreat when inside your own vehicle.
  • In New York, there’s no obligation to retreat when faced with threats like robbery, burglary, kidnapping, or sexual assault.

States with middle-ground positions

Washington DC and Wisconsin adopt a middle-ground stance. The law doesn’t specifically require a person to retreat when defending oneself, but if deadly force is used and the claim is made to defend against an imminent threat to personal safety, a judge or jury will consider various pieces of evidence, including whether you could’ve safely retreated but chose not to—this choice might be seen as a factor against your claim.

Derek Yang

I’m an immigrant living with my family in a small town on the East Coast. I love classical music, enjoy a good cup of coffee, and have a soft spot for BMWs. I believe in lifelong learning and look forward to connecting with you to share our life experiences. Twitter @mrderekyang.

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