In-depth briefing

Stand Your Ground laws: Do they offer a license to kill?

After the death of Trayvon Martin, lawmakers are reassessing a raft of statutes that allow people to use deadly force in self-defense

What are Stand Your Ground laws?
Statutes that expand a person's right to use deadly force in self-defense, which have been adopted by 25 states in the last decade. An established legal principle, the Castle Doctrine, has long allowed people to use reasonable, and sometimes deadly, force to protect themselves from an assailant inside their homes. But on public property outside the home, a person who could safely retreat from a threat generally has a legal duty to do so. Stand Your Ground laws remove that requirement to retreat, and authorize the use of deadly force if a person reasonably feels at risk of death or great bodily harm. In the Trayvon Martin case, police in Sanford, Fla., said they didn't initially arrest the shooter, neighborhood-watch volunteer George Zimmerman, because they couldn't refute his claim that he'd fired in self-defense — even though Martin, 17, was unarmed when killed.

Why were these laws introduced?
The push for Stand Your Ground began in Florida in 2004, after Pensacola resident James Workman shot and killed a man who entered his recreational vehicle. Prosecutors eventually decided not to charge Workman, but lawmakers said they were disgusted that the retiree had to suffer months of legal uncertainty before being cleared. Together with National Rifle Association lobbyist Marion Hammer, Republican state Sen. Durell Peaden drafted a bill that would allow Floridians to defend themselves without fear of prosecution, wherever they were. "Now, the law and their government is on the side of law-abiding people and victims, rather than on the side of criminals," said Hammer. Some law-enforcement officials warned that the statute would make it hard to secure murder convictions, by enabling almost any defendant to claim self-defense and increasing the burden of proof on prosecutors. The state legislature overruled those objections, and the bill became law in 2005. Since then the NRA has successfully pushed for similar statutes in 24 additional states. 

What impact have these laws had?
That is a matter of bitter dispute, as is so often the case when gun rights are involved. State legislators who supported Florida's law cite a 23 percent drop in violent crime over the first five years the law was in effect; they contend that criminals were cowed by the knowledge that citizens could legally shoot them in self-defense. Gun-control advocates argue that the decrease was not related to Stand Your Ground, noting that violent-crime rates dropped 12 percent in the five years before the law was passed, and have continued falling in states with or without such laws. These critics also contend that the law has caused a surge in people using guns to settle conflicts.

What do the statistics show?
Before 2005, Florida civilians committed an average of 12 justifiable homicides a year. Two years after the law's passing, that number surged to more than 40 a year. Other states with Stand Your Ground laws have seen similar spikes. An analysis of FBI data by the office of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg shows that states that passed Stand Your Ground laws saw a 53.5 percent increase in justifiable homicides in the three years after enactment. States without such laws experienced a mere 4.2 percent increase. "These laws are vigilantism masquerading as self-defense," said Bloomberg, a gun-control advocate. He accused the NRA of seeking to "create a nation where disputes are settled by guns instead of gavels, and where suspects are shot by civilians instead of arrested by police."

How do the laws' supporters respond?
Florida state Rep. Dennis Baxley, who co-sponsored the original bill, says the jump in justifiable homicides simply proves that the law is working. "The perpetrator suffered instead of the person they were victimizing," said Baxley. "That's what those numbers mean." Supporters note that the law contains safeguards designed to counter vigilantism and prevent criminals from murdering someone and then claiming self-defense. "In order to get the protection of the law," said Florida state Sen. David Simmons, an alleged victim "must not, for example, be the aggressor; cannot be waving a gun at someone; and cannot be engaged in drug dealing."

Do these laws remain popular?
The Trayvon Martin case appears to be causing second thoughts. Attempts to pass Stand Your Ground laws in Alaska and Iowa were halted after Martin was killed, and Democrats in Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Texas, and Wisconsin are attempting to roll back the legislation. In Florida, Rep. Baxley has said that he is open to considering small amendments to the law, such as clarifying when neighborhood-watch volunteers like Zimmerman can use force. But the drive to repeal Stand Your Ground faces fierce opposition from the NRA, a powerful lobbying force in many state legislatures. In addition, the law's opponents are almost all Democrats, many of whom serve in states with legislatures controlled by pro–Stand Your Ground Republicans. "When laws have unintended consequences, they demand review," said Democratic state Rep. Bakari Sellers of South Carolina, who filed a repeal bill last month. But "it's an uphill battle."

When gangsters stand their ground
Could a criminal use Stand Your Ground to justify a deliberate homicide? It's happened on multiple occasions, say critics of the law. One such case occurred in 2008, when a wild gunfight broke out between rival gangs outside an apartment block in Tallahassee. Some 30 shots were fired, and one of them resulted in the death of 15-year-old Michael Jackson. Two young men were arrested for his murder, but they were subsequently freed after claiming they had acted in self-defense. An angry Judge Terry Lewis said he had no choice but to order their release. "The law would appear to allow a person to seek out an individual, provoke him into a confrontation, then shoot and kill him if he goes for his gun," Lewis said. "Contrary to the state's assertion, it is very much like the Wild West."


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