Jewish Law and the “Stand Your Ground Law”
By Rabbi Yair Hoffman
This past Tuesday, Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. strongly condemned ‘‘Stand Your Ground’’ laws, saying that the measures ‘‘senselessly expand the concept of self-defense’’ and may encourage ‘‘violent situations to escalate.’’ The same day, entertainer Stevie Wonder announced that he is boycotting the state of Florida by not having concerts there, until they repeal their “Stand Your Ground” legislation.
Currently, these laws are on the books in more than 30 states, and they have become a focal point of both rioting and national debate in the aftermath of the acquittal of murder and manslaughter charges in the shooting of Trayvon Martin. Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old, was killed by a neighborhood watch volunteer, George Zimmerman, who was acquitted on Saturday.
What is a stand-your-ground law? It is a law adopted by many states that a person may use force, even deadly force, in self-defense when there is reasonable belief of a threat, without an obligation to retreat first. In some cases, a person may even use deadly force in public areas without a duty to retreat.
This legal principle is certainly not new in this country. As early as 1921, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. declared in Brown v. United States created the following maxim, “detached reflection cannot be demanded in the presence of an uplifted knife.”
Our question is what does Jewish law say about the matter? Should a person be permitted to kill another, even a criminal, if there is an alternative approach to handle the problem? If not, is there a difference between in one’s own home and elsewhere?
The Rambam in Hilchos Malachim 9:4 writes that if a pursuer is chasing a descendent of Noach and that pursued one has an alternative option of removing the threat it is forbidden for him to kill the pursuer.
If, of course, there is a question as to whether or not this will work and there is danger to his own life, then one must protect one’s own life.
It would seem that this ruling of the Rambam applies to our question concerning Stand Your Ground Laws. The rationale for the prohibition is provided in the Talmud with the expression, “Why is your blood any redder than his?”
The entire chapter nine in the Mishna Torah provides more insight into this very contemporary legal argument. The alternative choices are to either, confuse him with words, hurt one of his limbs, or even leave the confrontation.
If, however, the person is robbing him, there is no obligation to leave and lose one’s money. There is an obligation though to minimize what one must do to the pursuer. If one can get demonstrably get away without killing him then one is obliged to do so. The same is true with hurting him. Indeed, if one could have avoided the confrontation and one didn’t, then generally speaking there is no exemption and he would be liable for charges of murder according to the Rambam!
Is there a distinction in one’s own home? It is clear from the Rambam in that section that since someone who has broken into one’s own home is generally after money, there is no obligation to leave him the money in order to avoid killing him. Therefore, there may be an exception in regard to one’s own home and where the pursuer is after money. Otherwise, the Stand Your Ground Laws would be wrong.
But should Zimmerman have gotten off scot-free? The Rambam in Hilchos Rotzeach and Shmiras haNefesh (1:13) writes: Whoever could save a person being pursued through just [taking out] one of the limbs of the pursuer, but does not bother to do so and rather kills him, this person has spilled blood and incurs the death penalty, but the court of law does not put him to death.
Although the Tur (CM 425) questions why there is no death penalty, many of the commentators (see Tzitz Eliezer IV #24) explain that it is a lower level of death penalty incursion, and only a Goel HaDam may put him to death, but no one else may – even a court of law.
But what about the fact that these “Stand Your Ground” laws may help society and even reduce crime? John Lott, in his third edition of More Guns, Less Crime (University of Chicago Press, 2010), states that research shows that states adopting “Stand Your Ground” laws reduced murder rates by 9 percent and overall violent crime by 11 percent. He writes that this is even after accounting for a range of other factors such as national crime trends, law enforcement variables (arrest, execution, and imprisonment rates), income and poverty measures (poverty and unemployment rates, per capita real income, as well as income maintenance, retirement, and unemployment payments), demographic changes (broken down by race, gender and age), and the national average changes in crime rates from year-to-year and average differences across states.
Indeed, Florida state representative Dennis Baxley, an author of the Florida law, notes that crime rates in Florida dropped significantly between 2005, when the law was passed, and 2012.
It would seem to this author that even though these statistics may be true, it would certainly be extreme to create such a legislation. If, for example, we were to impose the death penalty for drunk driving, even when one has not killed anyone, it is most certain that the deaths of innocent victims of drunk drivers would be substantially reduced. Nonetheless, it would be very wrong to impose such a draconian penalty – it would be overkill.
By the same reasoning, it would seem that the Stand Your Ground laws are overkill too and do not fit in accordance with the Rambam.
Stevie Wonder is thus fully justified in his boycott.
So what should George Zimmerman have done? Initially, he most certainly should have listened to the 911 operator and have waited for the police before confronting Trayvon Martin.
The author may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org