Monday, May 28, 2012

PF 2012 Nationals Topic Analysis

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Resolved: Stand Your Ground laws are a legitimate expansion of the doctrine of self defense.


After two series of topics dealing with "self defense" type topics in Lincoln-Douglas, the National Forensics League has switched things up slightly and asked Public forum to examine a similar topic for the 2012 National Tournament.  Perhaps a little evidence sharing is in order since it seems reasonable to expect that some of the LD research could be applied to this topic.  This topic deals specifically with a class of laws called "stand your ground" based on the legal doctrine of "no duty to retreat" first defined by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1895, in the case of Beard v United States. (see:

I encourage you, as a debater, to read the case linked as it provides the full context of the circumstances surrounding the decision made by the court when it ruled

"The defendant was where he had the right to be, when the deceased advanced upon him in a threatening manner, and with a deadly weapon; and if the accused did not provoke the assault, and had at the time reasonable grounds to believe, and in good faith believed, that the deceased intended to take his life, or do him great bodily harm, he was not obliged to retreat, nor to consider whether he could safely retreat, but was entitled to stand his ground, and meet any attack made upon him with a deadly weapon, in such way and with such force as, under all the circumstances, he, at the moment, honestly believed, and had reasonable grounds to believe, were necessary to save his own life, or to protect himself from great bodily injury."
The right to self-defense has always been firmly established since ancient times and tested many times in courts of law which almost universally uphold the right of a person to exert the force required to repel an attack or imminent threat of attack.  Now, in almost all of those cases, there is a pretty universal understanding that the right is enabled under defined circumstances.  Use of deadly force to defend oneself may be justified in some or all of theses conditions:

  1. The client has reasonable grounds to believe he or she (or a third person) is in imminent danger of death or serious bodily harm.
  2. There is no other option under the circumstances to avoid the use of deadly force.
  3. The client uses only the force necessary to answer the threat.

Usually in self-defense cases the client is required to provide some of kind of evidence that the above conditions existed.  The stand your ground, provisions sort of deal with the second of the conditions enumerated above and state the client need not try to escape, or retreat from the threat if the client has a perfectly legal and reasonable right to be at the location at the time the threat is exposed. This deals with the common idea that a person being threatened should first attempt to run away before using deadly force in defense.  If such retreat is not possible, then defense is justified.
The topic being debated states, that such "stand your ground laws" are a legitimate expansion of the doctrine of self-defense.  On the face of it, this seems one sided.  Why?  Because the U.S. Supreme Court already said in 1895 that such obligation to not retreat is legitimate. So it begs the question, why are such laws deemed necessary since the legitimacy of the principle has already been established?  Hopefully we can answer that in this analysis.

Breakdown of the Language

Having read the Introduction above and looking at the case of Beard v U.S. we should now have some good idea of the definition of a "stand your ground" law.  Basically, in the context of self-defense (conditions as enumerated above), one has no obligation to retreat to avoid conflict.

So what exactly is meant by "legitimate" with respect to this resolution? Looking at dictionary definitions, we realize it is not related to marriage, child-birth or theater, and one could argue it has nothing to do with misrepresentation.  Therefore the definition of legitimate can only mean, a thing which is accordance with law or established principles or rules. So while we can ask are such laws a "legal" expansion of the doctrine, that really makes little sense.  Therefore, I think we must consider that legitimacy in this sense, asks us to consider whether such laws are in accord with established principles of the doctrine of self-defense.  Really, it is probably not necessary to provide any kind of precise definition of the word in your cases.  We simply want to find out whether such laws conform to the doctrine which we will define below.

The term "expansion" is an interesting one.  Something that is expanded is increased or widened and as any policy debater will tell you, the meaning of increase is not always foregone.  On the one hand, we can say that expansion means widening or increasing an already existing thing and so excludes things which are non-existent.  In that sense, therefore, for "stand your ground" laws to be considered a legitimate "expansion" of the doctrine, then the principle must already be a part of the doctrine is some diminished capacity.  If it were not, then the argument is, those laws would be an addition rather than expansion.  So just how significant is this distinction?  Probably not at all since it seems clear, given recent headlines, there will be existing expectations among judges as to how this should be debated and we will discuss these expectations later in this analysis.

Now we come to perhaps the key terms of definition, the doctrine of self-defense. A doctrine is simply a belief or more properly a body of beliefs which are usually but not necessarily codified as laws, policies or rules. Therefore, the doctrine of self-defense would be the body of beliefs regarding the right to self-defense. So once again, on the face of it we can perceive the circumstances under which self-defense can be considered legitimate and even the use of deadly force in the exercise of self-defense.  The moral justification (leading, perhaps to a legal justification) is not always obvious.  For a full examination of the the problems and perils of justifying self-defense I refer you to the following essay by Wallerstein, 2005, "JUSTIFYING THE RIGHT TO SELF-DEFENSE: A THEORY OF FORCED CONSEQUENCES" (  Wallerstein, does reveal several possible moral justifications including what he calls, "the lessor of harmful results" principle and the "forced choice" argument.  Very interesting stuff, indeed.

While we can conclude, the right to self defense is a universal principle which crosses cultural and religious boundaries, the doctrine, or set of beliefs which legitimize it are not always so clear. I also suggest the interested debater review the various posting on this blog related to the LD Domestic Violence resolution as many of the general principles of the doctrine of self defense are discussed.

So having now discussed a few introductory principles, and having done our due diligence with the definitions of the terminology, what can one expect to debate as Pro or Con?  We shall attempt to examine that in the next part of this analysis.

For part 2 click here


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