Stand Your Ground. Line in the Sand. Shoot First. Make My Day. Twenty-six states have passed Stand Your Ground Laws that massively expand traditional self-defense laws. And no matter what you call them, they all have the same effect on the people of the states that pass them: more people will be killed and their killers will walk free.
Ohio will be a battleground for Stand Your Ground legislation this year. The Ohio Government Oversight and Reform Committee has held four hearings on Senate Bill 237, a Stand Your Ground bill. At the last hearing, Ohio Moms Demand Action volunteers joined Ohio prosecutors in opposing the bill. Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association Executive Director Louis Tobin said “I think these laws are a response to imaginary problems.”
Advocates for Stand Your Ground laws claim they are a way to allow law-abiding citizens to defend themselves without fear of criminal prosecution.David 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 (2017): 1523–1524 But our legal system already has robust self-defense laws in place. The available research also suggests that instead of making us safer, Stand Your Ground laws lead to increased unlawful homicide rates. Contrary to what advocates of Stand Your Ground claim, there are no credible research studies that show that these laws encourage legitimate acts of self-defense.
You have the right to defend yourself
Traditional self-defense laws — which have been in effect for hundreds of years in the U.S. — give people the right to defend themselves against harm. These self-defense laws mandate that seriously injuring or killing someone should only be used as a last resort and, as such, people have a“duty to retreat” from danger if they can safely do so. An exception to the duty to retreat is the “castle doctrine.” The castle doctrine allows people to use deadly force to defend themselves without having to try to retreat first when they are in their own homes.
Stand Your Ground laws are an extension of the castle doctrine to the public sphere, erasing the long-standing duty to retreat when you are in public. Put another way, these laws allow people to kill someone in self-defense (and in some states, in defense of property) while outside their home even when there is a safe alternative.
How Stand Your Ground laws came to be
In April 2005, the first modern Stand Your Ground law was passed in Florida. A year earlier, in the wake of Hurricane Ivan, a Florida homeowner had shot and killed a man who had entered his FEMA trailer despite the homeowner firing a warning shot. The homeowner shot the man, later identified as FEMA worker Rodney Cox, after Cox placed the homeowner in a “bear hug.” He was not prosecuted for killing Cox; prosecutors decided that he was rightfully acting in self-defense.
Nevertheless, the shooting drew the attention of the National Rifle Association’s Florida lobbyist, Marion Hammer, who argued that subjecting the homeowner to the standard investigative procedure after a killing was unfair treatment since he was acting in self-defense. She pushed legislators to introduce a bill that not only legalized the use of deadly force when facing a “perceived grave threat” but also granted immunity from prosecution. Notably, “Hammer and the Republican sponsors of Stand Your Ground could not point to a single instance in which a person had been wrongfully charged, tried, or convicted after invoking Florida’s traditional self-defense law,” journalist Mike Spies has written. Regardless, the bill was passed into law and Stand Your Ground was born.
“Stand Your Ground laws upend centuries of traditional self-defense doctrine and threaten public safety by encouraging armed vigilantism, allowing a person to kill another person in a public area even when they can clearly and safely walk away from the danger.” — Everytown For Gun Safety
Gun safety advocacy groups have long warned about the danger of Stand Your Ground laws. Here’s why.
The Results of Stand Your Ground
Over the past decade, studies have shown that there is in fact cause for concern. Looking specifically at Florida, a 2017 study published in JAMA Internal Medicine found that the number of legally justifiable homicides increased by 75% from 2006 to 2015. A Tampa Bay Times study of more than 200 Stand Your Ground cases in Florida found that, in 79% of them, the person claiming self-defense could have retreated, and in 68% of the cases, the person who was injured or killed was unarmed.
In December 2019, the peer-reviewed journal Injury Prevention published an analysis of CDC mortality data that analyzed gun-related homicides of Florida adolescents aged 15 to 19 years from 1999 to 2017. The study found a 45% increase in gun-related homicides of adolescents in this age group in Florida after the Stand Your Ground law was passed in October 2005. The increase in the rate of homicides of Black adolescents was even greater; there were 52% more homicides of Black adolescents reported in the period following the Stand Your Ground law passage compared to before the law.
