‘Stand Your Ground’ Laws and Trying to Prevent the Next Trayvon Martin

Image by Farragutful, via Wikimedia Commons.

There may always be intense debate about whether racial fear motivated George Zimmerman when he shot and killed Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida on February 26, 2012.

However, any attempt to dissect the inner workings of George Zimmerman’s mind diverts attention from the more profound problems revealed by Trayvon Martin’s death. Specifically, this tragedy highlights two crucial flaws in Florida’s legal system: 1) an ill-conceived and socially pernicious Stand Your Ground (“SYG”) law and 2) a lax and ludicrous gun control approach enabling Zimmerman—an individual with an alleged history of violence and domestic abuse1—to legally own and publicly carry firearms.2

SYG laws are not a problem exclusive to Florida—although it is undisputed that Florida’s decision to pass an “NRA-drafted” SYG law in 2005 “changed standard jury instructions, which previously held that a person had a duty to retreat by using ‘every reasonable means.’”3 Indeed, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, “[l]aws in at least 22 states allow that there is no duty to retreat [from] an attacker in any place in which one is lawfully present.” “[A]t least nine of those states include language stating one may “stand his or her ground.””4

Although the destructive impacts of SYG laws are thus not isolated to Florida, it appears that Florida’s SYG law may have played a key role in Zimmerman’s controversial acquittal. The Miami Herald quoted a Zimmerman juror as saying that the jury found Zimmerman not guilty “based on the evidence and ‘because of the heat of the moment and…Stand Your Ground[,]’”although controversy remains as to “the degree to which Stand Your Ground led to the not-guilty verdict.”5

While trying to figure out how the Zimmerman case should have resulted in the absence of Florida’s SYG law is pointless, the fact that this law clearly may have influenced the outcome should lead us to examine what this case suggests about the future policy impacts of SYG laws.

Unfortunately, it appears that SYG laws are correlated with increased levels of lethal violence, and seem to be applied in a racially disparate manner. Given these facts, all SYG laws should be abolished immediately in order to protect the lives of our fellow Americans and eliminate a rule which appears to feed existing concerns about rampant racial inequality in our justice system.

I. The Dangerous Impact of “Stand Your Ground” Laws on Violence Levels

According to a recent Texas A&M study, SYG, or “castle doctrine,” states exhibited a “statistically significant 8 percent net increase in the number of reported murders and non-negligent manslaughters[,]” although they appear to enjoy no benefit in the form of reductions in “burglary, robbery, or aggravated assault.”6 The authors of the study go a step further by making the bold claim that “Stand Your Ground” laws cause this increase in non-negligent manslaughters and murders.7

Clearly, the issue of confusing correlation with causation is always present in sociological studies, making this conclusive statement inappropriate. However, the methodology employed by the authors and the mathematical proof provided in their paper suggests that it is more likely than not that there is, in fact, a causal relationship between SYG laws and lethal violence.

First, in terms of study design, the authors “compare[d] the within-state changes in outcomes of states that adopted laws to the within-state changes in non-adopting states over the same time period.”8 Furthermore, they “primarily identify effects by comparing changes in castle doctrine states to other states in the same region of the country by including region-by-year fixed effects.“9

Perhaps more importantly, the authors attempt to eliminate the possibility that differences in lethal violence rates between the groups of states that did and did not adopt “castle doctrine” laws were caused by the states simply experiencing different crime trends even prior to the adoption of SYG laws.10

Such a possibility seems highly unlikely given that “graphical evidence and regression results show that the outcomes of the two groups not diverge in the years prior to adoption.”11 In addition, the authors appear to have eliminated a number of possible confounding variables that could explain the differences in crime rates between the two groups of states. The authors’ results remained “robust” even when they included “time-varying covariates such as demographics, policing, economic conditions, and public assistance,” as well as when they added in “contemporaneous crime levels unaffected by castle doctrine laws [as a] proxy for general crime trends.”12

In summary, it appears that SYG states exhibit a statistically significant and larger number of violent deaths than do non-SYG states that are predominantly located in the same section of the nation. These results remain “robust” even when one considers some of the key factors unrelated to SYG laws that might drive such variation.
As such, it seems likely that SYG laws are actually responsible for producing a dangerous, negative impact on the health and safety of our society in general. Why exactly might that be? Cheng and Hoekstra help answer that question by observing that “[castle doctrine] laws reduce the expected cost of using lethal force. They lower the expected legal costs associated with defending oneself against criminal and civil prosecution, as well as the probability that one is ultimately found criminally or civilly liable for the death or injury inflicted.”13

II. Racially Disparate Application of SYG Protections

Not only do SYG laws seem to reduce the health and safety of our citizens more generally, but it does not seem that SYG protections are being applied in a fair, racially neutral manner. For example, the Tampa Bay Times conducted a survey of 200 SYG cases in Florida and found that “[d]efendants claiming ‘stand your ground’ are more likely to prevail if the victim is black. Seventy-three percent of those who killed a black person faced no penalty compared to 59 percent of those who killed a white.”14

Furthermore, the disparity in punishment under a SYG regime may actually be larger than these numbers suggest. Indeed, the Tampa Bay Times states that “[a] comprehensive analysis of ‘stand your ground’ decisions is all but impossible. When police and prosecutors decide not to press charges, they don’t always keep records showing how they reached their decisions. And no one keeps track of how many ‘stand your ground’ motions have been filed or their outcomes.”15 Given what we know about racial disparities and racial profiling, it seems probable that whites, more so than blacks, benefit from decisions not to press charges.

