The original concept of “duty to retreat” was developed in Europe, specifically Britain, as a means to ensure the preservation of life. This “duty to retreat” (otherwise known as the English common law principle) is defined as a victim of violence must retreat or avoid said violence without retaliating in kind. Self-defense was supposed to the last resort. According to Richard Maxwell Brown, this resulted in a lower homicide rate. Unfortunately in America, these rates are reversed. In his book, No Duty to Retreat, Brown examines nineteenth and twentieth century America as it moved away from the “duty to retreat” and more towards the idea of justifiable self-defense and the right to stand one’s ground.
Richard Maxwell Brown is considered one of the nation’s leading expert in the frontier, the West, and the history of violence in America. Brown received his undergraduate political science degree from Reed College and his Ph.D. in history from Harvard. As a professor, he has held positions at Rutgers University, William and Mary College, and University of Oregon where he held his position until his retirement in 1993. In addition to teaching, Brown is the author of multiple books as well as numerous academic articles with his most famous being No Duty to Retreat which won him the Oregon Book Award in 1992.
The main argument that Brown presents is that this concept of self-defense and right to stand one’s ground was developed all throughout the United States – not just the traditionally violent Wild West. America, Brown writes, placed an emphasis on the individual and their property. Consequently, the “no duty to retreat” developed nationally – not just regionally. In order to emphasize this, Brown utilizes cases from Ohio and Indiana. In 1876, the Erwin v. State of Ohio developed the idea of the “true man.” The “true man,” Brown writes, is not relegated to flight. Instead, the “true man” can face his assailant by standing his ground regardless of the consequences. The “true man” in the case of Erwin v. State was James Erwin who had killed his son-in-law as the perpetrator was armed with an axe and prepared to take Erwin’s own life. Because of this, the court ruled that Erwin was not responsible for the killing as he was considered a “true man” who was merely defending himself of malicious intent. This concept was repeated in Indiana, Brown states. In the 1877 case of Runyan v. State, Charles Pressnall was killed by John Runyan. The author writes Pressnall attacked with Runyan; Runyan pulled a hidden revolver and killed Pressnall. This concept of killing in self-defense became enrooted in American culture. Because of this, the United States Supreme Court enforced this in Brown v. United States in 1921.
Continuing this examination of the “no duty to retreat” theme, Brown provides analysis on the gunfighters of the West. First, Brown determines that there were two specific types of gunfighter – the glorified gunfighter and the grassroots...