Under common law there’s a long standing principle that if you are threatened in a public place you are supposed to retreat.
Florida and several other states have turned this principle on its head with “stand your ground laws” that allow people to use lethal force in public places.
Advocates of the law (the NRA, Republicans) claim that it simply allows good people to defend themselves. However, when Trayvon Martin, an unarmed seventeen year old, was shot and killed in Florida a national debate ensued.
Critics of stand your ground raise several concerns ranging from double standards in the laws’ application to increased violence as a result of the law.
The study reached this conclusion with two methods of comparison. They compared homicide rates within stand your ground states before passage of the law and after; then they compared the homicide rates with non-stand your ground states.
Hoekstra and Cheng examined 3 possible explanations for the increased homicide rates.
- More defensive killings.
- An increase in violent crime
- Increased violence in otherwise non-violent situations.
The study eliminated an increase in defensive killings and higher incidence of violent crime as plausible explanations.
While there were small increases in the numbers it was unclear if there was a real difference.
That leaves the possibility that stand your ground states have higher homicide rates because there is an increase of violence in otherwise non-violent situations. Hoekstra explains to NPR :
One possibility for the increase in homicide is that perhaps [in cases where] there would have been a fistfight … now, because of stand your ground laws, it’s possible that those escalate into something much more violent and lethal.
Of course, one should note that the data on which the study is based depends on how police officials classify shootings because of variances in guidelines and in light of the stand your ground law.
Nonetheless, the study’s value lies in the data reflecting an increased likelihood of violence in otherwise non-violent situations.
The general conclusion that there are more homicides in stand your ground states than in others is also borne out by some other studies.
Aside from confirming Hoekstra and Cheng’s findings, a study by Chandler B. McClellan and Erdal Tekin analyzed the increased homicides by race. According to NPR, the study concludes “the additional deaths caused by the laws were largely concentrated among white men. This is in direct contradiction to perceptions held by some that most victims of the stand your ground law are African-American. However, this is not to say that the law is applied consistently.
In the Trayvon Martin case, proponents of the law claimed that it applied to George Zimmerman who was armed and in a vehicle but did not apply to Travvon Martin who was unarmed at the time that Zimmerman confronted him with a gun. As of yet, we don’t know if Zimmerman’s “stand your ground defense” will succeed or not.
We do know that the stand your ground defense was successful in another famous Florida case. Greyston Garcia chased Pedro Roteta who stole his car radio. After confronting Roteta, Garcia stabbed and killed him. The stand your ground defense succeeded under the rational that the car radio Roteta stole and had, when Garica confronted him, was a threat to Garcia.
In a third Florida case, Marissa Alexander was charged with aggravated assault and use of a deadly weapon. Alexander was a victim of abuse by her husband – a fact her husband acknowledged in a sworn statement. .
On the day in question, Alexander’s husband threatened to kill her because of she sent some texts and baby pictures to her ex-husband. At the time, Alexander was not armed. Alexander ran from the house to her car under the belief that her husband would carry out his threat. However, the garage door was broken which meant she couldn’t escape. She returned to the house intending to escape a different way – this time she had a gun.
She shot a warning shot when her husband advanced in her direction screaming and cursing. Marissa Alexander’s defense was Florida’s stand your ground law. After her defense was rejected, Alexander was found guilty and sentenced to twenty years in jail.
This scenario is particularly disturbing now that the Violence Against Woman Act is no longer law, thanks to House Republicans who also support stand your ground laws. Since incidents of domestic abused went down as a result of the law, it is very likely that they will increase potentially to pre VAWA levels. The verdict in Marissa Alexander’s case suggests that good people who are victims of domestic abuse do not enjoy the protections ostensibly provided under stand your ground laws.
What can we take away from the decided cases? If you’re a man who chases someone for stealing a car radio and you kill them, you are standing your ground. If you are a woman in an abusive relationship, and shoot into the air while trying to escape from your abuser, the stand your ground law doesn’t apply.
John Donohue, a Stanford Law Professor, has studied violence and crime for two decades, and agrees with Hoekstra and Cheng’s findings.
He also offered this comment to NPR.
I’ve been hearing from defense lawyers around the country that if they happen to have a criminal defendant in a stand your ground jurisdiction, pretty much no matter what happens, you can say, ‘Well, I shot the guy, but I felt threatened and had a reasonable basis for fearing injury to myself,
In other words, stand your ground is liable to be abused as a defense in cases that don’t fit our understanding of justifiable homicide.
These studies provide a factual basis to conclude that Stand your ground laws result in more violence, where violence would otherwise not have occurred. The cases in Florida, show that the application of “stand your ground” appears to be inconsistent. If you’re a woman in an abusive relationship, you are expected to retreat. If you’re a man, you have a right to chase down someone and kill them.
Donahue’s comment raises an additional concern. It suggests that “stand your ground” is becoming a defense that is liable to abuse in a variety of circumstances that extend beyond our understanding of justifiable homicides.
Don’t you feel safer now?
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