When Can You Legally Use A Gun For Self-Defense? (State By State)

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When Can You Legally Use A Gun For Self-Defense? (State By State)

No one wants to have to use their gun in self-defense. However, the possibility that you might have to does exist.

But what's the legality of using your gun in self-defense?

If you're developing a plan for personal defense, it's a good idea to familiarize yourself with what the law does and doesn't allow.

Knowing the law and being familiar with what your rights and responsibilities are consists of more than just knowing which state will honor your concealed carry permit.

Gun law can be a complex and confusing subject, so it's within your best interests — whether for defense or compliance — to know and understand the laws of your state.

Obviously, people can't just go around shooting other people. Conversely, no one expects you to sit by and allow yourself to be victimized.

The law operates along these same principles.

Every state has laws regarding when it's acceptable to use your firearm to defend yourself, and while they differ slightly, in general the rule is that you're allowed to use force if you face an imminent threat of physical violence that you reasonably expect would cause significant harm.

In most cases, the force used is required to be no more than is necessary to resolve the imminent threat.

Most states have gone the extra mile of defining set circumstances in which you can use force in a lethal manner.

The circumstances typically fall into two categories: Stand Your Ground laws and Castle Doctrine laws.

Some states require that you make every attempt to remove yourself from the situation; this is known as a Duty to Retreat.

Both Stand Your Ground and Castle Doctrine laws preempt the Duty to Retreat.

Before we go any further, it’s important to note that we are not lawyers and none of the information found in this article should be taken as legal advice.

For more information, you should get in contact with a lawyer familiar with gun laws in your state.

What's Never Allowed: Brandishing

Before getting too far into what's allowed with regard to use of force, it's good practice to understand what is universally considered unacceptable.

First, there's no state that allows the brandishing of a firearm to prevent a crime from occurring.

You are not allowed to show your gun in a threatening manner, no matter how much you might think the situation warrants it. The best rule of thumb is to never pull your gun out unless it's to use it.

This isn't to say you can't have your gun drawn and insist to a potential assailant that you will use it should that person attempt to harm you.

What we're speaking of here is drawing a gun in a threatening manner when no threat of violence has occurred.

It's the kind of thing often seen in movies: One person shows someone their gun and asks if there's a problem.

That type of brandishing might work to de-escalate a bad situation, but you'd likely find yourself charged with a crime if you attempted it.

It's better to try to verbally de-escalate situations and remove yourself, if possible, rather than trying to preempt violence by way of threat.

Castle Doctrine vs Stand Your Ground

Stand Your Ground Laws

Stand Your Ground laws are laws enacted by individual states that assert that you have no obligation to retreat from a situation prior to resorting to deadly force.

What this means is that if you believe there's justifiable danger imminent, you have the right to stand your ground and defend yourself, your property, and other people.

While states differ in their interpretation of when it's appropriate to stand your ground, the ultimate root of these laws is found within the Fourth Amendment.

The idea is that you have a right to be secure in your person, no matter where you are.

Castle Doctrine

Castle Doctrine is similar in some respects to the concept of Stand Your Ground is a legal principle in the United States and some other countries that allows individuals to use force, including deadly force, to defend their homes or, in some cases, other locations where they have a legal right to be, without the obligation to retreat first.

The doctrine is based on the idea that a person's home is their "castle," and they should have the right to protect it and themselves from intruders.

However, it applies specifically to being in your home. The idea behind the Castle Doctrine is that you have no duty to retreat if you are in the comfort of your own home.

Your home is essentially your castle, and if that fortress is breached, you're within your rights to defend it with lethal force should the situation warrant it.

In many places Castle Doctrine also extends to cover your yard, your work location, and your vehicle or other personal property.

Key points of the Castle Doctrine typically include:

No Duty to Retreat: Under the Castle Doctrine, individuals are not required to attempt to retreat from their home (or other covered locations) before using force, including lethal force, against someone who unlawfully enters or threatens violence within that location.

Use of Force Proportional to Threat: The use of force must generally be proportionate to the perceived threat. In other words, deadly force is typically only justified if there is a reasonable belief that the intruder poses a threat of death or serious bodily harm.

Protection of Home or Dwelling: While the doctrine often applies to one's home, it can also extend to other places where a person has a legal right to be, such as a workplace or a vehicle.

Stand Your Ground Laws: Some states have "stand your ground" laws that expand the Castle Doctrine beyond one's home, allowing individuals to use force, including deadly force, in self-defense without a duty to retreat in any location where they are legally present.

