The Continuing Story of Obama and “Stand Your Ground”

Standing his ground, in a fashion

Photo by Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

My item yesterday about the surging conservative meme that “Barack Obama voted for stand your ground” circulated pretty widely. The meme did much better. In National Review John Fund quoted the original Illinois Review scoop about S.B. 2386, and 2,600 Facebook fans shared the story. The Wall Street Journal climbed on board, as did Morning Joe, as did enough people to probably enshrine the “Obama backed stand your ground” story for all time.

Over email, a few readers tried to convince me that I misread the laws. This was the most useful criticism/seminar.

Although you are correct in stating that the statutory language of 720 ILCS 5/7-1 et seq. does not make the explicit reference to a lack of duty to retreat found in the Florida statute, you are incorrect in your conclusion that the effect of the two laws is different.  Since 1902, the Illinois Supreme Court and appellate courts have held that there is no duty to retreat before using even deadly force.  Hammond v. Illinois, 64 N.E. 980, 983 (Ill. 1902):

“The ancient doctrine of the common law that the right of self-defense did not arise until every effort to escape, even to retreating until an impassable wall or something of that nature had been reached, has been supplanted in America by the doctrine that a man, if unlawfully assaulted in a place where he has a right to be, and put in danger, real or reasonably apparent, of losing his life or receiving great bodily harm, is not required to endeavor to escape from his assailant, but may stand his ground and repel force with force, even to the taking of the life of his assailant if necessary or in good reason apparently necessary for the preservation of his own life or to protect himself from receiving great bodily harm.”

See also Illinois v. Rodriguez, 543 N.E.2d 324, 328 (Ill. App. Ct. 1989) (“As defendant notes, there is no duty to retreat before one is entitled to defend himself or another.”); Illinois v. Harris, 260 N.E. 2d 325, 329 (Ill. App. Ct. 1970) (“The State has cogently pointed out that Illinois has not required retreat for the right to self-defense since the case of Hammond v. Illinois, 199 Ill 173, 64 N.E. 980 (1902).”).

Good points, but 1) the question of “duty to retreat” is the key here and 2) the idea that Obama once supported “stand your ground” remains misleading. I’m not trying to throw shade on Illinois Review, which made a good find and didn’t especially oversell it. It’s just that calling an old “castle doctrine” law passed in 1961 a “stand your ground” law conflates one precedent with a well-covered campaign to add new protections to state castle doctrines. As Jacob Sullum points out, in the course of disagreeing with me*, “S.B. 2386 created neither a right to carry nor a right to stand your ground (which already existed).”

All that said, the point of trolling the White House on this question is getting it off the accusation that “stand your ground” is de facto dangerous and in need of re-examining. That’s a worthy goal, though outside of Florida—where “Dream Defender” protesters are demanding a special legislative session to revisit the law—there’s no real oomph behind a new look at the law. To paraphrase the president, who was himself quoting Deval Patrick, there are just words.

*not me in particular, just my fellow truthers who don’t think you can conflate the Florida and Illinois laws.