The Divine Right of Self-Defense

It is disappointing to see the President, and some others in the federal government, not only attack the means by which individuals choose to defend themselves, but now make clear they also seek to limit and infringe upon the very basic human right of self-defense. Specifically, former Attorney General Eric Holder recently stated that "it's time to question laws that senselessly expand the concept of self-defense" and argued that the government should impose upon law abiding citizens a "duty to retreat" from an attacking criminal.

First, self-defense is not some legal "concept." It is much more; it is a basic and fundamental human right. This right does not come as a gift from government, but exists independent of, and prior to, government.

Second, 'Stand Your Ground' (traditionally known as "no duty to retreat") is not new, novel, or a 'senseless expansion' of the right self-defense. It is a long standing, generally accepted, and rationally based law.

Since the 1800s it has been clear that federal law imposes no duty to retreat.

The same has been true in Washington State since statehood was achieved in the late 1800s.

As a burgeoning nation, the United States repudiated the English preference for retreating instead of fighting as our rebellious nation sought to distinguish American bravery from British cowardice. No-retreat rules took root in the Colonies, and to this day, the majority of states impose no duty to retreat.

This is the rule in most states because logic and reason recognize that victims need not yield their rights, surrender their dignity, or reveal their weak side to aggressive wrongdoers. Requiring retreat, it is said, might even put innocent people at risk as they escape an aggressor bolstered by apparently successful dominance.

Many courts have expressed an aversion for imposing a legal duty to retreat in the face of danger and pointed out the dubious logic of requiring the person obeying the law to retreat from the person breaking it.

A duty to retreat effectively attaches greater importance to the life of the person breaking the law than to the person who has done nothing wrong. If a person disregards the law by initiating an unprovoked attack upon another individual, a logical inference is that retreat will not deter the attacker.

Rejecting the idea that one had a duty to retreat, the Missouri Supreme court wrote "It is true, human life is sacred, but so is human liberty ... In other words, the wrongful and violent act of one man shall not abolish or even temporarily suspend the lawful and constitutional right of his neighbor."

Or, as the Wisconsin Supreme Court noted, "[the duty to retreat] has been superseded by a doctrine in harmony with the divine right of self-defense; the doctrine that when one is where he has a right to be and does not create the danger by his own wrongful conduct, he may stand his ground..."

Some have argued that self-defense laws are applied disproportionately and that this assertion somehow justifies the elimination or curtailment of self-defense laws for all. The claim of disproportional application may or may not be true, but to the extent that there is injustice or imperfection in an area of the law, the answer is to extend justice to where justice has not yet reached. The answer is not injustice for all by wholesale elimination of a basic human right.

A government imposed duty to retreat does not extend justice to anyone, nor does it solve any issue related to disproportional application. Instead, it serves only to encourage the unjust and the bullies who would take advantage of any law requiring a duty to retreat.

In light of the obvious importance of enabling individuals to protect themselves, it defies common sense, reason, and fundamental fairness to undermine this protection by imposing a legal duty to retreat, forcing law abiding citizens to choose between running for one's life or standing one's ground and facing criminal conviction.