‘Stand Your Ground’ Laws Face Renewed Scrutiny Amid Spree of Violence

Citizens who use firearms in self-defense are required under law to demonstrate reasonable fear for their lives, one analyst tells the Sun.

Ben Crump Law via AP
The teenager shot by a homeowner at Kansas City, Missouri, Ralph Yarl. Ben Crump Law via AP

It’s been more than a decade since the shooting of Trayvon Martin launched the country into a national conversation about so-called “stand your ground” laws, but after multiple instances this month of homeowners shooting those who enter their property for what turned out to be innocuous reasons, the controversial statutes are receiving new attention. 

On April 13, a Black teenager named Ralph Yarl was shot and seriously wounded by a white homeowner at Kansas City, Missouri after reportedly knocking on the wrong door while looking for his siblings. Missouri state law permits citizens to use a firearm for self-defense when someone “attempts to unlawfully enter a dwelling, residence or vehicle.” 

The elderly man accused of shooting Ralph Yarl — Andrew Lester — has since  pleaded not guilty to charges of first-degree assault and criminal action. When Ralph Yarl rang Mr. Lester’s doorbell, Mr. Lester reportedly began firing at the teenager. 

Mr. Lester, 84, told law enforcement that he had gone to bed early, was awoken by knocking, saw a Black youth through the glass opening his screen door and that he opened fire in “self defense.” 

Mr. Yarl, who was shot in the head but survived, gave a contradictory account to law enforcement from his hospital bed, saying he never opened the door.

Mr. Lester’s grandson, Klint Ludwig, told the Kansas City Star that his grandfather had been going down a “right-wing rabbit hole” which contributed to him thinking he was under attack by home invaders. 

Every American state has some settled standard of “stand your ground” laws, whether by statute or judicial precedent. In all, 38 states hold that citizens do not have to retreat from a confrontation in order to use deadly force in the case of self-defense. The other 12 states mandate that a citizen acting in self-defense must retreat to their vehicle, workplace, home, or other location before resorting to deadly force with a firearm. 

The president of the Crime Research Prevention Center, John Lott, told the Sun that citizens who use firearms in self-defense are required under law to demonstrate reasonable fear for their lives. 

“Stand Your Ground laws require a reasonable person standard,” Mr. Lott said in a message. “A reasonable person must believe that there was a threat of death or serious injury.”

He added: “In the Yarl case, the young man was on the other side of the door and no threats were being made, no weapon was being shown … No reasonable person would conclude that there was a real threat there.”

Mr. Lester’s attorneys, as noted earlier in this report, would disagree with Mr. Lott. His case will likely come down to a forensic dissection of what actually happened at Kansas City.

A senior lecturer at Harvard University who wrote a book on the subject called “Stand Your Ground,” Caroline Light, argues that these laws are born out of America’s history of respect for private property rights and personal autonomy. The Castle Doctrine — which provides many legal protections for those who act in self-defense within their own homes — is an important part of this story, Ms. Light argues. 

During a panel discussion at Harvard Law School, Ms. Light said these stand your ground laws are the basis for new tactics by gun rights advocates. Some gun rights advocates in recent years have moved to allow for “campus carry” at colleges and universities, which Ms. Light calls “absurd.”

Another victim of a recent shooting, 20-year old Kaylin Gillis, who was white, was killed in upstate New York on April 15. Ms. Gillis and her boyfriend were trying to find their friend’s house when they accidentally turned down the wrong driveway, allegedly prompting the homeowner, Kevin Monahan, to shoot and kill her. 

New York — despite its famously restrictive gun laws — does allow for use of deadly force for the purposes of self-defense, but requires that the shooter retreat before using the firearm. 

By contrast, Texas has one of the most clear stand your ground laws in the country, allowing citizens to use deadly force if they did not provoke their attacker and not requiring them to retreat before shooting. Texas also allows citizens to shoot fleeing suspects in order to reclaim stolen property. 

That law came into the spotlight in recent months after a U.S. Army sergeant, Daniel Perry, went on trial for killing a Black Lives Matter protester in 2020. Sergeant Perry, who is white, was convicted on April 7 of murdering the protester, who he claimed brandished a weapon and threatened him while he was driving for a rideshare service. 

Governor Abbott has since said he is “working as swiftly as Texas law allows” to pardon Sergeant Perry. 

The New York Sun

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