The Wall Street Journal analyzed crime statistics from all 50 states during an 11-year period. Between 2000 and 2010, “justifiable homicides” nearly doubled. “The figures show the sharpest increase in justifiable homicides occurred after 2005, when Florida and 16 other states passed [Stand Your Ground] laws.”
Stand Your Ground laws aren’t making us safer
So what do these numbers mean? They mean Stand Your Ground laws are making our communities more dangerous, not less.
Lowering the threshold for a “legally justifiable” killing encourages armed vigilantism. Regardless of whether these “self-defense” killings are ultimately deemed justified, these laws have the effect of increasing homicide rates — and that should be chilling to all Americans. Consider these tragic situations that actually occurred:
A man fatally shot an unarmed man in a parking lot (while he was walking away) because he shoved him. An adult man shot into a car next to his, killing a teenager, after a dispute over the volume of the car’s music. A man fatally shot a teenager who knocked on his door to ask for his help after she was in a car accident. This shooting is factually different from the other three in that it occurred on the shooter’s property. However, it is highly debatable whether the shooter could have invoked the castle doctrine and according to media reports, the state’s “Shoot First” law significantly delayed prosecutors’ decision to charge the shooter. A man fatally shot a driver who rear ended his car.
A Stand Your Ground defense was asserted in all four of these cases, but all of the shooters were convicted. While others might suggest that this means Stand Your Ground laws do not go too far, we think that these examples illustrate a disturbing change. Perhaps the most frightening thing about Stand Your Ground, isn’t what is now legal — it’s what the most violent among us think is now legal in the name of self-protection. One of the shooters fatally shot teenager Jordan Davis during a verbal exchange about the volume of the music in the car Davis was in. “[The shooter’s behavior] exemplifies that our society seems to have lost its way,” Judge Russell Healey said during the sentencing of Davis’ shooter. “We should remember that there’s nothing wrong with retreating and de-escalating the situation.”
“Society seems to have lost its way”
Judge Healey’s reminder is desperately needed in a time when Stand Your Ground laws operate to protect shooters who make a choice to initiate or escalate a confrontation. There are far too many examples of individuals acting as armed vigilantes and then hiding behind Stand Your Ground laws. In 2007, Texan Joe Horn ignored the directions of a 911 dispatcher who advised Horn to stay in his home when he called to report that his neighbor’s house was being robbed. A newspaper published part of Horn’s 911 call:
“I’ve got a shotgun,” Horn told the dispatcher straightaway. “Do you want me to stop them?”
“Nope, don’t do that,” the dispatcher replied. “No property worth shootin’ somebody over, OK?”
“But if I go out there to see what the hell’s going on, what choice am I going to have?” “The laws have been changed…since September the first, and I have a right to protect myself,” Horn said. “I ain’t gonna let them get away with this shit. I’m sorry, this ain’t right, buddy … They got a bag of loot … Here it goes buddy, you hear the shotgun clicking and I’m going.”
Horn ultimately left his house, confronted the two men, and shot and killed them both. He was never arrested for killing these two men.
For shooters like Horn , it appears that the change in the self-defense laws isn’t about self-protection at all. It appears to be about violence and extra-judicial punishment. Shooters like Horn claim they are defending themselves, but in actuality, they are seeking out confrontation in order to take lethal violence and vengeance on other people.
Stand Your Ground laws encourage violent armed vigilantism and loosen our society’s norms about violence. The homeowner whose case was seized upon in 2004 to justify the first of these laws foresaw these risks: in 2005, he hesitantly told a reporter that he was “kinda in favor” of Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, but that he “can see some pitfalls if you make it too loose.”
A pitfall is a hidden or unsuspected danger. Stand Your Ground laws have spawned a legacy of pitfalls. Pitfalls that value property over human life, and too often lead to the unjustified murder of children for youthful behavior and mistakes. Pitfalls that disproportionately affect people of color. Pitfalls where shooters believe the law is on their side when they kill people over parking disputes, music, or simply for knocking on a door to ask for help.