Stand Your Ground Laws
The 13th of July 2013 marked the boil of the controversy surrounding Stand Your Ground laws; the laws that grant people the right to use lethal force in self-defense, without having to retreat, and “which have proliferated since the NRA successfully lobbied the Florida Legislature to pass the first in 2005” (Mayors against Illegal Guns 2). On this day, a Florida court acquitted George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch captain, of the various charges relating to the controversial killing of Trayvon Martin, a black weaponless 17-year-old he had shot on the 26th of February, the previous year. The jury held that, in accordance with Florida’s expansive statute governing self-defense, Zimmerman had exercised his right by standing his ground and using force to meet force, and had, hence, committed no unlawful activity. The acquittal sent the public and civil society groups into frenzy, forcing stakeholders in the 24 states that operate Stand Your Grand Laws to embark on repealing or scaling back attempts. What stands out in Martin’s case, and others discussed in the context of this text, is that Stand Your Ground Laws are more of an invitation to kill than they are a protective measure; they impede on justice and public safety just as they increase the rates of justifiable homicides, but worse still, it is the minority groups that disproportionately bear the brunt of this increase.
Historical Background of Stand Your Ground Laws
The Duty to Retreat: Wible (124-125) expresses that the duty to retreat, embedded in America’s Common Law, provided the basis for all self-defense laws in existence today. It requires an individual under threat to retreat before justifiably killing their attacker (Mayors against Illegal Guns 3).
The Castle Doctrine: this was an exception to the duty to retreat; under it, people would not have to execute the duty to retreat when threatened at their homes (Mayors against Illegal Guns 2).
Under these two principles of self-defense, Americans had the “legal right to ‘stand their ground’ and use non-deadly force to protect themselves from an attacker, as long as their use of force was reasonably necessary” (Mayors against Illegal Guns 3). The duty to retreat encouraged the use of measures other than taking the life of another person, and although deadly force was justifiable in some circumstances, it was to be used only as the last resort (Wible 124).
Stand Your Ground Laws effectively inverted these traditional self-defense principles, allowing people to make use of lethal force even in social places. Havis (120) points out that there have been a number of instances where defendants have raised the claim of self-defense, even when it was apparent that the death in question would not have occurred had the defendant safely left the area.
Stand Your Ground Laws are often falsely labeled ‘Castle Doctrine Provisions,’ but as the Mayors against Illegal Guns (3-4) point out, the former go beyond own-home defense; it turns out that these are applicable anywhere, making them the rule, more than they are exceptions to the Castle Doctrine. Today, it is quite common for confrontation in entertainment joints, playgrounds or highways to escalate into dangerous shoot-outs; but what is even more common is those responsible for deaths occurring at such scenes evading “prosecution and conviction by asserting that they acted in self-defense” (Mayors against Illegal Guns 3). To this end, Stand Your Ground rules, unlike the traditional self-defense principles, raise both ethical and justice-related concerns, as has been enumerated in the subsequent sections of this text.
Ethical Issues Surrounding Stand Your Ground Laws
This section analyzes the ethical issues posed by Stand Your Ground Law, on the basis of the six components that differentiate it from the traditional principles of self-defense. It would be prudent to mention that the application of the Stand Your Ground Law differs from state to state, and that, moreover, different states have adopted different component combinations. However, for purposes of simplicity, this text will consider a state a Stand Your Ground jurisdiction “if its statute allows a person to use lethal force against another in any place he has the legal right to be – so long as he reasonably believed that he, or someone else, faced imminent death or great bodily harm” (Lee).
Allowing the Use of Deadly Force in Public Places
Stand Your Ground jurisdictions permit shooters to make use of lethal force, even when the circumstances provide safe opportunities for them to retreat, so long as they have a right to be at that particular place (Mayors against Illegal Guns 4). One could then ask; what about the other people, who have nothing to do with the scuffle, but also have the right to be at that place? As Lee points out, Stand Your Ground jurisdictions, as unreasonable as it may seem, would, for instance, allow a driver attacked in his car to shoot their attacker, even when they have the more reasonable option of simply driving away.
