Before “stand your ground,” was there such a thing as a “run to the wall” law?

Here’s something for you lawyers out there, or you martial artists, or somebody.

I attended the University of South Carolina for exactly one semester, the fall of 1971. On top of my regular classes, I took a free short course in the evenings, not for credit.

It was karate. A friend from the Pee Dee and I took it, and we probably spent more time practicing our moves outside of class than we did studying for any of our academic classes. Or at least, I did. (We never hit a dorm elevator button with our fingers — we always used our feet.) One night, we staged a huge sparring match in the hallway of Bates House, and drew quite a crowd. We were really over the top, leaping into the air, kicking, and generally pretending to be Billy Jack, since that movie was huge that fall.

Amazingly, none of the guys watching us cracked up laughing. I think we actually fooled some of them into thinking we knew what we were doing.

Anyway, the guy who taught the classes — I remember his name as being John Bull Roper, which I thought was a great name for a black belt — used to tell us that in South Carolina, there was something called a “run-to-the-wall” clause in the law.

What that meant, he said, was that if you were an expert at killing with your hands and feet, as we believed him to be, you had to do everything you could to avoid a fight. You had to “run to the wall,” and only when there was nowhere else to retreat to could you defend yourself with your skills.

I forgot about that over the years, until everybody started talking about “stand your ground” laws. Which, of course, would be the opposite thing.

Was there ever such a thing? Anybody remember it? I can’t find it on Google. Maybe I’m remembering the words wrong; I don’t know…

41 thoughts on “Before “stand your ground,” was there such a thing as a “run to the wall” law?

  1. Kathryn Fenner

    I don’t know about run-to-the-wall laws, but at common law, anyone who claimed to use lethal force in self-defense had to show that there was no possibility of safe retreat. Stand Your Ground laws remove that. I suppose if you could run to the wall, you had the ability to safely retreat, at least until the perp caught up to you, at which time, you could justifiably use lethal force.

  2. Silence

    I dont’ think it exists. It’s like the old tale about black-belts or trained fighters having to register their fists as deadly weapons.

    “In court cases involving violent confrontations, lawyers and judges may advise the jury to bear in mind a person’s martial arts, boxing, or military combat training when evaluating the facts of the case.”

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Thanks, Jim. It was actually that piece, with the headline, “Do Other Countries Have “Stand Your Ground” Laws?” or rather the subhed, “Or do they require you to slowly back away?” that got me to thinking about my old sensei, from when I was just a grasshopper.

      I should have linked to it.

      It’s an interesting piece. Some may think “stand your ground” is an American invention, arising from our wild cowboy past, the sort of thing that causes Europeans to see us as gun-totin’ barbarians. But actually, continental Europe had such laws when we were still constrained by the English concept of retreating — which the English have also abandoned. (Something didn’t sound right there. Don’t most of us Anglocentric types think of retreating as a French concept?)

      The fact that in some states you still must retreat (or as my sensei would say, run to the wall) is apparently rather an anomaly in the Western world.

  3. Mark Stewart

    What we have thrown out with our stand your ground state laws are the other reasonableness standards that are attached to this notion in other countries.

    Our simple-minded approach almost subverts right and wrong.

    Stand your ground emboldened Zimmerman, for instance, to confront Martin on a rainy night. He might not have, had the law been less accommodating of poor decisions leading up to the use of self-defense. And the law should hold people responsible for their actions. To pretend that why a situation developed doesn’t matter in the end is just asinine.

    There are legitimate uses of deadly force in self-defense; however there are also illegitimate uses of deadly force as well. It isn’t crazy to make such destinations. Crazy is to not do so.

    1. Barry

      Stand your ground might have emboldened Zimmerman- or he might have been emboldened because of the neighborhood watch program- or he could have been emboldened by the fact that he was a “not going to take it” type personality and didn’t care – or he just watched a John Wayne western and was fired up.

      We can guess all night year long.

      The law can hold people responsible for their actions- if someone is breaking the law.

      1. Nick

        Didn’t Trayvon Martin have the right to stand his ground when he was accosted by a stranger?

        1. Bryan Caskey


          Happy Monday. Keeping an eye on someone from a distance is not against the law. Leaving the safety and mobility of your vehicle when suspicious unknown people are around may not be the best tactical move, but is no evidence of wrongdoing or intent to confront.

          You use the word “accosted”. The correct word is “followed”. It is not lawful to start a fight with someone and bash their head against the pavement because they are following you.

          If you believe that Zimmerman did more than follow Martin, please provide the specific evidence from trial that supports your belief.

  4. Bryan Caskey

    If someone is facing the risk of death or serious bodily injury (or rape or kidnapping or, in some states, robbery or some other crimes). And say that that person:

    1. is NOT in his home or other property that he owns or his place of business,
    2. is in a place where he may lawfully be,
    3. is not engaged in the commission of such crime, and
    4. has not attacked the victim first or deliberately provoked the victim with the specific purpose of getting the victim to attack or threaten him.

