Stronger self-defense laws spread, despite limited measure of impacts

Jon LaFlamme

This project was produced by News21, a national investigative reporting project involving top college journalism students across the country and headquartered at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University

Americans are more empowered than they have ever been by stand your ground or similar laws to use firearms to protect themselves and their property, though the laws are applied inconsistently across the country, a News21 analysis shows.

Since 2005, 31 states have adopted stronger self-defense laws, making it more difficult for police and prosecutors to prove a person breaks the law when acting in self-defense and making it more difficult to sue those people if they are found not guilty of a crime.

The laws have been invoked for everything from road rage that ended in gunfire to suspected thieves who were shot to death as they tried to flee.

Related: 081514 News21 Corn quote

In a recent Texas case, a woman is expected to claim self-defense for fatally shooting her neighbor through her locked front door because she thought he was trying to break in. The man she killed was an off-duty Houston firefighter who, for reasons unknown, was at the woman’s door following a day of drinking with friends on St. Patrick’s Day this year.

Almost all these laws came well before the highly publicized 2012 shooting death in Florida of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman. News21 found 28 attempts in state legislatures to scale back self-defense laws after Martin’s death, but all of them failed.

Some states have expanded the castle doctrine, which allows people greater leeway to act in self-defense in their homes. Texas and Louisiana, for example, passed laws that treat self-defense in workplaces and vehicles the same as if a person was at home.

Other states, including Hawaii and Idaho, approved laws to protect people from civil lawsuits if they are found innocent of criminal charges.

Related: Stand your ground interactive

In many of the states, like North Carolina and Mississippi, a person in a public place does not have to retreat from a confrontation before shooting to kill in self-defense. The same states also placed a greater burden on prosecutors, requiring that they prove a person was not acting in self-defense to win a conviction.

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Copyright 2014 The Center for Public Integrity. This story was published by The Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative news organization in Washington, D.C.