Allowing the Use of Lethal Force in the defense of Property
Of the 24 Stand Your Ground states, nine allow individuals to kill in property defense, even if the attack poses no physical danger (Mayors against Illegal Guns 4). Property defense can be categorized into two; four states permit the use of lethal force in protecting personal property, including money and cell phones, regardless of value; six allow their citizens to use deadly force in the protection of unoccupied premises from burglary, even when the shooter does not own the compromised building, or knows that there is no one inside (Mayors against Illegal Guns 4). Contrary to the arguments put forward by those who advocate for Stand Your Ground Laws, empirical research indicates that these laws do little to deter crime. As a matter of fact, a study by economists at Texas A&M University found no notable differences in the rates of robbery and burglary between Stand Your Ground states and the rest of the country (Lee).
Creation of the Presumption that Shootings are Permissible and Just
Arizona and Texas are the two states in which shooting in self-defense is permitted everywhere (Mayors against Illegal Guns 4). As is the norm, a defendant is considered innocent, until the prosecutor convinces a jury otherwise, beyond any doubt deemed reasonable (Havis 120). In the case of Stand Your Ground law, this presumption is sufficiently irrefutable, forcing “authorities to take the shooter at his or her word, regardless of how unlikely and unsubstantiated the shooter’s version of events may be” (Mayors against Illegal Guns 5). The situation gets worse if the victim dies, and there are neither eye witnesses nor recordings to attest to the shooting (Havis 120; Mayors against Illegal Guns 5).
i) Preventing Shooters’ Arrests
Trayvon Martin’s provides a perfect illustration of a case where law enforcers cannot arrest, or even detain the individual accused of pulling the trigger, in which case such an individual claims self-defense, before they obtain evidence that disproves this claim (Lee). For this reason, George Zimmerman comfortably spends the night of 26th February, 2012, out of a police cell after shooting and killing an unarmed teen, despite eyewitnesses’ reports (Wible 124). The challenge lies in evaluating the validity of the suspect’s claim – there are no clear-cut guidelines governing the handling of suspects who make self-defense claims, thus creating uncertainty and confusion, and in the end “making police less likely to arrest and prosecutors less likely to prosecute shooters who claim self-defense” (Mayors against Illegal Guns 5).
ii) Immunity Hearings
Eight Stand Your Ground states have statutes that shield a person from prosecution even after they have been arrested (Mayors against Illegal Guns 5). This has been interpreted as a provision of criminal immunity that entitles a Stand Your Ground suspect to a pretrial hearing, in which case evidence is presented, and the judge, as opposed to a jury, determines whether or not the suspect indeed acted out of self-defense (Mayors against Illegal Guns 5). Research indicates that these immunity hearings, in most cases, do not achieve the intention for which they were enacted — protecting “law-biding citizens from uncertainty while they wait for the government to prosecute them for shootings they claimed were for self-defense;” some shooters are reported to have waited for this decision for more than a year (Mayors against Illegal Guns 5). The underlying issue, however, remains that a case involving someone’s death is left to be decided by a lone judge rather than by a jury; and the presumption that shootings are lawful is only reinforced further (Mayors against Illegal Guns 5).
iii) The Prohibition of Civil Lawsuits
Typically, the justice system provides platforms through which injured parties can seek redress and compensation for damages or injuries inflicted on them by other parties (Lee). However, as Mayors against Illegal Guns (6-7) point out, 19 of the 22 Stand Your Ground states sufficiently bar civil suits against Stand Your Ground shooters. Such civil lawsuit restrictions take various forms; eleven operate blanket immunity, in which case the various suits (civil), such as those advanced by innocent bystanders, are prohibited; whereas eight shield the suspect from suits advanced by the victim only (Mayors against Illegal Guns 6). Of even more significance is that twelve states go ahead to extend litigation costs and attorney fees “to a shooter who prevails in a civil lawsuit, creating a strong disincentive for a shooting victim to pursue justice in the civil system” (Mayors against Illegal Guns 6)
The Reach of Stand Your Ground Law
Although the Stand Your Ground Law is largely and extensively linked to Martin’s case, a 2012 investigation by Tampa Bay Times revealed that “the Martin incident is far from the only example of the law’s reach” (Lee). The relevance of this law as a major factor in judges’ decisions, acquittals, and prosecutors’ decisions, some of which involved cases that did not result in the victim’s death, cannot be overstated (Lee).
