Self-defense laws throughout the nation see crimes against persons differently than crimes against property. In most states, you can shoot someone committing a felony crime against your person. In no state may you shoot someone committing a crime against property. The difference is usually straightforward.
Crimes against persons are where someone is threatened during the crime. They include: murder, rape, robbery (either armed or strong-arm robbery), carjacking, home invasion, arson of occupied building, kidnapping, aircraft or boat piracy, bombing (either thrown or planted), purse-snatching, assault, and battery. [Note that the last two might not be felonies. Minor assault (an idle threat) and minor battery (an uninvited touch) are not felonies, so it would be illegal to shoot the offender.]
Crimes against property are where no one is threatened. They include: sneak-theft, car break-ins, hub-cap stealing, tire stealing, burglary of unoccupied buildings, pickpocketing, counterfeiting, scamming, and fraud. Dr. Sweet’s grandfatherly advice: Do not shoot anyone committing one of these crimes.
For felony crimes against persons, the right of self-defense varies by state depending on whether the state’s laws follow duty-to-retreat versus stand-your-ground. (See Stand Your Ground versus Duty to Retreat for an explanation of both.)
Three states demand that you retreat everywhere, even if you are in your own home. If someone confronts you or breaks into your home in these jurisdictions, you are required to flee (presumably out an unguarded door or window). Dr. Sweet’s grandfatherly advice: If you defend your home by shooting the invaders in one of these states, you (not they) will go to prison. Your choice: death, rape, or maiming if you don’t defend yourself versus prison if you do. Conversely, if you make a living by conducting home invasions, these are the safest states to do it.
Retreat everywhere: District of Columbia, Rhode Island, Vermont.
Twenty states allow you to defend your own home, but demand that you retreat when you are not at home. If someone attacks you other than in your home in these jurisdictions, you are required to flee (presumably faster than the attackers’ bullets if they are armed, or faster than they can chase you if not). Dr. Sweet’s grandfatherly advice: If you defend yourself while not at home by shooting your attackers in one of these states, you (not they) will go to prison. Your choice: death, rape, or maiming if you don’t defend yourself versus prison if you do. Conversely, if you make a living by armed robbery or strong-arm robbery, these are the safest states to conduct your profession.
Retreat if outside your home: Alaska, Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Wisconsin, Wyoming.
[Note: I have include all doubtful states in this section (for example, SC has not had any recent cases since their statutes changed), so this section may be inflated by two or three states.]
Twenty-eight states are stand-your-ground states. Dr. Sweet’s grandfatherly advice: If someone commits a felony crime against your person in these jurisdictions, you may legally shoot them. Conversely, if you want to make a living by felony crimes against persons, these are not the safest states to ply your trade.
Stand-your-ground: Alabama, Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virgina, Washington, West Virginia
One final word regarding Texas. At the start we said, “In no state may you shoot someone committing a crime against property”. Texas statute Penal Code 9.41 explicitly makes it legal to shoot a thief if they are on your property stealing something at night. Do not believe this! Texas courts have consistenty defied this law and imprisoned those who followed it. We discuss this in a separate essay.
Next time: When Courts Defy the Law
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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 firstname.lastname@example.org. The information above should not be construed as legal advice.
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