Jurors in the George Zimmerman murder trial discussed Florida’s “stand your ground” law before reaching a not guilty verdict on Saturday, according to juror B37. The controversial law eliminates the obligation to retreat before using deadly force in self-defense, even if it would be safe to do so. Do other countries require their citizens to retreat before using deadly force?
Many do not. English common law imposes a duty to retreat whenever it is safe. In continental Europe, the duty applies only when the defender provokes the attack, or when the attacker doesn’t understand the situation. (Europeans must retreat from young children with guns, for example.) Nor is there a general duty to retreat in countries like Japan and Argentina, which derive their criminal-law systems from Europe. Even England, originator of the duty to retreat, repealed the doctrine in 1967 by statute. Defenders of the European system argue that imposing a duty to retreat may prevent the attack on the victim’s life, but it permits an attack on his legal rights—the right to be in a public place, the right to move freely, etc. By passing the “stand your ground” law, Florida brought its laws closer to those of Europe. Otherwise, the U.S. is in the minority in having, within some states, an explicit duty to retreat.
It’s not entirely clear how much this doctrinal division matters in practice, though. There may be a practical duty to retreat under many circumstances in Europe, even if the law doesn’t explicitly say so. That’s because the law also says you can use deadly force only when it’s necessary to avert an attack, and the force must not be grossly disproportional.
To see how the doctrinally distinct English common law and European systems can converge on the same result in practice, consider a classic hypothetical: A disabled man in a wheelchair, carrying only a sword, assails an able-bodied victim, who responds by shooting the attacker to death. Under English common law, the killer could not rely on the self-defense justification, because he used deadly force when retreat was an equally safe option. On a different basis, a court in Germany, Argentina, or Spain would almost certainly convict the killer as well, despite the lack of an explicit duty to retreat. Deadly force was both unnecessary and disproportional. Because any given case is factually distinct, and the laws are subject to human interpretation, it’s impossible to say with certainty when one has a practical duty to retreat in any country.
In practice, the mainstream view of when deadly force should be permissible seems to vary minimally between countries. When a country’s laws produce an outcome that diverges from a standard people are comfortable with, the doctrine ultimately yields to the popular intuition. Here’s an example to illustrate that point. In 1920, a German orchardist was tending to his trees when he happened upon a thief, who immediately fled. To thwart the theft, the orchard owner shot and killed the thief. Arguing that “right need never yield to wrong,” the German court acquitted the shooter. Public questioning of that absolutist doctrine, however, eventually led to the adoption of the proportionality rule.
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Explainer thanks Luis Chiesa of SUNY Buffalo Law School and Jens David Ohlin of Cornell University Law School and co-author of Defending Humanity: When Force Is Justified and Why.