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Stand Your Ground Laws Are A License to Kill

1.25.2021
Stand Your Ground Laws encourage people to shoot first and ask questions later

Summary

Stand Your Ground laws give people a license to kill, allowing those who shoot others to obtain immunity, even if they started the confrontation and even when they can safely de-escalate the situation by walking away. Stand Your Ground laws are inherently dangerous because they change the nature of gun violence in a state by encouraging escalations of violence and, according to research, do nothing to deter overall crime.

The extensive body of scholarship on Stand Your Ground laws has demonstrated that these laws are associated with increases in firearm homicides. Individuals who invoke Stand Your Ground often have violent criminal histories, and despite initiating altercations, are eventually absolved of responsibility for taking a life. Convictions in Stand Your Ground cases have also skewed unfairly against people of color, with particular bias observed against Black people. In light of the evidence, it is imperative for lawmakers to reject Stand Your Ground proposals and states with Stand Your Ground laws should repeal this dangerous law.

Case Study

A couple was driving to a Houston mosque during Ramadan when they nearly collided with another car. The person in the other car pulled up alongside the couple, and both parties rolled down their windows. The other driver yelled, “Go back to Islam.” The husband opened his door and stepped out of the car. He was shot by the other driver within seconds. Months later, a Harris County grand jury declined to indict the shooter for murder after he invoked Stand Your Ground.1Leah Caldwell, “When Hatred Collides With Texas’ Stand Your Ground Law,” Texas Observer, January 4, 2016, https://bit.ly/2LXQsaw.

Introduction

Stand Your Ground laws allow a person to use deadly force in a confrontation without any duty to retreat, even when they can do so safely.

Stand Your Ground laws allow a person to kill another person in a public area, even when they could have clearly and safely de-escalated the confrontation by retreating, upending traditional self-defense law.1 See, e.g. Fla. Stat. §776.012(2). Under traditional self-defense law, a person can use force to defend themself anywhere and at any time. When they are outside their home, however, they cannot use force that is likely to kill or seriously injure someone if there is a safe way to avoid it.2Francis Wharton, A Treatise on the Law of Homicide in the United States (Philadelphia: Kay and Brother, 1855); Allen v. United States, 164 U.S. 492, 497-98 (1896); Teal v. State, 161 So. 422, 422 (Fla.1935); Beyer v. Birmingham, Ry., Light & Power Co., 64 So. 609, 611 (Ala. 1914). Stand Your Ground laws are often misrepresented as simple adjustments or codification of common law, but in reality, they aggressively alter criminal procedure in a way that makes it difficult for a person who invokes the law to be arrested, prosecuted, or convicted for using deadly force. In addition to these legal mechanisms, these laws distort the public perception of lawful self-defense and encourage people to shoot first and ask questions later.

Traditional self-defense law already gives people the right to protect themselves. These laws only require a person to de-escalate a situation if there is a clear and safe way to do so; they do not require a person to attempt to de-escalate if doing so would put them in danger. In this way, traditional self-defense law respects both a person’s right to defend themself and the value of human life.

Stand Your Ground laws distort the public perception of lawful self-defense and encourage people to shoot first and ask questions later.

The distortion of self-defense law in the United States began in 2005 when the National Rifle Association (NRA) helped draft and pass Stand Your Ground legislation in Florida in an attempt to make the purchase and use of guns more attractive.3Giffords Law Center and SPLC Action Fund, “‘Stand Your Ground’ Kills: How These NRA-Backed Laws Promote Racist Violence,” July 2020, https://bit.ly/38tkOJB. Later, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), backed by the gun lobby, adopted Florida’s legislation as a model for extending the reach of the law.4Calvin Sloan, “ALEC: The Hidden Player Behind ‘Stand Your Ground’ Laws,” People For the American Way, March 21, 2012, https://bit.ly/2WD4YXo; Chris Brown, “Marion Hammer: The NRA Lobbyist Behind Florida’s Stand Your Ground Legislation,” Media Matters for America, March 22, 2012, https://bit.ly/3pef7pD. Today, the NRA and ALEC have successfully promoted Stand Your Ground legislation and seen it passed into law in 27 states.5Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Wyoming.

