The recent case of Renisha McBride, a 19-year-old girl who was shot to death on the front porch of a Detroit home, brings up more questions regarding the implications of the so-called “Stand Your Ground” (SYG) laws. The first time SYG laws made national headlines was in 2012, when 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by neighborhood watch coordinator George Zimmerman while walking home in his Florida subdivision. Ultimately, George Zimmerman was not convicted of any charges and was allowed to walk free after shooting an unarmed teenager in his own neighborhood. In the case of Renisha McBride, the homeowner who shot and killed her will soon face charges of murder in the second degree, manslaughter, ad possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony. It remains to be seen whether he will be convicted of these charges.
In light of recent events, it is worth taking a look at the statistics surrounding SYG laws and the implications for civil rights, racial disparities, and public safety. First, some background on SYG laws.
Though the specific wording of the law varies between states, SYG laws basically remove the obligation to retreat and call the police when confronted with a threat, instead allowing a person to respond with force. Most states (46) have adopted the Castle Doctrine, which removes the duty to retreat when a person is confronted with a reasonable threat of bodily injury or death inside of the home; SYG laws extends the use of force to areas away from the home, including public places. In 2005, Florida became the first state to implement the SYG law; since then, twenty-three other states have adopted SYG laws, allowing a person to use force in the home “or any other place where he or she has a right to be.”
More Guns, More Crime
Proponents of SYG laws claim that the laws are an effective way to deter violence; however, the evidence doesn’t seem to support these claims. In one study, researchers from Texas A&M University analyzed state-level crime data from 2000 to 2006 to determine whether SYG laws have any significant effect on crime rates. Their findings revealed that not only do SYG laws fail to produce significant deterrence effects, but they actually increase homicides. According to the researchers:
“Results indicate the laws do not deter burglary, robbery, or aggravated assault. In contrast, they lead to a statistically significant 8 percent net increase in the number of reported murders and non-negligent manslaughters.”
The researchers further describe their findings, saying:
“Results indicate that the prospect of facing additional self-defense does not deter crime. Specifically, we find no evidence of deterrence effects on burglary, robbery, or aggravated assault. Moreover, our estimates are sufficiently precise as to rule out meaningful deterrence effects.
In contrast, we find significant evidence that the laws increase homicides. Suggestive but inconclusive evidence indicates that castle doctrine laws increase the narrowly defined category of justifiable homicides by private citizens by 17 to 50 percent, which translates into as many as 50 additional justifiable homicides per year nationally due to castle doctrine. More significantly, we find the laws increase murder and manslaughter by a statistically significant 7 to 9 percent, which translates into an additional 500 to 700 homicides per year nationally across the states that adopted castle doctrine.
Thus, by lowering the expected costs associated with using lethal force, castle doctrine laws induce more of it. This increase in homicides could be due either to the increased use of lethal force in self-defense situations, or to the escalation of violence in otherwise non-lethal conflicts. We suspect that self-defense situations are unlikely to explain all of the increase, as we also find that murder alone is increased by a statistically significant 6 to 11 percent.”
In another study, researchers found that, in states with SYG laws, the “justifiable homicide” rate rose by an average of 53% in the five years after implementing the law. In the same period, states without SYG laws saw a 5% decrease in the rate of justifiable homicide. For some states, the increase was much higher: justifiable homicides rose by 200% in Florida, and 725% in Kentucky. However, the increase in justifiable homicides is not accounted for by an increase in the number of homicides being classified as “justified,” but rather is due to an overall rise in firearm-related and total homicides in SYG states. The negative imps of SYG laws disproportionately affects African Americans. According to Marc H. Morial, President and CEO of the National Urban League:
“These laws can have deadly consequences, particularly for African Americans. We need our elected officials to reform these policies to make sure we’re doing the right things to reduce unjustified shootings and save lives.”
Below is a chart showing the staggering difference in the increase in justifiable homicides among African Americans in SYG states, compared to non-SYG states and compared to justifiable homicides among Whites.
A third study conducted by economists at Georgia State, using monthly data from the U.S. Vital Statistics, found that after implementing SYG laws there are significant increases in emergency room visits and hospital discharges related to firearm injuries and a significant increase in overall homicide rates among Whites, especially White males in SYG states. In light of the results, researchers concluded:
“Taken together, these findings raise serious doubts against the argument that Stand Your Ground laws make public safer.”
Another shocking finding from an analysis of SYG cases in Florida is how many times the law has been used to provide legal protection for convicted criminals with a history of violence. A review of the criminal backgrounds for those involved in more than 100 fatal SYG cases yielded the following results:
- 60% of those who claimed self-defense had at least one prior arrest
- 40% had three arrests or more and one-third had at least four arrests
- 30% had a history of violent crime including assault, robbery, and battery
- More than one-third had a criminal history for threatening someone with a gun or illegally carrying a weapon.
- Approximately one-third had a history of drug offenses.
- In almost one-third of cases, both the defendant and the victim had criminal records, sometimes related to long-standing feuds, criminal enterprises, and gang activity.
Although SYG laws are supposed to apply only to “law-abiding citizens,” this is not the reality. In one case reported by the Tampa Bay Times, a violent man with a criminal history walked free after killing his ex-wife’s boyfriend. According to the Times:
“Maurice Moorer is not the kind of person lawmakers had in mind when they gave Florida the broadest self-defense law in the nation in 2005.
State legislators sold stand your ground as a legal protection for law-abiding Floridians who were forced, through no fault of their own, to defend their family and property.
