Improving Idaho’s Stand Your Ground Laws & Why Guns & Ammo Missed the Mark

Guns and Ammo recently ranked “the best states for gun owners 2013”, which yielded some surprising results.  Idaho gun enthusiasts were surprised to see gun friendly Idaho coming in at number 32.  Our other Northwestern states came in at 40 for Washington (not too surprising, and downgraded in the NFA, concealed carry, and miscellaneous categories) and Oregon at 28 (downgraded in the carry, castle doctrine, and miscellaneous categories).  Interestingly, Oregon is also number 26 in the country for gun ownership, with over 40% of residents owning guns (better than the national average).  Topping the chart of the best states for gun owners were Arizona, Vermont, Alaska, Utah, and Kentucky.

According to the site, States were measured on the following criteria:

“CCW/Open Carry: Only states that don’t require a permit for concealed or open carry scored a perfect 10 in this category.

MSRs: States with no restrictions on the kind, type or number of Modern Sporting Rifles (ARs, AKs, etc.) that can be owned or purchased scored a 10 in this category.

Class 3/NFA: The majority of states allow their citizens to own Class 3/NFA-type firearms (machine guns, suppressors, short-barreled rifles, etc.), provided they follow the federal licensing standard, but not every state is yea or nay.

Castle Doctrine/Stand Your Ground: States’ scores were determined based on how strong the law is regarding self-defense in and out of the home, and whether in the right you’re immune from civil prosecution.

Miscellaneous: How pro-gun the state culture is has a lot to do with scoring in this category. Scores are based on the percentage of gun owners in the state, if there are any restrictions on gun or ammunition purchases or magazine capacity, pending pro- or anti-gun legislation, CCW reciprocity, and any restrictions on guns that not covered in the other categories.”

Idaho scored pretty well in all categories except the self-defense category:  an 8 for CCW/ Open Carry, a 10 for MSRs, a 10 for Class 3/NFA, a 10 for Miscellaneous, but only a 2 in the Castle Doctrine/Stand Your Ground category.  In comparison, Washington received a “10” and Oregon an “8” in the castle doctrine category.

Why only a “2” for Idaho in the area of self defense?   Guns & Ammo termed Idaho’s self-defense laws “vague”.  The laws in Idaho are not vague.  They simply aren’t all codified in statute, making them perhaps a little more elusive to researchers.  In addition, it appears Guns & Ammo may have relied on the wording of other state’s statutes (such as Oregon) without reading the interpretations of those statutes by Oregon judges.  More on this below.

Idaho has both a castle doctrine and a stand your ground law by way of a statute and interpretive case law, which together allow citizens to use deadly force to defend their lives, if they can prove that they reasonably believed their lives were in imminent danger.  The ability to use deadly force extends beyond a person’s home to any location where the event might occur.

To discuss this law, I am going to turn to our model jury instructions.  The Idaho Supreme Court has taken the initiative to clarify and simplify the law of self-defense by approving jury instructions written by members of the Criminal Jury Instruction Committee.  These committee members have carefully researched Idaho’s self-defense statutes and case law.  I frequently teach the jury instructions to clients and groups, because they are excellent summaries of our law and exactly what will be read to a jury of your peers if you ever suffer a trial for firing a gun in self-defense.  The jury instructions can be found at   Two main jury instructions pertaining to self-defense are ICJI 1517 and 1519.

As a preliminary matter, there is a difference between a  “castle doctrine” and a “stand your ground” law.   Castle Doctrine refers to the ability of a home owner to use deadly force to defend himself, herself or other people inside the home.  Think “my home is my castle” and you get the point.   Some states expand the castle doctrine to other locations, such as a vehicle or place of work, and give special rules about when deadly force can be used in those special locations.   In contrast, stand your ground laws refer to the laws that allow you to use deadly force in self-defense in any location you are legally allowed to be rather than turn and run.

Idaho’s Castle Doctrine is found in Idaho Code section 18-4009(2), which justifies the use of deadly force in defense of “habitation, property or person, against one who manifestly intends or endeavors, by violence or surprise, to commit a felony, or against one who manifestly intends and endeavors, in a violent, riotous or tumultuous manner, to enter the habitation of another for the purpose of offering violence to any person therein…”

Idaho’s stand your ground law is found in old case law.  While it may be nice to have a statute, it is not required – the stand your ground law exists, is not vague, and has been upheld since 1909.  The jury instruction is clearer than any statute or the case law.  ICJR 1519 states that “In the exercise of the right of self‑defense (or defense of another), one need not retreat.  One may stand one’s ground and defend oneself by the use of all force and means which would appear to be necessary to a reasonable person in a similar situation and with similar knowledge.  In addition, Idaho’s stand your ground law allows pursuit of the attacker until there is no danger, if pursuit is reasonably necessary.  The stand your ground law applies even though the person being attacked might more easily have gained safety by flight or by withdrawing from the scene.”

Now let’s turn to why Guns & Ammo  missed the mark in scoring Idaho.   As mentioned above, Oregon received an “8” compared to Idaho’s “2″ in the self-defense category.  If you only read the Oregon statute, it seems great – it appears to allow a citizen to shoot an intruder if that intruder is breaking into your home.   But I also practice law in Oregon, which is where I was a District Attorney.  Oregon’s statute when read in light of interpretive case law is no better than Idaho’s, because the courts have determined that deadly force may only be used to counter a home burglary if the use of force is absolutely necessary, and if the felony involves an imminent threat of great bodily injury.  Even though on the surface, Oregon’s statute seems helpful to the homeowner, the Oregon courts have nullified its benefits and at the end of the day, it is hardly distinguishable from Idaho’s castle doctrine.   While Guns & Ammo graded Idaho unnecessarily low, we can use this opportunity to address our laws and turn the negative into a positive.

When I hear Second Amendment advocates and politicians discussing the need for a stand your ground law in Idaho to be codified rather than relying on case law my thoughts turn to what could be drafted that would expand the good law we already have.   Lawmaker’s should not just focus on creating a statute because a survey termed our law “vague” – they should focus on what citizens really want and need and what has not yet been delineated.

So let’s examine a better state’s law to see where Idaho is failing. Florida has a dynamite home-defense law in comparison.  Why?  Because rather than make the shooter prove that they acted reasonably in self-defense, Florida’s statute presumes that a person acted reasonably when the shooter (victim) uses deadly force against someone (criminal) who is unlawfully and forcefully entering the victim’s home or car.   In other words, if you shoot an intruder breaking into your house, you are PRESUMED to have acted lawfully in shooting that person.  Wow.  What a concept……let’s trust the law abiding citizen to have made the right decision in a split second when discovering that another, unauthorized person is in their house rather than making that victim prove that they acted reasonably when under fear for their own life.

In sum, Idaho has both a castle doctrine and a stand your ground law, because a person may use deadly force in their own home provided they meet the criteria contained in the statue and need not retreat.  Is there room for improvement?  You bet there is.  But Idaho lawmakers need to go beyond codifying our current stand your ground case law.  We need a statute that creates a presumption in favor of the homeowner over the criminal.  Florida’s statute should serve as a model for Idaho’s self-defense laws. We are a gun-owning population, and law-abiding, gun-owning Idahoans deserve to be protected by the law over and above criminals.

Idaho is a gun friendly state.  Let’s push it this coming legislative session and shoot to be #1 for gun owners.  <<Read more>>