Stand Your Ground in the United States

Case Study

An Arizona man shot and killed a 22-year-old after the two got into a verbal altercation while on the road. Though the 22-year-old did not have a gun and did not exit his car, the shooter was acquitted of murder after he claimed self-defense under the state’s Stand Your Ground law.1Tim Steller, “In Arizona, If You Get Scared to Death, You Can Kill the Person Scaring You,” Arizona Daily Star, September 26, 2017, https://bit.ly/2Nfrvb6.

Key Findings

Stand Your Ground has had deadly effects across the country.

In 2020, the RAND Corporation released a research review of the impact of various gun-related state policies and found that strong evidence linked Stand Your Ground laws with an increase in firearm homicide rates.6Rosanna Smart et al., “Stand-Your-Ground Laws,” in The Science of Gun Policy: A Critical Synthesis of Research Evidence on the Effects of Gun Policies in the United States, Second Edition (RAND Corporation, 2020), 235–50, www.rand.org/t/RR2088-1; RAND Corporation, “The Effects of Stand-Your-Ground Laws,” April 22, 2020, https://bit.ly/3ay1a1y; RAND Corporation, “Gun Policy Research Review,” Gun Policy in America, accessed December 11, 2020, https://bit.ly/3mEwq1w. None of the research found that Stand Your Ground laws prevent violent crime.7Smart et al., “Stand-Your-Ground Laws.”

Homicide Rates in the United States (2000-2017)

Marc Levy et al., “Stand Your Ground: Policy and Trends in Firearm-Related Justifiable Homicide and Homicide in the US,” Journal of the American College of Surgeons 230, no. 1 (2020): 161-167.e4, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jamcollsurg.2019.11.003.

Instead, these laws are associated with an increase in homicide rates translating to more than 150 additional gun deaths each month in the US overall. A recent study comparing the five years before states began enacting these laws (2000–2004) to the 13-year period following their enactment (2005–2017), found justifiable firearm homicide rates increased by 55 percent in states that enacted Stand Your Ground, while these rates increased by 20 percent in states that did not have such laws. During this latter period, overall homicide rates increased by 11 percent in Stand Your Ground states yet decreased by 2 percent in states that did not have such laws.8Marc Levy et al., “Stand Your Ground: Policy and Trends in Firearm-Related Justifiable Homicide and Homicide in the US,” Journal of the American College of Surgeons 230, no. 1 (2020): 161-167.e4, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jamcollsurg.2019.11.003.

At the state level, Stand Your Ground laws have been associated with considerable increases in gun deaths, including unintentional deaths: 6 to 7 percent more gun deaths occurred in suburban counties9Abdul Munasib, Genti Kostandini, and Jeffrey L. Jordan, “Impact of the Stand Your Ground Law on Gun Deaths: Evidence of a Rural Urban Dichotomy,” European Journal of Law and Economics 45, no. 3 (June 2018): 527–54, https://doi.org/10.1007/s10657-018-9581-z. and 8 percent more gun deaths occurred in urban counties in states that adopted these laws.10Cassandra Crifasi et al., “Correction to: Association Between Firearm Laws and Homicide in Urban Counties,” Journal of Urban Health 95, no. 5 (October 15, 2018): 773–76, https://doi.org/10.1007/s11524-018-0306-y; Cassandra K. Crifasi et al., “Association Between Firearm Laws and Homicide in Urban Counties,” Journal of Urban Health 95, no. 3 (2018): 383–90, https://doi.org/10.1007/s11524-018-0273-3. Stand Your Ground laws have also been associated with an increase in nonfatal firearm injuries resulting in emergency room visits and hospitalizations.11Chandler McClellan and Erdal Tekin, “Stand Your Ground Laws, Homicides, and Injuries,” Journal of Human Resources 52, no. 3 (2017): 621–53, https://doi.org/10.3368/jhr.52.3.0613-5723R2; Justin Lee et al., “Guns and States: Pediatric Firearm Injury,” Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery 75, no. 1 (July 2013): 50–53, https://doi.org/10.1097/TA.0b013e3182999b7a.

