Ever since the phrase “Stand-Your-Ground” caught the eye of journalists everywhere, it seems they simply cannot get enough of it.

“Stand-Your-Ground” here, “Stand-Your-Ground” there, “Stand-Your-Ground” everywhere.

The latest breakout of “Stand-Your-Ground-Mania” is now emerging around a tragic and apparently completely unnecessary shooting in a Tampa-area theater yesterday, as described in a piece from the Tampa Bay Times:  Stand Your Ground already an issue in theater shooting.

I covered this a bit from a legal-tactical perspective over at my blog — Legally-Sound Self-Defense Strategy Rule #1: KEEP OUT OF TROUBLE IN 1st PLACE — so in the interests of saving time, I’ll just copy over the factual description from that post:

Sadly, yesterday the Christian Science Monitor reports on a story where what started as the most minor of conflicts ended up with 71-year-old Curtis Reeves, a former police officer in the area who had retired 20 years ago as a Captain, shooting and killing 43-year-old Chad Oulson, a fellow movie goer. (Movie theater shooting: Did a retired cop shoot a fellow moviegoer for texting?)

Both men, each accompanied by his wife, were attending the movie theater to view the just-released movie “Lone Survivor.” Naturally, before the movie itself began the audience was “treated” to s series of trailers for other upcoming movies. While these trailers were being run, Oulson was texting on his phone. Reeves, sitting behind Oulson and presumably disturbed by this activity, told Oulson to stop texting. Oulson replied that he was checking on the status of his 3-year-old daughter.

Reeves then became sufficiently upset that he sought out the manager of the movie theater. Either he had no luck or the manager disinclined to enforce the “no texting” rule while only previews were running, because he returned alone, apparently even angrier than when he left. No sooner had he taken his seat than the argument between the two men began again.

Oulson stood up and turned to face Reeves. Their voices got louder, and at some point popcorn was being thrown.

Witnesses then say Reeves drew his sidearm. Oulson’s wife placed her hand on her husband’s chest, and Reeves fired. The bullet penetrated her hand and Oulson’s chest. Blood began to come from Oulson’s mouth, suggesting the wound was effectively mortal. Taken to a Tampa-area hospital, Oulson died.

Reeves was quickly stripped of his gun by a person beside him, and was promptly detained by an off-duty deputy until police arrived. Reeves has been charged with second degree murder. (Early reports make no mention of Oulson possessing a weapon of any sort, but of course these are “news” stories, and as such their grasp of “facts” is always suspect.)

That Tampa Bay Times piece does have some additional — and contradictory — information that wasn’t included in the earlier Christian Science Monitor piece I relied on for my post at my own blog.  It is now reported that Reeves told responding officers on Monday that Oulson struck him in the face with an unknown object.

Witnesses, however, reportedly told police that the two men did not throw punches.  Rather, they witnesses that Oulson threw a bag of popcorn at Reeves, and in response Reeves drew his sidearm and shot Oulson fatally (in the process, the bullet passed through the hand of Oulson’s wife, which she had placed on her husband’s chest.  The 43-year-old Oulson is survived by his wounded wife and a three-year-old baby.)

As the headline of the Tampa Bay Times pieces indicates, the incessant screeching about the role of “Stand-Your-Ground” in this shooting has already begun.  So, let’s try to bring some clarity to the situation.

First of all, “Stand-Your-Ground” is not some new or parallel form of legal defense.  It is best thought of as a “feature” you can take advantage of if you are actually engaged in legitimate self-defense to begin with.  If you are NOT engaged in legitimate self-defense, “Stand-Your-Ground has NO application.  Zero, zilch, nada.

Second, even if you WERE engaged in legitimate self-defense, “Stand-Your-Ground” merely relieves of you of any existing duty to take advantage of a safe avenue of retreat before resorting to the use of deadly force (in some states, ANY force) in self-defense.

But such a duty NEVER exists unless a safe avenue of retreat actually exists in the first place. If there is no safe avenue of retreat, there is no duty to  retreat, and “Stand-Your-Ground” again has NO application.  Zero, zilch, nada.

In this scenario the user of “defensive” deadly force was 71-year-old Reeves, a career police officer who retired as a Captain after helping found the department’s SWAT team and serving as the Tampa Bay police department’s firearms coordinator–in other words, someone who would be expected to have a very robust understanding of the continuum of lawful physical force and its appropriate deployment.

Yet there appears scant evidence that Reeves was ever faced with a deadly-force threat that would warrant him drawing and firing his weapon. Certainly, getting struck by popcorn would not qualify, and so far the record shows no other physical contact between the two men.  Granted, if blows had occurred (or reasonably threatened) the older Reeves might have had good reason to fear a beating at the hands of the much younger Oulson–but there’s no evidence that any such blows occurred (or were even threatened).

So from the very start we have an extraordinarily weak self-defense claim to begin with.  And, recall, if Reeves was not acting in lawful self-defense, then “Stand-Your-Ground” has no application.

But let us suspend a career’s worth of cynicism and stipulate, for the purposes of this discussion, that Oulson committed SOME act that would have put a reasonable and prudent Reeves, under those circumstances, in  fear of imminent death or grave bodily harm, such that Reeves was, in fact, acting in lawful self-defense.

Anyone who has ever, even once in their life, had to excuse themselves from a theater seat knows how awkward and painstaking the process is.  “Excuse me, pardon me” . . . step on a toe here, an instep there . . . “so sorry, excuse me.”  It’s difficult to imagine of a position common to normal life in which retreat from an imminent threat could possibly be  more difficult then from a seat in a populated theater.  Even were Reeves in the aisle seat, his wife would then not be, and he would never be required to flee a deadly threat and leave her behind.

Even if Reeves use of deadly force was appropriate given the threat, there was never any safe avenue of retreat open to him.

That being the case, there would never have been a duty to retreat, whether  or not “Stand-Your-Ground” had ever been adopted.

So, again, “Stand-Your-Ground” has no application to this case.

Of course, I’ve been wrong before (just ask my first wife), but based on the “facts” as presented (so far), this would seem to be a textbook case of where “Stand-Your-Ground” had no potential role whatever.

–Andrew, @LawSelfDefense


Andrew F. Branca is an MA lawyer and the author of the seminal book “The Law of Self Defense, 2nd Edition,” available at the Law of Self Defense blog, Amazon.com (paperback and Kindle), Barnes & Noble (paperback and Nook), and elsewhere.