In 2012, a Louisiana court acquitted Byron Thomas of all charges relating to an incident in which the 21-year-old, after a marijuana transaction turned sour, opened fire, killing one occupant in a sport utility vehicle transporting teenagers (Lee). According to Thomas’ attorney, he (Thomas) had decided to stand his ground, “because as far as he knew, someone could have jumped out of the vehicle with a gun” (Lee).
In the same year, a Wisconsin court cleared a homeowner who had shot and killed weaponless 20-year-old Bo Morrison, who had innocently trespassed into the shooter’s porch in an attempt to evade a scuffle with police responding to noise complaints in a nearby party (Lee). Although Wisconsin is not a stand Your Ground state, Governor Scott had, in the previous year, signed the Intruder’s Bill, which presumed that anybody who used lethal force against a trespasser acted reasonably (Lee).
In January 2012, a Miami judge cleared Greyston Garcia of “second-degree murder” charges after he stabbed a “suspected burglar to death” (Lee). In this case, it was held that Garcia had acted reasonably; given that the intruder had flung a radio at him, “an object that a medical examiner at the hearing testified could cause ‘serious harm or death'” (Lee).
Effects of Stand Your Ground Law
Empirical evidence indicates that Stand Your Ground states record higher rates of justifiable homicides than those that are not. Moreover, Stand Your Ground states record higher increases in homicide rates than those that are not, in consecutive study periods.
Rising Homicide Rates (Both Justifiable and Non-Justifiable)
According to FBI data, states operating the Stand Your Ground doctrine recorded sharp increases in the numbers of justifiable homicides, following the enactment of the law — an assertion supported by Wible (123). States that passed the Stand Your Ground Law between 2005 and 2007 reported an average justifiable homicide rate that was a significant 53% higher than that of the years preceding enactment (Mayors against Illegal Guns 6). On the other hand, states that had, by 2007, still not enacted stand your Ground laws recorded an average decline of 5% in overall homicide rates (Mayors against Illegal Guns 6) (see Fig. 1). Kentucky, Arizona, Georgia, Texas, and Florida reported the highest jumps in homicide rates in the years following Stand Your Ground Law enactment, with Florida recording a massive 200%, Texas 54%, Georgia 83%, Arizona 24%, and Kentucky 75% (Mayors against Illegal Guns 6).
A study conducted by Urban Institute researchers Mitchell Downey and John Roman found that cases such as the Martin incident, where the shooter and the victim are not familiar with each other, were more likely to be categorized as justifiable homicides in Stand Your Ground states than the non-Stand Your Ground jurisdictions (Mayors against Illegal Guns 6). According to the study results, only 7.2% in this case “were deemed justifiable in non-Stand Your Ground states,” compared to a significant 13.6% in Stand Your Ground states (Mayors against Illegal Guns 7).
Figure 1: Average Homicide Rates for Stand Your Ground States and non-Stand Your Ground States between 2005 and 2007 (per 1000 persons).
Disproportionate Racial Impact
Several studies on demographic data have found that the higher homicide rates in Stand Your Ground states affect the Black population more than it does Native Americans (Mayors against Illegal Guns 7). Although homicide cases involving Black Americans in Stand Your Ground States have been on the rise, just as those involving whites, higher rates of suspect victimization have been reported in cases involving Black Americans (Mayors against Illegal Guns 7). The Urban Institute found that the average rate of justifiable homicides involving black shooters more than doubled in Stand Your Ground states, most particularly from 2005-2007; whereas the rest of the country reported no significant change (Mayors against Illegal Guns 7).