Because Stand Your Ground legislation leads to an increase in the number of gun deaths and injuries, these laws add to the financial toll of firearm violence in states that pass them. Each gun homicide, for example, costs taxpayers $688,600 on average, covering expenses related to police response, criminal justice, and healthcare. Families and communities bear a heavier burden, enduring losses in income and quality of life exceeding $7 million per gun homicide.12Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund, “The Economic Cost of Gun Violence,” 2021, https://everytownresearch.org/report/the-economic-cost-of-gun-violence/.

Stand Your Ground laws have a disproportionate impact on people of color.

5x

In Stand Your Ground states, homicides in which white shooters kill Black victims are deemed justifiable five times more frequently than when the situation is reversed.

Everytown analysis of FBI Supplementary Homicide Report, 2014 to 2018.

Across all states, homicides in which white shooters kill Black victims are deemed justifiable far more frequently than when the situation is reversed.13John Roman, “Race, Justifiable Homicide, and Stand Your Ground Laws: Analysis of FBI Supplementary Homicide Report Data” (Urban Institute, July 2013), https://urbn.is/3mHnU1E. In Stand Your Ground states, these homicides are deemed justifiable five times more frequently than when the shooter is Black and the victim is white.14Everytown analysis of FBI Supplementary Homicide Report, 2014 to 2018. Controlling for other factors—such as who initiated the confrontation and whether or not the victim was armed—Florida Stand Your Ground cases involving minority victims are half as likely to lead to conviction, compared to cases involving white victims.15Nicole Ackermann et al., “Race, Law, and Health: Examination of ‘Stand Your Ground’ and Defendant Convictions in Florida,” Social Science & Medicine 142 (2015): 194–201, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.socscimed.2015.08.012.

It is no accident that white people who shoot and kill Black people out of fear are frequently given immunity through Stand Your Ground laws. We know that in this country, minorities are implicitly associated with crime and danger. Since Stand Your Ground permits people to shoot and kill others based on a perceived threat, it follows that individuals in Stand Your Ground states would be more likely to avoid culpability for murder if their victim was a person of color.16Cheryl Staats, “State of Science: Implicit Bias Review 2014” (Kirwan Institute, March 2014), https://bit.ly/38q3Mfn.

Stand Your Ground was created by the gun lobby to solve a problem that doesn’t exist.

People with a legitimate reason to defend themselves are already fully protected under traditional self-defense law. What’s more, research shows that the average person is extremely unlikely to ever be in a situation where they would need to use a gun to defend themself in the first place.17David Hemenway and Sara J. Solnick, “The Epidemiology of Self-Defense Gun Use: Evidence from the National Crime Victimization Surveys 2007–2011,” Preventive Medicine 79 (October 2015): 22–27, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ypmed.2015.03.029.

Impact of Stand Your Ground in Florida

In 2005, Florida adopted its Stand Your Ground law. This law is the blueprint for the Stand Your Ground laws subsequently passed in dozens of states. It has garnered significant media attention and has been extensively studied.18Florida’s Stand Your Ground law specifically eliminates the requirement that a person retreat before using deadly force in public, restricts law enforcement and prosecutors from arresting and prosecuting shooters, and provides a pretrial immunity hearing that provides an additional hurdle to holding a shooter accountable. Florida now serves as a cautionary tale of Stand Your Ground’s inherent dangers and the means by which these laws become licenses to kill. 

Florida’s Stand Your Ground law has increased both the state’s overall homicide and firearm homicide rates.

The implementation of Florida’s Stand Your Ground law was associated with significant increases in both monthly homicide rates (24 percent) and an even larger increase in monthly firearm homicide rates (32 percent).19David K. Humphreys, Antonio Gasparrini, and Douglas J. Wiebe, “Evaluating the Impact of Florida’s ‘Stand Your Ground’ Self-Defense Law on Homicide and Suicide by Firearm: An Interrupted Time Series Study,” JAMA Internal Medicine 177, no. 1 (January 2017): 44–50, https://doi.org/10.1001/jamainternmed.2016.6811. This included a 75 percent increase in monthly justifiable homicide rates and an estimated 22 percent increase in monthly unlawful homicide rates after the passage of Florida’s Stand Your Ground law.20David K. Humphreys, Antonio Gasparrini, and Douglas J. Wiebe, “Association Between Enactment of a ‘Stand Your Ground’ Self-Defense Law and Unlawful Homicides in Florida,” JAMA Internal Medicine 177, no. 10 (October 2017): 1523–24, https://doi.org/10.1001/jamainternmed.2017.3433. Additionally, the law had the most negative impact on counties that initially had the lowest homicide rates prior to the law’s enactment. This impact included significant increases in homicide rates in suburban communities.21Benjamin Ukert, Douglas J. Wiebe, and David K. Humphreys, “Regional Differences in the Impact of the ‘Stand Your Ground’ Law in Florida,” Preventive Medicine 115 (October 2018): 68–75, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ypmed.2018.08.010

