Do self-defense laws allow too much room for deadly violence?

·Senior Editor
·6-min read

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

The past two weeks have seen verdicts handed down in a pair of high-profile murder trials. Though dramatically different in many ways, both centered on the core question of how much the law allows for the use of deadly force in the name of self-defense.

The right to self-defense is one of the foundational principles of criminal law in the United States. The expansiveness of U.S. self-defense laws was on display in Wisconsin, where a jury ruled that Kyle Rittenhouse was lawfully defending himself when he shot and killed two people and severely wounded another during an altercation stemming from a racial justice protest.

The limitations of those laws was made apparent in Georgia, where a jury rejected self-defense claims from three men involved in killing Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man who was jogging through their neighborhood. All three were convicted of murder.

Generally, self-defense laws allow people to use deadly force when they “reasonably believe” doing so is necessary to protect themselves or others from being hurt or killed. But just how broad those rights are and where they can be exercised varies significantly from state to state.

Over the past 30 years, a majority of states have enacted “stand your ground” laws that allow deadly force to be used even when other options might be available. The remaining states impose a “duty to retreat” that limits violent self-defense to situations in which it’s absolutely necessary. Even in those more restrictive states, the law typically gives someone more leeway to use force in their own home than when out in public.

Though far from unanimous, a significant share of legal experts say the two recent rulings were consistent with the law in their respective states — even though Georgia is a “stand your ground” state and Wisconsin is not. A key difference, they say, is that Rittenhouse did have reason to believe the men he shot posed a serious threat whereas the men who killed Arbery did not.

Why there’s debate

Many legal analysts on the left have argued that the Rittenhouse verdict is a prime example of why U.S. self-defense laws need to be made more restrictive. They say current statutes allow far too much room for someone to create a situation in which deadly force is needed, as they argue Rittenhouse did by bringing his rifle to the protest. Others take issue with the laws’ reliance on a “reasonable” judgment of danger, since research suggests that racial bias can play a major role in which killings are considered justified.

Reform advocates make the case that self-defense laws are a poor fit for a country with so many guns. They argue that the presence of a gun can create situations where everyone involved has a reasonable argument that they face a mortal threat — a scenario in which all parties are then free to legally kill someone in self-defense.

Conservatives have countered that Rittenhouse’s case is an illustration of what U.S. self-defense laws get right. They argue that excessive limitations on someone’s ability to legally carry a gun, and protect themselves with it if necessary, would infringe on that person's fundamental rights. Some on the left also worry that stricter self-defense laws would be most harmful to vulnerable defendants, like domestic violence victims.

What’s next

The debate over how expansive self-defense rights should be is at the heart of a major gun rights case being considered by the Supreme Court. Legal analysts suggest the court’s conservative majority may be primed to significantly roll back states’ ability to limit who can carry firearms. A decision in that case is expected sometime next year.

Perspectives

Self-defense laws give all of the power to the wrong people

“A legal environment that favors the armed in their confrontations with the unarmed, police in their confrontations with suspects, and whites in their confrontations with Blacks is antithetical to social peace, let alone social justice.” — Eric Levitz, New York

Rittenhouse’s case is an example of self-defense laws working as intended

“Rittenhouse was not an aggressor. He was attacked by each of the men at whom he shot. Self-defense is a natural right and a complete legal defense. Rittenhouse is its textbook example of these defenses.” — Andrew C. McCarthy, National Review

Current laws aren’t adequate for such a heavily armed society

“If we’re going to have a country in which guns are pervasive and the law has little or nothing to say about where and when one may carry a gun and display a gun, then we are going to have a situation where self-defense law can’t really handle it.” — Criminal law expert Samuel Buell to the New York Times

Stricter self-defense laws would hurt vulnerable people the most

“The fact that our system is unfair in its punitiveness is not a convincing reason to make it even more punitive. A system that seeks fairness by punishing everyone more is after the wrong kind of equality.” — Billy Binion, Reason

Existing laws empower dangerous vigilanties with freedom to kill

“We need to think seriously about whether citizens should be entitled to go on the offense in our name — to bring weapons and seek to enforce laws — when we know that such actions may themselves be the trigger of violence and death.” — Criminal law expert Kim Ferzan to Bloomberg

Current laws are heavily biased in favor of white people

“The magic phrase is ‘I was in fear for my life.’ There are certain people for whom that becomes the magical, exonerating incantation. When police say it in a courtroom after killing, especially a person of color, the police are given the benefit of the doubt. When these white and white-passing armed citizens say that they were in fear for their life, they’re given the benefit of the doubt.” — Historian Caroline Light to Politico

The right to self-defense takes priority over progressives’ ideas of what counts as justice

“In an era when activist whims enjoy frequent favor, it must be a jolt to see a jury fail to tap-dance to the approved tune of the moment. But the jury in the Kyle Rittenhouse trial decided correctly.” — Mark Davis, Newsweek

Laws should consider whether someone created a life-threatening situation in the first place

“No citizen should deliberately catapult himself into harm's way, kill people to get out of the danger they themselves created and then claim self-defense.” — Van Jones, CNN

The problem is how the laws are being interpreted, not the laws themselves

“The problem here isn’t the law. It’s the state of mind right now, the acceptance in society of the ability to have weapons and use them to defend yourself. You’re seeing a more receptive attitude among jurors for people to arm and defend themselves if they reasonably believe their life is being threatened.” — Defense attorney Billy Martin to the Washington Post

Self-defense cases are too complex to make sweeping changes because of one verdict

“These are inherently murky incidents, heavily imbued with our social, racial and economic divisions. That is precisely why we have long relied on juries selected from these communities to render judgments on the use of force. These cases are contextual rather than definitional in terms of their verdicts. After hundreds of years, whether someone reasonably used force remains an elemental, even primal question, for jurors.” — Jonathan Turley, The Hill

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