White Paper: Stand Your Ground Laws

By: GVP Admin | Posted on: Categories Stand Your Ground

  •  A majority of states now have some form of Stand Your Ground Law
  • The most consistent finding of academic studies is that Stand Your Ground laws increase homicides
  • The overwhelming majority of academic studies find no deterrence effect on crime.
  • Stand Your Ground laws exacerbate racial discrepancies in whether a homicide is considered justifiable.
  • Most defendants in Stand Your Ground cases had previous criminal records, and many had been previously accused of violent crimes.
  • Most defendants could have safely retreated from the conflict without utilizing lethal force.

 

Thirty-five states have adopted some form of “Stand Your Ground” laws (whether through legislation, statutes, or court decisions), which allow a person to utilize deadly force in self-defense, even if the person could have safely retreated to avoid the conflict.

Proponents of the law opine that a duty to retreat is “potentially confusing” and prevents law-abiding individuals from taking decisive action when necessary to save themselves. Further, they argue that making it easier for civilians to defend themselves should deter criminals and lead to a reduction in crime.

Critics claim that the law creates “shoot first” situations that enable vigilantism and allow defendants to avoid prosecution for what would otherwise be classified as murder. Under this hypothesis, critics would expect to see an increase in homicide rates, as well as other crimes and gun-related deaths due to a resulting increase in firearm availability.

Utah was the first state to legislatively adopt the law in 1994. Florida was next in 2005. From 2005-2011 25 more states followed suit. No state had enacted a SYG law from the time of Trayvon Martin’s murder in February 2012 until 2016, when Missouri legislators overrode Governor Jay Nixon’s veto to do so. Missouri followed in 2016. In 2017, Florida attempted to expand on its Stand Your Ground law by requiring prosecutors to prove before a trial that the defendant is not immune from prosecution under the statute, but this expansion was struck down in court.

GVPedia has identified 10 academic studies that have examined the impact of Stand Your Ground (SYG) laws:

  • A 2012 study by Cheng and Hoekstra found that “castle doctrine” and SYG laws from 2000-2010 increased homicide by 8%, and the best available evidence indicated this increase was not entirely driven by more justifiable homicides.
  • A 2012 study by Ren, Zhang, and Zhao examined burglary data from Dallas and Houston following the implementation of Texas’ SYG law and a shooting in Houston that highlighted the law. They found that there was no effect on burglaries after the passage of the law, but a decrease in burglaries only in Houston following the publicized shooting, indicating at most a weak deterrent effect from the law.
  • A 2013 study by Lee, et al. analyzed both SYG and CAP laws, finding that SYG laws were associated with an increase in unintentional pediatric firearm injuries (the study found no effect from CAP laws).
  • A 2013 study by Chamlin indicated that Arizona’s SYG law was associated with an increase in all forms of robbery, and an increase in suicide. Both of these results are likely due to the increase in gun availability (which other studies have linked to an increase in suicide rates and burglary rates).
  • A 2015 study by Chamlin of Oklahoma’s “castle doctrine” law found evidence that it did reduce residential burglaries, but this decrease was offset by an increase in non-residential burglary.
  • A 2016 study by McClellan and Tekin found that across the US, SYG laws resulted in an additional 30 homicides per month, and also likely increased firearm injuries.
  • A 2016 study by Gius found mixed results, with SYG laws associated with an increase in all crime categories except for gun-related homicide from 1980-2011. From 1995-2011, SYG is only associated with an increase in rape. None of the results from the study indicated any deterrent effect from the law.
  • A 2017 study by Humphreys, Gasparrini, and Wiebe on Florida’s SYG law found it was associated with an abrupt and sustained increase in the monthly firearm homicide rate of 31.6%, and a 24.4% increase in the overall monthly homicide rate. The study found no impact on firearm or overall suicides.
  • A 2017 follow-up study by Humphreys, Gasparrini, and Wiebe separated unlawful and justified homicides in response to critiques that suggested an increase in justified homicides may be the law working as intended (i.e. helping people legitimately defend themselves). They found a 75% increase in justifiable homicides and a 21.7% increase in unlawful homicides.
  • A 2018 study by Crifasi et al. that examined SYG laws (along with several others) found that they were associated with a 7% increase in firearm homicide.

Overall, one (Rehn, et al.) study found a small beneficial effect from SYG laws, two (Gius, Humphreys et al.) found mixed effects (with the Gius study finding mostly harmful outcomes), and seven found deleterious effects. The most consistent negative effect across the studies was an increase in homicides (both “justified” and unlawful). Aside from one study, there was no trace of an overall deterrence effect that backers of SYG hypothesized.

A 2013 report by Roman for the Urban Institute analyzed racial discrepancies in the determination of justifiable homicide and the application of SYG laws. The analysis found that: “With respect to race, controlling for all other case attributes, the odds a white-on-black homicide is found justified is 281 percent greater than the odds a white-on-white homicide is found justified. By contrast, a black-on-white homicide has barely half the odds of being ruled justifiable relative to white-on-white homicides. Statistically, black-on-black homicides have the same odds of being ruled justifiable as white-on-white homicides.” The report also found that “Being in a SYG state increases the odds of a justifiable finding by 65 percent” and that the racial disparity in justifiable findings is significantly increased in SYG states.

An in-depth 2012 Tampa Bay Times investigation of Florida’s Stand Your Ground Law revealed that defendants who invoked self-defense after shooting a black person were more likely to go free than those who shot a white person. Further, as the Times reported, the SYG law was used “to free gang members involved in shootouts, drug dealers beefing with clients and people who shot their victims in the back.”

Of the more than 100 fatal SYG cases the Times analyzed, 60% of those invoking the SYG defense had been arrested previously, and more than 30% had been previously accused of violent crimes. A large majority of the victims were unarmed, most victims were not committing a crime before the incident was initiated, and most of the defendants could have retreated to avoid the conflict.

Regardless of whether the level of analysis is an academic study or in-depth empirical case-by-case investigation, the results decisively indicate SYG laws are either impotent or harmful, with a significant majority of the evidence showing the latter.