Under the new breed of laws, a person who has harmed or killed another in a public place can presumptively claim self-defense. The police must accept the claim’s validity. In other words, the individual need only assert the belief that the use of force was necessary to prevent serious harm or death. Coupled with that is special legal protection that makes the person (as the Florida law says) “immune from criminal prosecution and civil action.” Prosecution is still possible, but it is much more difficult.
A result, according to the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, is hamstrung investigations and legal protections greater than those afforded to police officers. Not only have these laws failed to increase public safety, they have also turned the clock back to the mythologized mayhem of the Wild West.
The Tampa Bay Times examined the effects of Florida’s 2005 law in more than 200 cases (about half of them fatal) through mid-2012. It reported that the law’s chief beneficiaries were “those with records of crime and violence.” Nearly 60 percent of those making self-defense claims when a person was killed had been arrested at least once before; a third of those had been accused of violent crimes in the past; over a third had illegally carried guns in the past or had threatened others with them.
Stand Your Ground claims succeeded 67 percent of the time, but in 79 percent of the cases, the assailant could have retreated to avoid the confrontation. In 68 percent, the person killed was unarmed.
Researchers at Texas A&M University studied F.B.I. data to analyze the same 10-year period, and found no evidence that Stand Your Ground laws deterred crimes like burglary, robbery or aggravated assault. But they did find a homicide rate increase of 8 percent (that’s about 600 additional homicides annually) in states with newly buttressed Stand Your Ground laws. A 2012 National Bureau of Economic Research study drew on different data, but also found Florida-type laws associated with a 6.8 percent increase in homicide.
These laws encourage a “shoot first and ask questions later” mentality, which may help explain why, in supposedly justifiable killings, the victim is more likely to be black when the shooter is white.
An Urban Institute study found significant racial disparities in the adjudication of Stand Your Ground laws from 2005 to 2010. Based on F.B.I. data, the study reported that for gun homicides in non-Stand Your Ground states, the cases were ruled justified in 3 to 8 percent of white-on-white, black-on-white and black-on-black killings. But when the shooter was white and the victim black, the rate was 29 percent. In Stand Your Ground states, justifiable shooting results ranged from 3 to 15 percent in the first three categories. When the shooter was white and the victim black, 36 percent were ruled justified.
Since the beginning of 2015, 10 states, including Florida, have introduced measures to roll back or repeal their laws. But 13 states still have bills pending to enact or fortify Stand Your Ground. A February American Bar Association report urges states to restore the “safe retreat” standard in public places — meaning that people are obligated to avoid confrontation if they can do so safely — and the scaling back of legal immunity.
The marriage of expanded Stand Your Ground laws with escalating civilian gun toting increases unnecessary violent confrontations and deaths. We need policies that defuse confrontations in public places, especially since more than 11 million Americans now have licenses to carry concealed firearms. The police and prosecutors need to be able to conduct full, unencumbered investigations. And gun owners need to admit what most of them already know: that firearms’ lethality and ease of use make fatal miscalculation more likely.
We’ve learned this lesson before, in our own violent past, when strict regulation of concealed gun carrying was the near-universal and successful response to gun violence. As early as 1686, New Jersey enacted a law against wearing weapons because they induced “great Fear and Quarrels.” Massachusetts followed in 1750. In the late 1700s, North Carolina and Virginia passed similar laws. In the 1800s, as interpersonal violence and gun carrying spread, 37 states joined the list. Tennessee’s 1821 law fined “each and every person so degrading himself” by carrying weapons in public. Alabama’s 1839 law was titled “An Act to Suppress the Evil Practice of Carrying Weapons Secretly.”
Why must we relearn a lesson we codified centuries ago? How dumb are we?
Robert J. Spitzer is a political scientist at SUNY Cortland and the author, most recently, of “Guns Across America: Reconciling Gun Rules and Rights.”
This piece was reprinted by EmpathyEducates with permission or license. We thank the Author Professor Robert J. Spitzer for his kindness, observations, his research and for what we believe invites a vital conversation.