    Imposing a stand your ground law relaxes or (in most cases) eliminates requirement #1. It basically enlarges the “Castle Doctrine” to wherever you are. Note, you still have to face the risk of death or serious bodily injury.

    As best I can tell, the current rule is that 19 states (plus D.C.) fall in the duty to retreat category, with the states being bunched up quite a bit geographically:

    Northeast/Mid-Atlantic: Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island.

    Midwest/Plains: Arkansas, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, Wisconsin.
    West: Hawaii, Wyoming.

    The other 31 states do not impose a duty to retreat. The rule in federal cases is unclear to me.

    Having said what the law IS, that still doesn’t tell us much about what the law SHOULD BE. It’s worth noting that a 31 (no duty to retreat) to 19 (duty to retreat) margin isn’t exactly dispositive.

    1. Juan Caruso

      An excellent summary, Bryan. I would add only one fact: in 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Americans may have guns for self-defense anywhere they live, and that state and local authorities cannot interfere.

      The Declaration of Independence itself hinted that the right (“to life, …”) of self-defense would not be interfered by the federal government.

      In the late 1980s, a U.S. House member (he was not from SC, name not recalled) proposed legislation making murder of lawyers a separate category of the criminal code. In 2009, Barack Obama signed the unnecessary Matthew Shepard Act into law.

      There is little doubt, in my opinion, that another elected lawyer full of him/herself among those comprising congress ( ~40% of the House and 60% of the Senate) will one day propose legislation taking guns from law-biding citizens and making exceptions for themselves and members of the bar. That would be over the top and quite revealing to the hoi polloi.

  5. Mark Stewart

    #4 is the one that has always bothered me; or I should say the lack of attention this does appear to at times be given is what bothers me.

    For instance, a few years ago a homeowner in West Cola or Cayce shot and killed a would-be burglar/trespasser in his back yard late at night. The homeowner wasn’t threatened in any way, he just wanted to protect his property. The homeowner was never charged as it was considered stand your ground defense. That expansion of the concept bothers me. That’s how kids get shot by cranky neighbors, how neighborly conflicts escalate to death, etc. To me, that homeowner was clearly in the wrong. He pulled the trigger because he knew in SC he could, not because he had a need to protect himself or his family. That is the slippery slope we often forget – the one that leads to tragedy.

    1. Bryan Caskey

      In the instance you described, it seems like the problem would be the lack of facing the risk of death or serious bodily injury, not the element of provocation.

      1. Mark Stewart

        Yeah, the congruence between narrative and example wasn’t that great. I think there was another situation (in a bar in Irmo?) that came closer to the provocation thing, but I didn’t remember enough to use that situation.

        I think the perfect example is the one where someone points a gun at another, then that person reacts – not in a way that would necessarily lead to great bodily harm – and is then shot for the action. A Clint Eastwood moment…

    2. Barry

      Regarding that situation –

      The person trying to rob the man’s truck was carrying a flashlight and on his ride (bicycle) out (when confronted) he pointed it at the homeowner. The homeowner shot thinking he had a gun.

      My problem with this situation is – he wasn’t breaking into the man’s home- it was his garage. There was no reason for the man to go out to his garage. He could have turned on the outside lights, etc- called police- even tried to follow the burglar by car after he left the property with cell phone in hand.

      However, he went outside and then shot when he thought he was about to be shot.

      I have my CWP – and I have guns in my home ready to go. However, I’ll never go outside my home to protect my cars.

      1. Silence

        I have no problem with folks killing to protect their property. If you see someone breaking into your car in your driveway, first call the cops, then calmly shoot the robber. You can do it through an open window without even going outside. You have done everyone a favor.

          1. Silence

            Things can always go wrong, Mark.
            1) Do nothing. Your stuff will get stolen.
            2) Call cops. Your stuff will get stolen, maybe they’ll get it back for you. Don’t hold your breath.
            3) Shoot perp through window. While maintaining cover from inside the house you are able to shoot at the perp while providing minimal exposure for return fire.
            4) Go outside and confront perp. Provide the possibly armed perp the opportunity to defend himself, fully exposing yourself to his assault.

            I might get indicted, but I’ll take my chances with a jury, thank you very much.

          2. Mark Stewart

            And if it’s your neighbor’s kid looking for their missing cat? Or your nephew who may have gotten in a little trouble and wants your help, but kicks around in the yard because he’s afraid to bother you at night? Your perception is downright indefensible; but I think you know that.

            The only time I have ever thought about carrying a firearm is when entering an empty warehouse, mill, etc. There is nothing quite like entering some structure multiple times the size of a Wal-Mart Supercenter but with spaces, rooms and walled areas of unknown design – and then often only with minimal lighting, by flashlight even. Sometimes you have to enter through the broken door or window that burglars, copper thieves, the homeless, drug addicts and truck stop prostitutes, etc. have previously used to gain access to the structure. That was always a time I considered a CWP. But I carried bear mace instead. And never had to use it; though confrontations did on occassion occur. Then one day I took my sons and some friends in my truck to an outdoor event. It started to rain, and they wanted to play in the truck. I kept the mace well hidden under my seat and they had never know it was there. But in those minutes one of the kids dropped some Legos and went to retrieve it – and my younger son pulled the trigger on the mace. I stopped dealing with distressed industrial properties then, and was always thankful that I have never owned a handgun.