But the day Moorer killed his ex-wife’s boyfriend in 2008 capped two years of violent behavior that had landed Moorer in jail multiple times and left his wife living in fear.
Still, prosecutors set Moorer free, saying Florida’s stand your ground law prevented them from pursuing murder charges.”
Then there is the case of Tavarious China Smith, a small-time Florida drug peddler:
“On two occasions, more than two years apart, he committed homicides but was not charged thanks to provisions of Florida’s ‘stand your ground’ law. Smith claimed self-defense in both cases and prosecutors agreed. He never faced a judge or jury for fatally shooting Nikita Williams, 18, in February 2008 in a drug-related incident or Breon Mitchell, Williams’ 23-year-old half-brother, in December 2010.”
According to prosecutors in Florida, SYG laws are frequently used to protect convicted criminals from prosecution.
Prosecutors say it has too often been used to protect gang members and drug dealers in shoot-outs. Although it does not apply if the defendant is committing a crime, the law does not define criminal activity and courts have differed on their interpretations of the statute
Further disproving the “more guns, less crime” theory is the poor – actually unacceptable – research that forms the basis for this claim. Numerous researchers have analyzed the statistical methods used in a famous study of gun ownership and crime conducted by John Lott, the author of More Guns, Less Crime, and found that the statistical (regression) models used in this research were fatally flawed. Though Lott claims that adopting “shall issue” laws (which require local authorities to issue a concealed weapons permit to any law-abiding citizen who applies for one) reduces murder and violent crime rates, the statistical model his claims are based on, as well as the data set he used to run his model, were “simply unsuitable for his task.” According to criminal justice researchers Drs. Zimring and Hawkins,
“Inference based on the Lott and Mustard model is inappropriate, and their results cannot be used responsibly to formulate public policy.”
One of the major problems with Lott’s research is that he actually failed to (statistically) account for any differences in cities and states other than whether or not they have “shall issue” laws. Yes, you read that right. For a researcher or anyone else who works with statistics, this is as big of a mistake as it gets. Lott actually compared cities like Washington, DC, Newark, Baltimore, and New York City – none of which have “shall issue” laws – to cities in rural states like Idaho, West Virginia, and Mississippi – all of which have “shall issue” laws. When he found a difference in violence crime rates, Lott foolishly attributed it to implementing “shall issue” laws, rather than considering the fact that the homicide rate in major cities has ALWAYS been higher than the rate in rural towns, or that during the time of his analysis, major cities in the Eastern U.S. – the same ones he used in his analysis – were in the middle of the crack cocaine epidemic. This would basically amount to taking a group of world-class track athletes who eat Wheaties for breakfast and having them compete in a one-mile race against a group of 80-year-old arthritis patients who don’t eat Wheaties for breakfast; then, when the track athletes outperformed the 80-year-olds, concluding that, “Huh, must be due to the Wheaties!” According to Sociology Professor Dr. Ted Goertzel, who also analyzed Lott’s findings,
“This [research] would never have been taken seriously if it had not been obscured by a maze of equations.”
The Stanford Law Review also conducted their own analyses of the data used in models to support the “more guns, less crime” hypothesis and concluded that the vast majority of data are unsuitable for the statistical models and are very susceptible to “misuse.”
So about that “more guns, less crime” hypothesis? Consider that officially debunked.
In addition to the public safety implications, the evidence strongly indicates that SYG laws result in significant racial disparities. The determination of whether or not a homicide is justifiable is significantly affected by the race of the victim and the perpetrator. In a study conducted by the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute, researchers found that the percentage of homicides ruled justified is not associated with race in states without SYG laws; however, in states with SYG laws, race is a significant factor in these determinations. In SYG states, 16.85% of White on Black homicides are ruled justified, while just 1.40% of Black on White homicides are ruled justified. This is a staggering difference in the rates of homicides ruled justified between White on Black vs. Black on White homicides; compared to states without SYG laws, the disparity in justified homicides more than doubles in SYG states. Although the disparity is present in nationwide averages, researchers conclude the following:
“The recent expansion of Stand Your Ground laws in two dozen states appears to worsen the disparity.”
We don’t have the ability to determine whether these disparities are intentional or not, but we do have the evidence to conclude that, in states that implement SYG laws, White-on-Black homicides have more than double the odds of being found justified, while Black-on-White homicides have less than half the odds of being found justified; this difference is statistically significant.
Based on the research in this area, we can make three conclusions about the effects of Stand Your Ground Laws. First, the claim that Stand Your Ground laws – and similar laws – reduce crime rates is unfounded, and the evidence used to support this claim is not valid or reliable due to the unacceptably poor quality of the data as well as numerous, significant flaws in study design, methods, and statistical techniques. Second, we can conclude that Stand Your Ground Laws are associated with a significantly increased rate of firearm-related violent crime, homicide, and injury. And third, racial disparities in justifiable homicide rulings in states with Stand Your Ground laws are significantly worse than the disparities in states without these laws, resulting in an increased chance of White-on-Black homicides being ruled justified and a decreased chance of Black-on-White homicides being ruled justified.
Through the lenses of social justice, law, crime and violence prevention, civil rights, public health, and public policy, there is no justification for Stand Your Ground laws. We have no evidence that the laws improve public safety or decrease violent crime, yet we do have evidence that they are associated with increased firearm-related violent crime, homicides, and injuries, as well as significant and harmful racial disparities. Whether or not these consequences are intentional is a trivial matter. We know that Stand Your Ground laws create far more harm than they prevent; any way you look at it, this is a prime example of a failed policy that needs to be ended before it destroys more lives.
Be Well, my friends!