‘Stand Your Ground’ Fails to Deter Crime


This is Part Two of a four-part series on Stand Your Ground Laws. Please see Part One: ‘Stand Your Ground’ Law Isn’t Making Anyone Safer [Video] and Part Three: Task Force Examines Racial Bias in Stand Your Ground Laws, Part Four: ‘Stand Your Ground’ Means More Homicides.

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After George Zimmerman’s acquittal for the second-degree murder of Florida teen Trayvon Martin on July 13, “stand your ground” (SYG) seems to have permanently entered the public lexicon.

Although Zimmerman and his lawyers chose to forego a self-defense hearing before the trial, the language of Florida’s SYG statute reportedly appeared in the jury instructions, allowing the jury to consider that he did not have a duty to retreat if he reasonably believed his life was in danger.

 

How SYG Works

SYG laws work by “modif[ying] the common law concept of the castle doctrine (one’s home is one’s castle) by adding one or more of the following three concepts,” explains Dr. David Hemenway, Professor of Health Policy and Director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center at the Harvard School of Public Health.

 An SYG law, according to an unpublished paper provided to Lawyers.com by Hemenway:

  • removes the duty to retreat in places outside the home;
  • adds a presumption that a person killing in self-defense has a reasonable fear of harm or death; and/or
  • grants people who kill in self-defense immunity from civil lawsuits.  

 

“In all states, private citizens can legally use lethal force to protect themselves in their home without considering if they could safely leave,” he explains. “SYG laws extended that right to public places, and tilted the odds against arrest and conviction in favor of the killer.”

 

Studies: SYG and Homicides

Dr. David Hemenway headshot

Dr. David Hemenway

Recent studies show not only that SYG laws fail to deter crime but that they are in fact associated with an increase in homicides, Hemenway points out.

Researchers at Texas A&M found “no evidence that the laws deter crime – burglary, robbery and aggravated assault are unaffected by the laws,” he says. Using police data, the researchers found “that SYG laws increase overall homicide by around 8 percent, and that these increased homicides are largely classified by the police as murder.”

And, he points out that economists at Georgia State University reported in a June 2012 working paper that “SYG laws are associated with a significant increase in homicides, and particularly homicides among white males,” Hemenway says. “Their results are robust and unlikely to be caused by the killing of assailants.” The GSU study’s authors conclude that their “findings raise serious doubts against the argument that Stand Your Ground laws make [the] public safer.”

 

Bad for Public Safety

In Florida, Hemenway continues, the SYG law asks three questions in self-defense cases: 1) did the defendant have a right to be there? 2) was he legally engaged in a lawful activity; and 3) could he reasonably have been in fear of great bodily harm or death? If so, he is protected by SYG, he says.

Referring to an earlier study conducted by the Tampa Bay Times, Hemenway says the paper identified about 200 cases in Florida since 2005 in which SYG was claimed. “The law has been applied inconsistently, and in many instances . . . successfully in ways inimical to public safety,” he says.

For example, gang members involved in shootouts, drug dealers who’ve fought with clients, and people who shot their victims in the back have walked. “In the large majority of the SYG confrontations, the victim was not committing a crime that led to the confrontation and was not armed,” he adds. “Often the defendant pursued the victim.”

 

Race Adds Fuel, Investigations Continue

That’s what the state argued in Zimmerman’s case, which had the added fuel of charges that racism drove him to profile and pursue the unarmed Martin, setting up the confrontation to begin with.

Stand Your Ground - Shoot First Law series logoHemenway points to yet another study published by the Urban Institute that found that in states with SYG laws, “twice as many homicides were likely to be deemed justified than in non-SYG states. In particular, shootings of blacks by whites were likely to go unpunished.”

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights (USCCR) voted in May to begin an investigation of stand your ground laws, to see if they result in racial bias. Martin’s death prompted the investigation, according to the Commission’s proposal, confirms Michael Yaki, a commissioner on the USCCR. 

The U.S. Department of Justice is specifically investigating Zimmerman’s case and the possibility exists that Zimmerman could be charged with a federal hate crime based on the idea that he violated Martin’s civil rights.

And following the Zimmerman verdict, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder criticized SYG laws in a speech to the NAACP. “It’s time to question laws that senselessly expand the concept of self-defense and sow dangerous conflict in our neighborhoods,” Holder reportedly said. “These laws try to fix something that was never broken.” 

“There has always been a legal defense for using deadly force if – and the ‘if’ is important – if no safe retreat is available,” Holder continued. “But we must examine laws that take this further by eliminating the common sense and age-old requirement that people who feel threatened have a duty to retreat, outside their home, if they can do so safely.”

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