Stand Your Ground versus Duty to Retreat

This post is about “stand your ground” versus “duty to retreat”.¬†People differ in their views on the legitimacy of self-defense.

  • Some feel that if you are getting an “ass-whoopin”, you should accept it (even though, realistically, the “ass-whooper” might not choose to stop until you are dead or maimed).
  • Others say that if you are attacked by someone using bare hands, you should defend yourself with nothing more than your bare hands (even though this victimizes the weak and elderly and produces cities ruled by the strongest and most vicious).
  • And still others say, “lay a hand on me and you will risk death; I am too old to run or too weak to fight.”

State legislatures tend to follow the will of the people, so different states see self-defense differently.

The most important state-by-state legal difference in self-defense is between “stand-your-ground” states and “duty-to-retreat” states. Imagine that you are attacked outside your home, in the street, say, or in a place of business. (Home self-defense will be discussed in a separate essay). Assume also that you did not provoke the attack. (Provocation will also be discussed in a separate essay.)

A handful of states say that you must retreat from an attack if possible. If you stand your ground and defend yourself when you could have retreated then you, not your attacker, have committed a crime.

On the other hand, most states say that you may defend yourself at any time and have no duty to keep retreating indefinitely. If you defend yourself then your attacker, not you, has committed a crime, even if you could have retreated.


Niagara Falls NY 4/4/2012 — A 17-year-old Black teenaged girl girl was charged Wednesday with stabbing another Black teen girl on Tuesday afternoon in Niagara Falls, NY.

The following video illustrates the difference between stand-your-ground states and duty-to-retreat states. As can be seen in the video, an unnamed girl (in light-colored pants) is beating up Jazzie Bennett (in dark pants). The attacker chases Jazzie Bennet across a parking lot, then across a street. The attacker continues to beat on Ms. Bennett until finally, in desperation, Bennett pulls out a knife and stabs her attacker in what is clearly self-defense.

Story and video here.

The girl who chased Bennet across the street, beating on her, was labeled “the victim” by the police and was not charged. Ms. Bennet, who defended herself, was arraigned in City Court on a felony charge of second-degree assault. At her trial, the judge will instruct the jury, “As a matter of law, if you find that the defendant did not retreat when retreat was possible, you must find her guilty”.

To someone being attacked, the main drawback of “duty-to-retreat” is that the only certain way of convincing a jury that you could not have retreated is to be killed. In practical terms, the “duty-to-retreat” doctrine essentially removes everyone’s right of self-defense.

On the other hand, In most of the 50 states, the police would have charged the attacker and released the girl who defended herself with a knife.


Dr. Sweet’s grandfatherly advice is:

  • If you feel the need to deliver an “ass-whoopin” on a stranger, be very, very sure of the laws of the state you are in. In most of the 50 states, you could be killed by the person you are “whoopin”.
  • On the other hand, if someone is “ass-whoopin” you, defend yourself by any means necessary. Always. If you are in one of the many states that allows stand-your-ground, you will survive and stay out of prison. If you are in one of the few states that demands duty-to-retreat, you will go to prison, but you will still be alive and not a vegetable.

Next time: When Does Provocation Bar Self-Defense?


Frank W. Sweet is an NRA-certified firearms instructor who teaches the safe and effective use of handguns for self-defense. He was awarded an M.A. in Civil War Studies in military history from American Military University in 2001. He is the author of Legal History of the Color Line (ISBN 9780939479238), Six Gems of Forgotten Civil War History (ISBN 9780939479023), and of numerous published historical essays. To receive a schedule of his firearms training courses, email to The information above should not be construed as legal advice.

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