            I have always been far more concerned about gun accidents, and misuses, than I have ever been in fear of stranger danger. Other people certainly have the right to decide differently, but they have the attendant responsibility to protect the safety of innocent others – regardless of their personal perceptions of stress in the moment of firing their weapon. That’s just common sense. There is no excuse for shooting the wrong person, morally or legally. Not in my book.

          3. Mark Stewart

            Sounds simple, written in black and white in seven words and a comma. But the error is in the terror.

        1. Barry

          I would never shoot someone to protect my car or my mailbox, or my kid’s ride toy that they left outside.

          someone’s life simply isn’t worth that to me.

          Many reports suggest that people that shoot people dead that enter their home suffer a lot of emotional problems going forward relating to having killed someone – and that’s when they are shooting to protect themselves or family from bodily harm.

          I can’t imagine the emotions I’d have to live with if I shot someone – maybe even some 16 year old kid because he broke into my car in my driveway wanting to steal a crappy GPS device that isn’t worth $100.

  6. Kathryn Fenner

    I always snort at the old horror film trope where the heroine takes a candle to investigate a noise in the cellar…the guy who grabs his gun to confront the bad guys is only slightly less stupid. Even if you have the right, you are asking for a mess of trouble. Call 911 and leave it to the pros. Don’t put on a red shirt while setting your phaser to “kill”!

    1. Silence

      Always wear a gold or blue uniform shirt when you are part of an away party. If you must wear a red uniform when beaming down to an alien planet or enemy starship, by all means, do not speak. If you are wearing a red shirt and have even one line of dialog, you will surely die! – Starfleet Officer’s Handbook

    1. Doug Ross

      Only if he was charged with that, right? Zimmerman was found not guilty of murder and manslaughter. That was the prosecution’s error (based on the political pressure to go for the highest charge). But would CNN cover a trial about reckless endangerment?

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        Yes, it would. Remember, this was a big story before he was charged with anything. Actually, it was a big story BECAUSE he hadn’t been charged…

      2. Bryan Caskey

        CNN would have covered it.

        That was the prosecution’s biggest mistake; they let the political pressure get to them, so they overcharged. As an aside, the special prosecutor apparently has a horrible reputation for overcharging.

        A good, tough prosecutor would have looked at the evidence, and then charged accordingly. They probably could have gotten a guilty verdict on something lesser. From what I can tell, second degree murder (the “depraved heart” murder) is very rarely used in one-on-one situations. The textbook example of 2nd degree murder is when someone fires into a crowd indiscriminately and kills people. (My criminal law professor used to use the example of someone who would try to shoot between the cars of a passing passenger train for fun, but then accidentally shoots a passenger).

        Here, we had a special prosecutor overcharge to gain political points – and it cost her. If you’re unhappy with the result, don’t blame the system. It worked. Blame the prosecutor who should have either not brought charges at all; or alternatively, brought something that that they could have gotten a conviction on.

    2. Juan Caruso

      However, Burl, banging a head on concrete is known in the law of murder or attempted murder as “the deliberate selection of a deadly weapon (concrete)” which gives rise to the presumption of an intent to kill Zimmerman by Trayvon.

      The jury no doubt heard what the public yet has not.

        1. Juan Caruso

          KF, please allow me to correct your unresearched and common pedestrian notion that concrete is not a deadly weapon. Criminal precedents accepted in several states clearly say otherwise:

          For example: Delaware, Pennsylvania, NJ, and Massachuset:

          “Concrete pavement” constitutes a dangerous weapon for purposes of a prosecution under G. L. c. 265, s. 15A, and one who intentionally uses concrete pavement as a means of inflicting serious harm can be found guilty of assault and battery by means of a dangerous weapon. [149-152]

  7. Juan Caruso

    Mark, you are right about Massachusetts, but your dismissive conclusion ignores not only the other states, which were I clearly identified, but others that may have considered the precedents in their own trials. Your unfactual opinions are less than evidence of anything by blind faithfulness to an agenda.

    Please support your own opinions more impressively with verifiable facts whenever you feel that is even possible. I expect no less since you have self-identified as a “critical thinker”, insinuating I need to know more about it. Balderdash!

    1. Mark Stewart


      My statement about Massachusetts was irony.

      By the way, you may have noticed I tend not to support my opinions with verifiable facts; nobody is swayed by them anyway. So I just muddle along, being me.

      1. Juan Caruso

        “… I tend not to support my opinions with verifiable facts; nobody is swayed by them anyway. ”

        No doubt, Mark, you would be quite uncomfortable with a jury at your own trial who is not swayed by facts. Thanks for going on record with your cavalier attitude.

        I sincerely hope you are not teaching today’s youth.

        1. Mark Stewart

          Just my own, Juan; and I will do my best to ensure that they possess the social and intellectual skills necessary to navigate this world with incisiveness, grace and empathetic goodwill.

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