The Urban Institute study also revealed significant disparities in the rates of homicides held justifiable between blacks and whites. In cases where the shooter and the victim were not familiar with each other; 34% of the white on black homicides were held justifiable, whereas only 3.3% of black on white homicides were ruled as being justifiable (Mayors against Illegal Guns 7).
Possible Reforms to Stand Your Ground Law
In order to scale down the weaknesses of Stand Your Ground Law, a number of reforms could be put in place. These reforms are aimed at correcting the ethical issues and general drawbacks surrounding the law. They include;
Going back to the traditional doctrine that deescalates confrontation by requiring a person to only use deadly force if they are in no position to safely remove themselves from a compromised situation
Incorporate a standard that provides for the use of deadly force only when there is imminent danger of serious physical injury, or death.
Doing away with the presumptions of lawfulness or reasonableness
Getting rid of provisions (particularly those that concern themselves with immunity) that derail processes of arrest as well as prosecution of shooters who claim self-defense
Doing away with unfair provisions such as those barring innocent bystanders from filing civil lawsuits to recover damages.
Giving juries the right to consider a shooter’s ability to retreat in determining whether or not lethal force was necessary, even in the absence of the duty to retreat.
Providing facilitative avenues for law enforcers to conduct proper investigations even if a suspect raises a claim of self-defense.
Making use of juries, rather than lone judges in Stand Your Ground hearings, and replacing immunity hearings with grand juries, which are usually faster at reaching decisions.
Clarifying that the use of lethal force is prohibited if the other party is in retreat, and that the Stand Your Ground Law does not apply in such cases.
(Source: Gardner and Anderson 142-143)
Available evidence indicates that the laws that form the basis of this text impact negatively on public safety, and increase the rates of homicide. Rather than being a protective measure, Stand Your Ground Laws pose as a license to kill, and are, in this regard, an impediment to both justice and social well-being. The nation’s legal system has, several times in the past, been criticized on the basis of enshrining what is seen as racial disparity in its legal framework. The segregation and slavery policies of the 20th century, and more recently, the stop-and-frisk technique synonymous with the war on drugs, have put the country’s legal system in the limelight for all the wrong reasons. Stand Your Ground Laws have no effect on burglary and theft, and therefore cannot be regarded an efficient crime-deterrence tool. There is need to act fast and correct the ethical and legal issues surrounding Stand Your Ground Laws – failure to which we will be bringing up a generation that finds pleasure in taking lives.
Gardner, Thomas and Anderson Terry. Criminal Law. Stamford: CT: Cengage Learning, 2014. Print.
Havis, Devonya. Pursuing Trayvon Martin: Historical Contexts and Contemporary Manifestations of Racial Dynamics. Ed. Yancy George and Jones Yanine. Plymouth: Rowman & Littlefield, 2013. Print.
Lee, Suevon. “Five ‘Stand Your Ground’ Cases You Should Know About.” Pro-Publica, 2012. Web. http://www.propublica.org/article/five-stand-your-ground-cases-you-should-know-about
Mayors against Illegal Guns. “Stand Your Ground Laws and Their Effect on Violent Crime and the Criminal Justice System.” Mayors against Illegal Guns, 2013. Web. 8 May 2014 https://s3.amazonaws.com/s3.mayorsagainstillegalguns.org/images/ShootFirst_v4.pdf
Wible, Dan. Halftime in America: the Challenge Years: Fighting to Stop Progressive Tyranny in the United States. Bloomington, IN: iUniverse, 2012. Print.
before enactment after enactment
Column1 before enactment after enactment Series 3
No change In Law 6.7-6.3 2
enacted Stand Your Ground Law between 2005 and 2007 11.3-17.4 2
To resize chart data range, drag lower right corner of range.
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