Stand-your-ground gun laws neither provide safety nor deter crime, especially as more Americans are allowed to carry weapons to public places, according to one of the country’s leading experts on firearms policy.
“Put plainly, the marriage of expanded stand-your-ground laws with escalating civilian gun-toting increases unnecessary violent confrontations and deaths,” writes State University of New York (SUNY)-Cortland professor Robert J. Spitzer in a recent blog post for the Rockefeller Institute of Government.
Spitzer cited a study of Florida murders reported in the JAMA Internal Medicine journal in 2017, which found a 75 percent increase in justifiable homicides in the state after enactment of its stand-your-ground law between 2006-2015, compared with state homicides between 1995 and 2005.
“Notably,” he added, “Both justified and unjustified homicides increased during this period, even as the nationwide homicide rate declined during the same time.”
Spitzer, chair of the Political Science Department at SUNY Cortland and the author of five books on gun policy, calls for limitations on stand-your-ground laws, versions of which are now operating in 28 states, that can prevent the “reckless loss of life while still maintaining personal protection.”
The spread of stand-your-ground laws effectively began in 2005 following a campaign by the National Rifle Association (NRA) to “improve public safety and protect honest citizens.” That year, Florida passed the first one as a “testing ground.”
Generally, under the Florida law, a person who has harmed or killed another in a public place can presumptively claim self-defense to avoid prosecution or make conviction far less likely, writes Spitzer, who serves as a member of the Regional Gun Violence Research Consortium, described as “a new multi-state effort to break the cycle of firearm-related violence with objective, interdisciplinary research and analysis.”
Until Florida’s law, most states said citizens must adhere to “a duty to retreat” in a public confrontation. This means that when faced with an imminent threat to safety, he or she must try to withdraw as far as possible before acting with force in self-defense.
Stand-your-ground laws essentially reverse this duty, allowing individuals to use force to defend themselves without first attempting to retreat from the danger. In order to justify firing a weapon, an individual must assert only his belief that the use of deadly force was required to prevent serious harm or death, says Spitzer.
With Florida’s version of stand-your-ground laws, individuals essentially have immunity from criminal prosecution and civil action. Instead of presenting a self-defense argument at trial, an individual can bypass the court system altogether.
This accentuates the discretion that an individual has in choosing to flee from or fight his assailant.
Supporters argue that such laws reduce ambiguity and improve safety. Faced with a life-threatening situation, individuals should not be forced to consider whether they have retreated sufficiently enough to now legally use force, they say—adding that stand-your-ground provisions allow individuals to exert some control over an otherwise terrifying confrontation, such as a victim threatened with rape.
But the change in the legal landscape went largely ignored until the case of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old African American who was shot and killed in 2012 in the south Florida community of Sanford by neighborhood watch coordinator George Zimmerman, who claimed that he fired in self-defense.
That brought into sharp relief concerns that such laws exacerbated racial bias.
Spitzer cited an Urban Institute study that found significant racial disparities in the adjudication of stand-your-ground laws from 2005-10.
Based on FBI data, the study reported that 36 percent of gun homicides in stand-your-ground that were ruled as justifiable self-defense involved a white shooter and a black victim. In contrast, between three percent and 15 percent of shootings involving white-on-white, black-on-white, and black-on-black encounters were considered justifiable.
To be considered justified, the court must determine if a reasonable person in the same situation would be fearful as well. By having white individuals shooting black victims be more justified, it shows a foundational injustice in the country, critics argue.
The 2017 study of Florida murders reported by JAMA Internal Medicine found a 75 percent increase in justifiable homicides after implementation of its stand-your-ground law between 2006-2016, as compared with state homicides between 1995 and 2005.
Critics of stand-your-ground laws say they encourage a “shoot first and ask questions later” mentality. In almost 80 percent of cases, according to figures cited by Spitzer, an individual could have retreated to avoid confrontation but chose to fight instead.
In 70 percent of those homicides, the person killed was unarmed.
Additionally, researchers at Texas A&M University studied FBI data and found no evidence that stand-your-ground laws deterred crime such as burglary, robbery, or aggravated assault.
However, they did find a homicide rate increase of eight percent in states with new stand-your-ground laws.
Laura Binczewski is a TCR news intern. Readers’ comments are welcome.