State-Specific Laws

Some states have both Stand Your Ground and Castle Doctrine laws in place, but most have one or the other.

In many cases, Castle Doctrine has been interpreted in legal settings as being the same as Stand Your Ground and vice versa. So, as time goes on, jurisprudence has blurred the lines between the two.

That said, it's important to know where your specific state falls in the legal spectrum.


Which States Have Castle Doctrine Laws?

  • Connecticut
  • Iowa
  • Ohio

Which States Have Stand Your Ground Laws?

  • Alabama
  • Alaska
  • Arizona
  • Florida
  • Georgia
  • Idaho
  • Indiana
  • Kansas
  • Kentucky
  • Louisiana
  • Michigan
  • Mississippi
  • Missouri
  • Montana
  • Nevada
  • New Hampshire
  • North Carolina
  • Oklahoma
  • Pennsylvania
  • South Carolina
  • South Dakota
  • Tennessee
  • Texas
  • Utah
  • West Virginia
  • Wyoming

Which States Have State Specific Laws?

Arkansas

  • Duty to Retreat and Castle Doctrine

California

  • Castle Doctrine. No Duty to Retreat. Jurisprudence and interpretation have affirmed a right to use lethal force for self-defense in certain situations, although no official Stand Your Ground law exists.

Colorado

  • Duty to Retreat and Castle Doctrine

Delaware

  • Duty to Retreat and Castle Doctrine

District of Columbia

  • The District of Columbia is termed a "middle ground" jurisdiction because it has no Castle Doctrine law or Stand Your Ground law, but also has no Duty to Retreat.

Hawaii

  • Duty to Retreat and Castle Doctrine

Illinois

  • Castle Doctrine. No Duty to Retreat. Jurisprudence and interpretation have affirmed a right to use lethal force for self-defense in certain situations, although no official Stand Your Ground law exists.

Maine

  • Duty to Retreat and Castle Doctrine

Maryland

  • Duty to Retreat and Castle Doctrine

Massachusetts

  • Duty to Retreat and Castle Doctrine

Minnesota

  • Duty to Retreat and Castle Doctrine

Nebraska

  • Duty to Retreat and Castle Doctrine

New Jersey

  • Duty to Retreat and Castle Doctrine

New Mexico

  • Castle Doctrine. No Duty to Retreat. Jurisprudence and interpretation have affirmed a right to use lethal force for self-defense in certain situations, although no official Stand Your Ground law exists.

New York

  • Duty to Retreat and Castle Doctrine

North Dakota

  • Duty to Retreat and Castle Doctrine

Oregon

  • Castle Doctrine. No Duty to Retreat. Jurisprudence and interpretation have affirmed a right to use lethal force for self-defense in certain situations, although no official Stand Your Ground law exists.

Rhode Island

  • Duty to Retreat and Castle Doctrine

Vermont

  • Duty to Retreat

Virginia

  • Castle Doctrine. No Duty to Retreat. Jurisprudence and interpretation have affirmed a right to use lethal force for self-defense in certain situations, although no official Stand Your Ground law exists.

Washington

  • Castle Doctrine. No Duty to Retreat. Jurisprudence and interpretation have affirmed a right to use lethal force for self-defense in certain situations, although no official Stand Your Ground law exists.

Wisconsin

  • Duty to Retreat and Castle Doctrine

It's important to note that these laws and doctrines are not absolute.

No matter how strong the language in a state's law, there will be an investigation into your use of force if you use lethal force.

In most cases, there are specific criteria which must be met in order for the Stand Your Ground or Castle Doctrine to apply.

Regardless of whether the state you live in is a Castle Doctrine or a Stand Your Ground state, the law requires that you only use the force necessary according to the situation.

You cannot escalate to lethal force based on words or threats.

The use of force is only justified if there's sufficient evidence to suggest that you lacked another alternative.

For example, this is why it’s illegal to shoot at a thief who isn’t an immediate threat: by shooting at someone who has no intention of attacking, you are escalating the situation with unnecessary force.

Additionally, even in states without a Duty to Retreat, it's still expected that you attempt to remove yourself from the situation.

Defined legal expectations vary from state to state, but each state expects that if you have the ability to leave the encounter, you do so.

Obviously, use of force isn't something that anyone seeks to do — especially if that force is deadly — but under certain circumstances, it may be unavoidable.

Check the laws of your state so you can understand what is required of you in your locale.

It's better to have the information before ever having to use it, and if you have any additional questions, be sure to contact an attorney licensed to practice law in your state.

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