PBS Frontline also examined how race interacts with SYG laws. Their investigation revealed that SYG laws are correlated with a marked increase in the already massive disparity between the number of whites who are found not-guilty by virtue of self- defense after killing a black person and the number of whites who are found not-guilty by virtue of self defense after killing another white person. Specifically, “[i]n non-Stand Your Ground states, whites are 250 percent more likely to be found justified in killing a black person than a white person who kills another white person; in Stand Your Ground states, that number jumps to 354 percent.”16

Admittedly, PBS notes that “the figures don’t yet prove bias.” Indeed, the data has some weaknesses and limitations because “the data doesn’t show the circumstances behind the killings,” like “whether the people who were shot were involved in home invasions or in a confrontation on the street[,]” and because “there are far fewer white-on-black shootings in the FBI data — only 25 total in both the Stand Your Ground and non-Stand Your Ground states.”18

Despite these limitations, it is not tenable for us to simply sit and wait for more murders to provide us with more data points, so we should accept this admittedly imperfect measure as a valid approximation of reality in evaluating SYG laws. The disparities in the application of Stand Your Ground laws revealed by the Tampa Bay Times and PBS Frontline certainly help feed perceptions that we value white lives more than black lives.

Ultimately, the Trayvon Martin case may not matter very much in terms of what it says about George Zimmerman’s mindset and prejudices. But it should matter to us in terms of what it reveals about our society and what impacts SYG laws may have in the future. In many areas of the United States, we have condoned a legal regime that mixes SYG laws with weak gun control laws. This allows violent people like Zimmerman to gain access to firearms and reduces their fear of legal sanction should they use these firearms against unarmed individuals under the influence of their personal visions of right and wrong. In other words, the legal system of many states is currently structured to encourage violent vigilantism which may be driven by racial fears and other forms of paranoia.

This choice seems inexplicable given the clear evidence that civilians are very bad at making decisions about when to deploy lethal force. We know that “[f]or every time a gun in the home was used in a self-defense or legally justifiable shooting, there were four unintentional shootings, seven criminal assaults or homicides, and 11 attempted or completed suicides.”19 Furthermore, in life-or-death confrontations, human biological responses often result in impaired motor control and a reduced ability to perform high-level decision-making, which can make efforts to take down a “bad guy” more difficult.20 Given these, we really want a legal regime which eliminates a duty to retreat and thereby fails to encourage attempts to defuse such situations without resorting to force?

The answer to this question has to be no. George Zimmerman may not be guilty. But as long as we don’t do anything about existing SYG laws and a lax gun regime that allows alleged domestic violence abusers like Zimmerman to gain access to firearms, we are all guilty of failing to protect the next Trayvon Martin.

1. See Salamishah Tillet, Domestic Violence and George Zimmerman’s Defense, THE NATION (Jul. 15, 2013, 11:35 AM), http://www.thenation.com/blog/175270/domestic-violence-and-george-zimmermans-defense#.
2. See Press Release, Brady Center, Brady Campaign Statement on Verdict in Case Against George Zimmerman (Jul. 13, 2013) (“In the end, George Zimmerman’s mentality, and what emboldened him to approach Trayvon, may be debatable. What is not debatable, though, is the fact that Trayvon Martin is dead because Zimmerman had a gun. Zimmerman was given a concealed carry permit by the state of Florida despite an arrest record and a history of violence, as a direct result of the influence of the gun lobby, and if it weren’t for that, this tragedy never would have happened.“), available at: http://www.bradycenter.org/?q=brady-campaign-statement-on-verdict-in-case-against-george-zimmerman.
3. See Caputo, Mark, Juror: We talked Stand Your Ground before not-guilty Zimmerman verdict, MIAMI HERALD, Jul. 18, 2013, http://www.miamiherald.com/2013/07/16/3502481/juror-we-talked-stand-your-ground.html.
4. Self Defense and Stand Your Ground, NATIONAL CONFERENCE OF STATE LEGISLATURES, http://www.ncsl.org/issues-research/justice/self-defense-and-stand-your-ground.aspx.
5. See Juror.
6. Cheng Cheng & Mark Hoekstra, Does Strengthening Self-Defense Law Deter Crime or Escalate Violence? Evidence from Expansions to Castle Doctrine, forthcoming in JOURNAL OF HUMAN RESOURCES, available at: http://econweb.tamu.edu/mhoekstra/castle_doctrine.pdf.
7. See id. at 4.
8. See id. at 1−3.
9. Id. at 3.
10. See id.
11. See id.
12. See id. at 3, 28.
13. Id. at 1.
14. See Kris Hundley, et al., Florida ‘Stand your ground’ law yields some shocking outcomes depending on how law is applied, TAMPA BAY TIMES (June 12, 2012), available at: http://www.tampabay.com/news/public-safety/crime/florida-stand-your-ground-law-yields-some-shocking-outcomes-depending-on/1233133.
15. Id.
16. Sarah Childress, Is There Racial Bias in “Stand Your Ground” Laws?, FRONTLINE (Jul. 31, 2012), available at: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/criminal-justice/is-there-racial-bias-in-stand-your-ground-laws/.
17. Id.
18. Id.
19. Kellerman, Al, et al., Abstract, Injuries and Death Due to Firearms in the Home, 45 JOURNAL OF TRAUMA, 263−7 (1988), available at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9715182.
20. Amanda Ripley, Your Brain in a Shootout: Guns, Fear, and Flawed Instincts, TIME, (Jan. 16, 2013), available at: http://swampland.time.com/2013/01/16/your-brain-in-a-shootout-guns-fear-and-flawed-instincts/.