Again and again, juries, including one in Reno, Nv., on Friday, are being asked to decide thorny legal questions under a new breed of “stand-your-ground” laws: What's the difference between self-defense and murder? Verdict by verdict, the Christian Science Monitor says such cases are educating gun owners on the limits of the law, and clarifying that the laws rarely protect people who willingly put themselves into potentially dangerous situations, and then open fire. Stand-your-ground laws have their legal roots in an 1895 Supreme Court case, where justices ruled that a homeowner has the right to “stand his ground” to save his or her own life from an unprovoked attack.
Since Florida expanded that right into public spaces in 2005, more than 30 other states followed suit, in essence giving gun owners more leeway to claim self-defense. Deliberating six hours, a Reno jury found retired school teacher Wayne Burgarello not guilty on murder charges stemming from last year's killing of an unarmed trespasser, Cody Devine, who was squatting in an abandoned, rundown rental unit that Burgarello owned. Burgarello said he felt threatened when Devine raised an object, which turned out to be a flashlight. The not-guilty verdict is one in a number of recent cases where juries are grappling with what critics say is political and cultural fall-out from laws that liberate gun owners from any “duty to retreat” before responding to a bodily threat with deadly force. For some, stand-your-ground laws have “contributed to an atmosphere of vigilante justice in our society,” Tanya Clay House of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law, told the Associated Press.