Irresponsible Media Misinformation About Lethal Self-Defense Risks Getting People Killed

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You will find wildly different opinions on how to deal with trespassers in any bar, cafe, or barbershop. Exodus 22.9 mentions “all manners of trespass”. Unsurprisingly, state laws in the United States regarding trespassing are very different.

One thing is certain: no state will allow deadly force to be used against “simple or “mere” trespass.

You wouldn’t have known that from the media reports pushing partisan narratives. All sides of the political spectrum have a tendency to misrepresent the law in these stories. Such reckless reporting, whether through carelessness or worse, misinforms public in a dangerous way. They may think that they can use deadly force, when in reality, they are not allowed to.

Legal commentators, journalists and advocates of every ideological stripe use horrific confrontations such as the Ralph Yarl shooting or Kaylin Gilis shooting to distort U.S. laws on self-defense, including those relating to defense of property. These narratives claim that the U.S. laws on self-defense and property protection fail to protect the public as a whole because they are infected by a dangerous, selfish “wild west vigilante mentality.”

The deficiencies of such reporting are evident even in a brief primer on the basics of central self-defense, and, by extension, property defense.

Duty to Retrench States. In approximately one-fourth U.S. States, a successful claim for self-defense is not available when the defender could have fled in safety.

States with the “Castle Doctrine” do not allow retreat in your home. According to the “castle theory,” however, even states that fall within the quarter of states requiring safe escape do not require it in the home, workplace, or vehicle.

States that “Stand Your Ground” do not allow for a safe retreat anywhere. There are still some states that, although they may be called “stand your grounds” states, don’t impose any duty to retreat safely, no matter where an attack takes place (my request for a mandatory safe retreat under certain circumstances can be found here).

How do these U.S. foundational legal principles, that many legal commentators will be surprised to find are in line international norms, relate the the right to use lethal force to stop an trespass.

In the United States of America, the use of deadly force can only be justified if the defender believes that it is necessary to avoid imminent (1) death, (2) serious bodily harm such as permanent disfigurement or loss of function, or any other serious bodily injury, or (3) certain serious crimes/forcible felonies such as kidnappings, arson or rapes, burglaries or robberies.

This list of situations that justify deadly force does not include “Prevent imminent or continuing simple trespass”, or any other similar phrase.

In general, a “simple” or’mere’ trespasser is present on real estate without the owner consent. Property owners are only allowed to use “reasonable” force to remove trespassers. No state considers the use of deadly force as “reasonable”.

A property owner cannot kill someone intentionally to stop a simple/mere intrusion (instead of, for instance, stopping the attacker from committing serious crimes such as those mentioned above). This is the law in all states.

As I have said in the past, spreading false caricatures about the purported “exceptionalism of the U.S. Self-Defense Law” for political or persuasive reasons exposes the public unjustifiably to real dangers. This misinformation, for example, is at least partially responsible for the fact that so many people think it is legal to use deadly force to remove trespassers who pose no threat but refuse to leave property.

To do their job better, those who are charged with informing us of our laws should first educate themselves. If we don’t, distractions that can be avoided will continue to impede rational discussion on key issues of public policy, such as gun control and the role of defensive forces in our society.