What Constitutes Self-Defense?

In the last few weeks there has been a lot of talk about several shootings in “stand your ground” states. Some of these have clearly been self-defense, other clearly not, and other still are highly controversial. Although Virginia is not a “stand your ground” state, I think it is important to talk about some of the more high profile shootings that have taken place in “stand your ground” states, not because it is comparable to Virginia law, but because it is important to keep in mind that we must abide by all of the stipulations of the law.crime scene

Before we talk about these, it is important to know what “stand your ground” actually means; it means that as long as you are an innocent party and are legal to be in possession of your gun where you are, you have no duty to retreat when there is reasonable fear of death or imminent great bodily harm. So let’s look at a couple of examples.

What would you do if five armed men ran into your store, threatening you and your employees? One Dallas store owner stood up to the armed robbers with a revolver, and wounded one of them. After the attackers fled the store the owner called 911 asking police for help. However, due to poor quality of the phone call, the call was mislabeled and it took police officers 74 minutes to arrive on scene at which time the store owner had already headed home. Police reached him by phone once they had the injured suspect in custody, and he did return to the store to speak to police officers. In this case, the store owner does not seem to have been a part of the problem, was apparently legal to be in possession of the gun where he was, since he owned the business, and had a reasonable fear of death, so we could conclude that he was within his rights to invoke “stand your ground” doctrine.

On the other hand, we have the widely talked about and highly controversial shooting of 17 year old Jordan Davis by Michael Dunn in Jacksonville, Florida (also a “stand your ground” state). In this case, witnesses stated that the incident began when Dunn told the teenager and his friends to turn the music in their SUV down, and after one of his friends did accommodate Dunn, Davis told him to turn it back up. One witness said he heard someone from a Jetta say “Nope, you’re not going to talk to me that way”, and before reaching into the glove compartment, pulling out a pistol, and firing into the SUV, which promptly drove away.

During opening statements of this trial, prosecutor John Guy told jurors that there was no weapon in Davis’ vehicle. He is quoted as saying, “Jordan Davis was upset, no doubt. He was cussing, no doubt. He raised his voice, no doubt. But he never threatened the guy. The only thing he had on his person was a cell phone and a pocket knife. They stayed in his pocket.” Dunn is claiming self-defense, and has claimed that Davis did brandish the 4-inch blade pocket knife, saying “I should kill you right now”.

Although we do not know all of the facts, it is questionable whether Dunn meets the requirement of “stand your ground” to be considered an innocent party. Also, it is debatable whether Dunn’s fear of death or imminent bodily harm was reasonable since he was being threatened with a pocket knife by someone who was not readily accessible to.

It is hard to know sometimes who has truly acted in self-defense, and who has not, but that is not the most important point of this article. What does matter is that everyone know the in’s and out’s of self defense law in the state they live in or travel to, so that if the time ever comes where they have to make that split-second decision, they will know where they stand.