The case against “stand your ground” laws

A crowd of people outside on a sunny day, with a man in the center holding a sign with facts about gun violence.
Community members gathered to attend a rally for Ralph Yarl in front of the federal courthouse in Kansas City, on April 18. | Emily Curiel/Kansas City Star/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Studies show such policies lead to more violence. This week’s shootings fuel those concerns.

In the last week, there’s been a disturbing trend of shootings involving people who were shot when they accidentally went to the wrong house or got into the wrong car.

Some of these shootings took place in states with so-called “stand your ground” laws, which offer expansive legal protections for people who use deadly force against others out of self-defense. That the shootings happened in these states is unsurprising; researchers have found the proliferation of such laws is directly tied to an increase in gun violence, and experts have noted that the laws can bolster a “shoot first, ask later” mentality.

That mentality appears to be a factor in at least two recent shootings; in both, the shooter claimed that they shot the person out of fear for their own safety.

In Kansas City, Missouri, 16-year-old Ralph Yarl, a Black boy, was shot by Andrew Lester, an 84-year-old white man, when Yarl rang the doorbell of the wrong home. Lester said that he was “scared to death” when he saw the teenager at his door.

And in Hebron, New York, 20-year old Kaylin Gillis was shot and killed by 65-year-old Kevin Monahan after she and her friends pulled into the wrong driveway while looking for a party. Monahan’s attorney said the presence of the vehicle and alleged other vehicles on his property created “an atmosphere and a fear that there was menace going on.” In both instances, prosecutors have filed felony charges against the shooters, and stated that there was no threat posed to them that warranted such violence.

It’s less clear what happened in two other cases. In Elgin, Texas, 18-year-old Payton Washington and a friend were shot by 25-year-old Pedro Tello Rodriguez Jr., when one of them got into the wrong car in a grocery store parking lot. Rodriguez allegedly approached Washington and her friends’ vehicle after they had already realized their mistake and fired off multiple shots. In Charlotte, North Carolina, a 6-year-old girl and her father were shot by 24-year-old Robert Louis Singletary when a basketball rolled into his yard and a group of kids went to fetch it.

These incidents are all concerningly similar, and have raised new scrutiny of gun access as well as stand your ground laws. Under such laws — which exist in some form in 38 states — people can use lethal force if they reasonably believe their life is under threat, and they don’t have to take steps to retreat or avoid the confrontation first. That’s a stark change from prior laws, which required that people try to prevent deadly violence and use lethal force only as a last resort.

In the past, the “castle doctrine,” which has been adopted by most states, allowed people to use deadly force if a person entered their home. Stand your ground laws take that idea one step further, with some making such allowances no matter where a person is, whether that’s a public place, their vehicle or their office.

Missouri, North Carolina, and Texas all have a stand your ground law, while New York does not, though it does have a version of the castle doctrine.

According to one study from Oxford University researcher Michelle Degli Esposti, stand your ground laws are linked at the national level to an 8 to 11 percent increase in homicides per month, and to about 700 homicides per year. An analysis by gun control advocacy group Coalition to Stop Gun Violence also found the laws are applied unevenly: they are more likely to be used as a successful defense in homicides involving a white shooter compared to a Black shooter, and that’s especially the case when the shooter is white and the victim is Black. Experts note that it’s tough to draw a causal connection between stand your ground laws and the recent incidents, but told Vox that these laws have helped normalize people’s use of lethal violence.

“​​To some extent, these laws make people feel entitled to the use of violence in situations that absolutely do not call for violence,” says Rutgers professor and gun control expert Daniel Semanza. “When people are fearful … and they have easy access to a firearm, these laws can give permission for folks to act violently when it does not make any sense to do so.”

The relationship between stand your ground laws and gun violence

Stand your ground laws were first passed in Florida in 2005, after a man was investigated, but not prosecuted, for shooting a FEMA employee who entered his trailer. Since then, they’ve spread to more than 20 other states. Those who support stand your ground laws argue that they merely strengthen the right for people to defend themselves. Coupled with the rise of gun purchases and deregulation of guns in many states, however, they’ve been associated with an increase in homicides, and made it easier for people to turn quickly to lethal violence.

“There have been many studies showing that passage of stand your ground Laws have led to significant increases in homicides in which firearms are used,” says Daniel Webster, a public health professor who studies gun violence at Johns Hopkins University.

Degli Esposti’s study looked at 23 states that had implemented stand your ground laws by 2016, and found an increase in homicides across the board, but especially in the Southeast. In states in that region, she found a surge of 20 to 30 percent per month.

“The study finds the enactment of stand your ground laws led to an overall increase in homicide and firearm homicide across the US,” it notes, with particularly high upticks in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and Louisiana.

Other studies, including a 2017 review published in JAMA, found a 75 percent uptick in legally justifiable homicides in Florida after the implementation of the state’s stand your ground law. And a Tampa Bay Times study examining 200 stand your ground cases in Florida determined that in 79 percent of cases, the person defending themselves had the ability to retreat.

“Research consistently shows that, in most contexts, the laws are leading to unnecessary and avoidable loss of life,” Degli Esposti has said. Police have said investigators are looking into whether Missouri’s stand your ground law offers protections for Lester’s actions. But legal experts say this defense would be very difficult to prove, since Yarl’s actions do not reasonably suggest a threat to the homeowner.

Another troubling aspect of stand your ground laws is that they’ve exacerbated racial disparities in the criminal justice system, and appear more likely to be a successful defense in cases when the shooter is white. According to a 2013 Urban Institute analysis, 17 percent of homicides involving a white shooter and a Black victim were ruled justified in states with stand your ground laws, while 1 percent of homicides involving a Black shooter and a white victim were ruled justified in those same states.

High-profile cases involving Black victims have also drawn attention to the use of this defense. In the shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in 2012, the jury was told about Florida’s stand your ground law when they reviewed the case of the shooter, George Zimmerman. He was later acquitted.

“White people who shoot Black and brown people, especially if they’re male, are more likely to escape criminal prosecution, if they claim they were in fear of their lives,” says Caroline Light, a historian at Harvard and the author of a book examining stand your ground laws. Light adds that these laws have often failed to be an effective defense for women, including in cases of domestic violence.

“They sound like they apply to everyone, but when you look at the data they are absolutely selective in their adjudication,” says Light.

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