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A License to Kill: Shoot First Laws, also known as Stand Your Ground

1.25.2021

Last Updated: 9.8.2021

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

Summary

Shoot First laws, also known as 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. Shoot First 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 Shoot First laws has demonstrated that these laws are associated with increases in firearm homicides. Individuals who invoke these laws often have violent criminal histories, and despite initiating altercations, are eventually absolved of responsibility for taking a life. Convictions in Shoot First 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 Shoot First proposals and states with Shoot First 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 the Shoot First law.1Leah Caldwell, “When Hatred Collides With Texas’ Stand Your Ground Law,” Texas Observer, January 4, 2016, https://bit.ly/2LXQsaw.

Introduction

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

Shoot First 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). Shoot First 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.

Shoot First laws, also known as 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 Shoot First 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 Shoot First legislation and seen it passed into law in 29 states.5Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Wyoming.

No Stand Your Ground Law

21 states have rejected this policy

AL AK AZ AR CA CO CT DE FL GA HI ID IL IN IA KS KY LA ME MD MA MI MN MS MO MT NE NV NH NJ NM NY NC ND OH OK OR PA RI SC SD TN TX UT VT VA WA WV WI WY

No Stand Your Ground Law

Alabama has not rejected this policy

No Stand Your Ground Law

Alaska has not rejected this policy

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No Stand Your Ground Law

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No Stand Your Ground Law

Delaware has rejected this policy

No Stand Your Ground Law

Florida has not rejected this policy

No Stand Your Ground Law

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No Stand Your Ground Law

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No Stand Your Ground Law

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No Stand Your Ground Law

Indiana has not rejected this policy

No Stand Your Ground Law

Iowa has not rejected this policy

No Stand Your Ground Law

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No Stand Your Ground Law

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No Stand Your Ground Law

Louisiana has not rejected this policy

No Stand Your Ground Law

Maine has rejected this policy

No Stand Your Ground Law

Maryland has rejected this policy

No Stand Your Ground Law

Massachusetts has rejected this policy

No Stand Your Ground Law

Michigan has not rejected this policy

No Stand Your Ground Law

Minnesota has rejected this policy

No Stand Your Ground Law

Mississippi has not rejected this policy

No Stand Your Ground Law

Missouri has not rejected this policy

No Stand Your Ground Law

Montana has not rejected this policy

No Stand Your Ground Law

Nebraska has rejected this policy

No Stand Your Ground Law

Nevada has not rejected this policy

No Stand Your Ground Law

New Hampshire has not rejected this policy

No Stand Your Ground Law

New Jersey has rejected this policy

No Stand Your Ground Law

New Mexico has rejected this policy

No Stand Your Ground Law

New York has rejected this policy

No Stand Your Ground Law

North Carolina has not rejected this policy

No Stand Your Ground Law

North Dakota has not rejected this policy

No Stand Your Ground Law

Ohio has not rejected this policy

No Stand Your Ground Law

Oklahoma has not rejected this policy

No Stand Your Ground Law

Oregon has rejected this policy

No Stand Your Ground Law

Pennsylvania has not rejected this policy

No Stand Your Ground Law

Rhode Island has rejected this policy

No Stand Your Ground Law

South Carolina has not rejected this policy

No Stand Your Ground Law

South Dakota has not rejected this policy

No Stand Your Ground Law

Tennessee has not rejected this policy

No Stand Your Ground Law

Texas has not rejected this policy

No Stand Your Ground Law

Utah has not rejected this policy

No Stand Your Ground Law

Vermont has rejected this policy

No Stand Your Ground Law

Virginia has rejected this policy

No Stand Your Ground Law

Washington has rejected this policy

No Stand Your Ground Law

West Virginia has rejected this policy

No Stand Your Ground Law

Wisconsin has rejected this policy

No Stand Your Ground Law

Wyoming has not rejected this policy

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 Shoot First 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

Shoot First laws have 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 Shoot First 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 Shoot First 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 700 additional gun deaths each year in the US overall.8Michelle Degli Esposti et al., “Analysis of ‘Stand Your Ground’ Self-Defense Laws and Statewide Rates of Homicides and Firearm Homicides,” JAMA Network Open 5, no. 2 (February 21, 2022): e220077, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jamcollsurg.2019.11.003 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 Shoot First laws, 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 Shoot First states yet decreased by 2 percent in states that did not have such laws.9Marc 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, Shoot First laws have been associated with considerable increases in gun deaths, including unintentional deaths: 6 to 7 percent more gun deaths occurred in suburban counties10Abdul 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.11Cassandra 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. Shoot First laws have also been associated with an increase in nonfatal firearm injuries resulting in emergency room visits and hospitalizations.12Chandler 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 Shoot First 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.13Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund, “The Economic Cost of Gun Violence,” 2021, https://everytownresearch.org/report/the-economic-cost-of-gun-violence/.

Shoot First laws, also known as Stand Your Ground laws, have a disproportionate impact on people of color.

700

Shoot first laws are associated with increases in homicide rates resulting in 700 additional homicides each year.

Michelle Degli Esposti et al., “Analysis of ‘Stand Your Ground’ Self-Defense Laws and Statewide Rates of Homicides and Firearm Homicides,” JAMA Network Open 5, no. 2 (February 21, 2022): e220077, https://doi.org/10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2022.0077.

Last updated: 1.8.2021

Across all states, homicides in which white shooters kill Black victims are deemed justifiable far more frequently than when the situation is reversed.14John 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 Shoot First states, these homicides are deemed justifiable five times more frequently than when the shooter is Black and the victim is white.15Everytown 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 Shoot First cases involving minority victims are half as likely to lead to conviction, compared to cases involving white victims.16Nicole 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 Shoot First laws. We know that in this country, minorities are implicitly associated with crime and danger. Since Shoot First laws permit people to shoot and kill others based on a perceived threat, it follows that individuals in Shoot First states would be more likely to avoid culpability for murder if their victim was a person of color.17Cheryl Staats, “State of Science: Implicit Bias Review 2014” (Kirwan Institute, March 2014), https://bit.ly/38q3Mfn.

Shoot First laws were 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.18David 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 Florida’s Shoot First Law

In 2005, Florida adopted its Shoot First law. This law is the blueprint for the Shoot First laws subsequently passed in dozens of states. It has garnered significant media attention and has been extensively studied.19Florida’s Shoot First/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 the inherent dangers of Shoot First laws and the means by which these laws become licenses to kill. 

Florida’s Shoot First law has increased both the state’s overall homicide and firearm homicide rates.

The implementation of Florida’s Shoot First 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).20David 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 Shoot First law.21David 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.22Benjamin 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 the state’s Shoot First law is felt across demographics of age and race.

Florida’s Shoot First law was associated with a 45 percent increase in monthly firearm homicide rates among white residents and a 23 percent increase among Black residents.23Humphreys, 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 Shoot First law compared to all other age groups, with a 36 percent increase in monthly firearm homicide rates following implementation of the law.24Humphreys, 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.25Michelle 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 invoked the Shoot First law. 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.

Shoot First 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 Shoot First cases, there was clear evidence that the person who invoked the Shoot First law 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.26Chris 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 Shoot First 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.27Humburg, “Many Killers Who Go Free.” Shoot First laws, also known as 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.”28”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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