The effect of Stand Your Ground is felt across demographics of age and race.

Florida’s Stand Your Ground law was associated with a 45 percent increase in monthly firearm homicide rates among white residents and a 23 percent increase among Black residents.22Humphreys, Gasparrini, and Wiebe, “Evaluating the Impact of Florida’s ‘Stand Your Ground’ Self-Defense Law.” Young adults between the ages of 20 and 34 years were most impacted by the state’s Stand Your Ground law compared to all other age groups, with a 36 percent increase in monthly firearm homicide rates following implementation of the law.23Humphreys, Gasparrini, and Wiebe, “Evaluating the Impact of Florida’s ‘Stand Your Ground’ Self-Defense Law.” Newer research has also found that the passage of these laws was associated with a 45 percent increase in quarterly rates of adolescent gun homicide driven by a 52 percent increase in the gun homicide rate among Black adolescents.24Michelle Degli Esposti et al., “Increasing Adolescent Firearm Homicides and Racial Disparities Following Florida’s ‘Stand Your Ground’ Self-Defence Law,” Injury Prevention, December 20, 2019, https://doi.org/10.1136/injuryprev-2019-043530.

Case Study

In Tallahassee, a man was involved in a shootout in which one person was shot and killed. Though the man had a history of violence, including six accusations of battery, prosecutors declined to pursue a murder conviction after he claimed Stand Your Ground. Instead, they negotiated a guilty plea to carrying a gun unlawfully, resulting in an eight-year prison sentence.1Connie Humburg, “Many Killers Who Go Free With Florida ‘Stand Your Ground’ Law Have History of Violence,” Tampa Bay Times, February 17, 2013, https://bit.ly/2WBZLPm.

Stand Your Ground laws often protect people with violent backgrounds and encourage the escalation of violence in situations that could otherwise have been defused.

In Florida and across the country, Stand Your Ground laws embolden people to shoot first and ask questions later. In 57 percent of Florida Stand Your Ground cases, there was clear evidence that the person who claimed Stand Your Ground could have safely retreated to avoid the confrontation. In only 15 percent of the cases, the evidence clearly suggested that it might not have been safe to retreat to avoid the conflict. The victims of these disputes were unarmed in 63 percent of cases.25Chris Davis, “Florida’s Stand Your Ground Law,” Tampa Bay Times, June 3, 2012, https://bit.ly/3c1KZub. And roughly three out of every five people in Florida claiming Stand Your Ground had prior arrests before killing someone and invoking the law, with about a third of these defendants having previously been arrested for serious crimes like assault and robbery.26Humburg, “Many Killers Who Go Free.”

In short, Stand Your Ground laws, as noted by the president of the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, “provide safe harbors for criminals and prevent prosecutors from bringing cases against those who claim self-defense after unnecessarily killing or injuring others.”27”David LaBahn, “‘Stand Your Ground’ Laws: Civil Rights and Public Safety Implications of the Expanded Use of Deadly Force,” § Senate Judiciary Committee, Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights (2013), https://bit.ly/38rrqrW.

Conclusion

Traditional self-defense laws are sufficient to allow people to be safe and to value the lives of others, even in potentially dangerous situations. We must stand our ground if only to reject proposals that give people a free license to shoot and kill.

Everytown Research & Policy is a program of Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund, an independent, non-partisan organization dedicated to understanding and reducing gun violence. Everytown Research & Policy works to do so by conducting methodologically rigorous research, supporting evidence-based policies, and communicating this knowledge to the American public.

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