▶ Watch Video: Understanding “stand your ground” laws

A White man claiming self-defense after he shot a Black teenager this week when he rang the doorbell of his Kansas City home has reignited the debate over “stand your ground” laws. 

Andrew D. Lester, who has been charged with two felonies, has not defended himself against the charges, and it’s still unclear whether he would use Missouri’s “stand your ground” laws in his defense.

Lester, 84, told police he shot 16-year-old Ralph Yarl because he was “scared to death,” when the doorbell rang just after he went to bed. The teenager was picking up his younger brothers from a sleepover but went to the wrong street, rang the doorbell and was shot and seriously wounded. 

In charging documents, Lester told police picked up his .32 Smith & Wesson, walked to his door and saw a Black male pulling on the locked exterior storm door handle. Yarl told police he did not pull on the door handle and was just waiting patiently outside the front door, charging documents said.

Lester said he believed someone was trying to break into the house, so he fired twice at the teenager because believed he was protecting himself, according to the charging documents.   

The shooting sparked outrage on social media, where celebrities, activists, and lawyers have alleged the shooting was a clear-cut case of bias. “Gun violence against unarmed Black individuals must stop,” civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump said in a statement.

“Stand your ground” laws first entered the American vernacular after the 2012 shooting death of Trayvon Martin. George Zimmerman said he shot the Black teenager because he felt threatened. A Florida jury acquitted Zimmerman of all charges after they received instructions about the law. 

About 35 states have enacted some form of “stand your ground” laws — or expanded “castle doctrine” laws — in the decade following Martin’s death, with each one defining how and where a person can defend themselves when they feel their life is in danger. 

Proponents of the laws, including the National Rifle Association, argue that they give people the right to protect themselves, no matter where they are. Opponents say that these laws foster a “shoot first, ask questions later” mentality that can lead to rising homicide rates, and can also disproportionately affect minorities. 

Here’s what you need to know about the laws. 

What does the “stand your ground” law allow for?

Florida was the first state to fully enact a “stand your ground” law in 2005, which allows people to use force — including deadly force — from any location if they felt their lives were in danger.  

Under earlier self-defense laws, people could reasonably defend themselves within their homes. But once outside their homes, people could not use deadly force if there was a safe way to retreat — until the expansion of “stand your ground” laws.

The expansion allowed people anywhere and at any time to defend themselves and “meet force with force, including deadly force,” if they felt their lives were in danger — without punishment. The American Bar Association National Task Force on Stand Your Ground Laws said these laws created a “misconception that these laws provide carte blanche for people to use deadly force in public areas.”

In the decade-plus since Martin’s death, “stand your ground” laws have led to between an 8% to 11% increase in gun homicides and violent deaths, according to a 2022 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. In Southern states, including Florida and Alabama, homicide rates have jumped 10%, the study found.

“‘Stand your ground’ laws encourage reckless gun owners to kill first, ask questions later, and claim self-defense to avoid being held criminally responsible for taking the life of another individual,” says Kelly Sampson, senior counsel and director of racial justice with the nonprofit gun control advocacy group Brady.

Which states have “stand your ground” laws?

As of April 15, 2021, some 35 states had a version of a “stand your ground” law, or an expanded “castle doctrine” law which allows exceptions for persons to defend themselves outside their homes, on their books, the Rand Corporation found in an analysis of the effect of the laws. 

There are important nuances to these laws, so it’s possible to have different interpretations and counts, said Daniel Webster, a professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and director of the Center for Gun Violence Prevention and Policy.

Other sources, such as the Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund, adopt a more restrictive definition and therefore count fewer states with “stand your ground” laws, the Rand study says. 

Rand’s analysis includes the 25 states that have passed similar laws since 2005, and eight states that have expanded castle doctrine to motor vehicles or the workplace. These states are Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, Nebraska, North Dakota, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming. 

How would these laws apply to the shooting in Missouri?

Lester, who has been charged with two felonies, including assault in the first degree, has not yet officially responded to the charges, and it’s still unclear whether he would use Missouri’s “stand your ground” laws in his defense.

Missouri adopted a “stand your ground” law for purposes of actions on one’s own property in 2007, and then in 2016 expanded the law to any place where someone is authorized to be, said Webster. This could be at a friend’s house or a public space, and a person doesn’t have to retreat if “they feel their safety is threatened,” said Webster. Prosecutors must prove the person who shot someone was not in danger from the person he shot, said Webster.

While Lester has not yet mounted a defense since the shooting of Yarl outside his home, the castle doctrine law could be relevant in this case — although he would have to prove a “real and substantial” threat to his safety, said Nicholas Suplina, senior vice president of Law and Policy at Everytown for Gun Safety. A jury would have to believe that Lester’s life was at risk, Suplina said.

A castle doctrine law states people do not have a duty to retreat from “a private property that is owned or leased by such an individual,” when they have a reasonable belief they need to use deadly force to protect themselves. 

This law, which gets its name from the old adage that a man’s house is his castle, allows people to defend themselves with reasonable force, or even deadly force, in their homes or a place of business. Most states have a “castle doctrine” law codified into their legislation.