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2 shootings at mistaken addresses renew the focus on controversial self-defense laws

A police officer drives past the Kansas City home where 16-year-old Ralph Yarl was shot last week.
Charlie Riedel
A police officer drives past the Kansas City home where 16-year-old Ralph Yarl was shot last week.

Updated April 20, 2023 at 9:45 PM ET

The recent shootings of two people who accidentally came to the wrong address — a 16-year-old boy in Kansas City and a 20-year-old woman in rural New York — have renewed concerns over controversial self-defense laws, including "stand your ground" statutes.

Last Thursday, Ralph Yarl, a high school junior, came to the wrong address to pick up his younger siblings. After Yarl rang the doorbell, the 84-year-old homeowner shot him through the glass door, later telling police he was "scared to death."

Two days later, a group of friends were driving through rural upstate New York looking for a friend's house when they turned into the wrong driveway. As they were in the process of turning around, authorities say, the homeowner emerged from the house and fired at least two shots into the car, killing one of the passengers, Kaylin Gillis.

The shootings of Yarl and Gillis, 48 hours and some 1,200 miles apart, have reignited scrutiny and criticism of the self-defense laws in their states. Those include stand your ground statutes, which allow individuals to use deadly force in dangerous situations even when they could have safely retreated from the encounter.

"If this is the sort of thing where 'stand your ground' can be enforced, then every U.S. postal worker, every Amazon delivery person, every pizza delivery person, every Girl Scout volunteer, anybody knocking on your door now becomes someone who's subject to be shot," said Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas, a Democrat, in an interview on MSNBC.

Over the past 18 years, such laws have been adopted by more than two dozen states. Research shows that their proliferation has helped to drive an increase in firearm homicide rates nationwide.

What is a stand your ground law?

Stand your ground is a modification to the traditional rules around self-defense.

Traditionally, in order to claim self-defense, a person must show that the deadly force was necessary to prevent serious harm or death and that there was no way to safely retreat from the dangerous conflict. One long-standing exception in many places is the "castle doctrine" — the legal idea that you are allowed to use force, including deadly force, when you're in your own home.

Stand your ground laws expand that exception beyond the home to anywhere in public where a person is lawfully present.

In other words, in states with stand your ground statutes, a person may use deadly force in public when they fear for their safety, "even if it can be proven that you knew you had safe alternatives to force and violence by stepping away," said Ari Freilich, the state policy director for the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

The modern wave of stand your ground laws began in 2005 in Florida, after lobbying by the National Rifle Association. Gun rights advocates argue that the laws empower people to defend themselves against violence.

Florida's law came to national prominence in 2012 after 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was shot and killed during a confrontation with George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer who found him suspicious.

Police delayed arresting Zimmerman, citing Florida's stand your ground statute. Later, during Zimmerman's murder trial, the jury was instructed that Zimmerman had no duty to retreat and had a right to stand his ground, including the use of deadly force. Zimmerman was acquitted.

How common are stand your ground laws?

Since first being enacted in Florida, stand your ground laws have spread across the country, mostly in states with Republican-controlled legislatures.

At least 28 states do not require people to retreat from any place in which they are "lawfully present," according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. About 10 of those states explicitly include "stand your ground" wording in the statutes.

Several other states, while stopping short of a full stand your ground provision, have expanded the castle doctrine beyond the home — to a person's vehicle or place of work, for example.

What does research show about the laws?

There's growing evidence that states with stand your ground laws may experience more gun violence. In a study last updated in 2023, a review of 16 studies by researchers at RAND found a significant link between such laws and an increase in firearm homicides.

And last year, a study in the medical journal JAMA Network Open found that the enactment of stand your ground laws nationwide had led to an "abrupt and sustained" 8% to 11% national increase in monthly homicide and firearm homicide rates — in other words, an extra 58 to 72 homicides each month nationwide.

Gun control advocates say that the laws encourage a "shoot first" mentality. The Giffords Law Center says that the laws are also unevenly applied, leading to racial disparities in who is able to successfully use the defense.

"It exacerbates racial biases in the legal systems. It exacerbates gender biases in the legal system," Freilich said. "And all of this, I think, creates a feedback loop of more distrust of the system, and more violence."

Will stand your ground or castle doctrine laws come into play in these two shootings?

Legal experts said it's unlikely, given what's currently known about the two cases.

In New York, which has a castle doctrine but no stand your ground law, authorities appear skeptical of a potential self-defense claim by 65-year-old shooter Kevin Monahan, who opened fire as the car carrying Gillis was already in the process of turning around.

"There was clearly no threat from anyone in the vehicle. There was no reason for Monahan to feel threatened," said Sheriff Jeffrey J. Murphy this week. Monahan has been charged with second-degree murder.

In Missouri, state legislators have loosened gun laws significantly over the past 15 years. That included a 2016 revision of the state's self-defense statute to include a "stand your ground" provision.

There, 84-year-old Andrew Lester faces charges of first-degree assault and armed criminal action for firing two shots through his glass storm door at Yarl, who survived the encounter. Lester told police that he believed Yarl was trying to break into his house and that he was "scared to death," given his age and inability to defend himself.

In that case, it may be up to the jury to decide whether Lester's belief of imminent danger was "reasonable," as Missouri law requires, said Peter Joy, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis.

That could be an uphill battle: Authorities say there is no evidence that any words were exchanged between Yarl and Lester, and that Yarl did not cross the threshold into Lester's home.

A prosecutor said Monday that there was a "racial component to the case"; Lester is white, and Yarl is Black.

Another factor could be that Lester shot twice, Joy said. "Even if one might think it was reasonable to fire off the first shot, was it still reasonable to go ahead and do it a second time?"

"Stand your ground doesn't come into play unless the person is attacking you," said Kansas City-based criminal defense attorney Kevin Jamison in an interview with KCUR. "There's been nothing that indicates the young man was threatening the older gentleman."

KCUR contributed reporting.

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Becky Sullivan has reported and produced for NPR since 2011 with a focus on hard news and breaking stories. She has been on the ground to cover natural disasters, disease outbreaks, elections and protests, delivering stories to both broadcast and digital platforms.