Stand Your Ground Laws And Justifiable Homicide

Posted April 6, 2012 in Criminal Law by

Common sense self-defense, or license to kill? That’s the hot question about state “Stand Your Ground” laws following the killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman in Florida. A statistical analysis shows a correlation between the enhanced self-defense laws and a rise in justifiable homicides nationwide.

  • Stand Your Ground laws spread to 25 states
  • Justifiable homicides have doubled in the last decade
  • “Reasonable Force” still an important principle


Spread of Law

Martin was unarmed and walking down a street in a residential Florida neighborhood when Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer who was licensed to carry a concealed pistol, pursued him in his vehicle. What happened next is still unclear, but some kind of struggle ensued and Martin ended up dead, killed by a single bullet to the chest fired by Zimmerman. Over a month later, the gunman has not been arrested, with law enforcement officials claiming that Florida’s Stand Your Ground law protects him from prosecution.

Amid questions of whether Zimmerman can be tried at all has been a closer examination of the Stand Your Ground measures that a number of states have signed into law since 2005. Some 24 states have laws similar to Florida’s, at least 10 of which have identical or nearly-so language as the Florida measure, according to the Sunlight Foundation. The proliferation of the legislation is part of a nationwide push by the National Rifle Association to liberalize gun and self-defense laws.

The laws are a modification of a person’s traditional right to self-defense– instead of being obligated to first retreat if possible, someone who is threatened or under attack would now be able to fight back without first attempting to flee. What is considered a threat and how much force is reasonable to respond with, however, are subjective measures and are playing out state by state and case by case. Martin’s killing in particular has drawn so much attention because Florida law enforcement officials appear to have decided that a black teenager in a hooded sweatshirt walking down the street carrying skittles and iced tea constituted a reasonable threat to Zimmerman, justifying self-defense.


Rise in Homicides

The national murder rate in 2010 was 4.8 out of 100,000, a drop from rates that hovered between 5 and 6 per 100,000 for the last decade, and a big decline from levels between 8 and 10 per 100,000 prevalent in the ’80s and ’90s. However, according to a study by the Wall Street Journal, justifiable homicide rates nationwide doubled from 2000 to 2010, to a total of 326, at the same time Stand Your Ground laws have been enacted. The caveat– there’s no clear statistical evidence that determines whether the justifiable killings are additional deaths that wouldn’t have happened without the Stand Your Ground laws, or if they would have occurred anyway and are simply reclassified.

Below is a table comprised of data on justifiable homicides collected in the Wall Street Journal study. Although most accounts say 25 states have Stand Your Ground laws, interpretations of the legal language differ– the Journal study names 17 states, which are used for the purposes of the table below.

Enactment of Stand Your Ground Laws

State  Year Law Passed   Rate Previous Year   2010 Rate 
Alabama 2006 0% 0%
Arizona 2006 .134% .265%
Florida 2005 .046% .218%
Georgia 2006 .066% .227%
Indiana 2006 .048% .2%
Kansas 2006 .036% .105%
Kentucky 2006 .024% .161%
Louisiana 2006 .222% .264%
Michigan 2006 .020% .162%
Mississippi 2006 .034% .034%
Montana 2009 0% 0%
Oklahoma 2006 .057% .160%
South Carolina 2006 .094% .151%
South Dakota 2006 0% .122%
Tennessee 2007 .230% .409%
Texas 2007 .141% .198%
West Virginia 2008 0% 0%


Some attorneys suggest that too much is being made of the Stand Your Ground law in the Zimmerman case. “The way ours has been interpreted is, what’s reasonable?,” says Charles O’Hara, a criminal defense attorney in Kansas, which implemented its Stand Your Ground law in 2006. “If someone does force to you, you can respond with reasonable force. The only thing it’s changed is duty to retreat. Now you don’t have to retreat. You can stand your ground. That doesn’t mean if someone punches you, you can shoot them in the head.”In Kansas, O’Hara says, the law would only come into effect when a person is acting in self-defense, so the key to situations similar to the Trayvon Martin killing is whether the gunman can reasonably show he or she is responding to an attack or immediate threat. “You have to be in a situation where you use self-defense for all this to happen,” O’Hara says. “The Stand Your Ground law really is not the issue. It seems like there’s an emphasis on that rather than self-defense, which is what really controls.””Every case is different,” says the attorney. “Did the gentleman respond with reasonable force under the circumstances?” What do you think? Join the discussion and share your thoughts below.

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