Over the last decade, "stand your ground"-style laws have fundamentally redefined the concept of self-defense and justifiable homicide in the United States. Only now are Americans beginning to understand how these laws threaten community safety and cohesion. On paper, "stand your ground" laws give individuals the right to use deadly force to defend themselves without any requirement to retreat from a threat – either real or perceived.
George Zimmerman took this concept to its logical conclusion last year when he notoriously stalked unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in his gated Florida community. Zimmerman approached Martin, shot him in the heart and yet won an acquittal after arguing the teenager's attempt to fight back made him fear for his life. The fact is that Zimmerman never needed to claim "stand your ground" as a defense because Florida's "stand your ground" law had already redefined self-defense in the state: Whoever lives to walk away, wins. It's the law of the Wild West.
Originally promoted as an expansion of "castle doctrine" laws – which allow the use of deadly force without a duty to retreat against invaders in one's own home – "stand your ground" operates under the assumption that the whole world is one's castle and everyone is a potential invader. It doesn't take much imagination to figure out how this can drive community safety off the rails, and it has.
A recent Texas A&M University study took a look at crime in more than 20 states that passed some version of "stand your ground"-type laws from 2000 to 2010. Researchers found no decrease in crimes like robbery, burglary and aggravated assault, but they did find an 8 percent spike in reported murders and non-negligent manslaughter.
Yet while "stand your ground" statutes have allowed hundreds of admitted killers to walk free, the race of the victim plays a major factor in who is acquitted. Another study, published last year by the Urban Institute, found that when white shooters kill black victims, nearly 36 percent of the resulting homicides are deemed justifiable, yet when black shooters kill white victims, only 3 percent were ruled justifiable. An investigation by the Tampa Bay Times found that in Florida, defendants claiming "stand your ground" are far more successful if the victim is black. The paper found that 73 percent of those who killed a black person walked free, versus 59 percent of those who killed a white person.
"Stand your ground" laws allow the perpetrator's perception of fear to determine whether or not deadly force is considered justifiable in the eyes of a jury. In most cases, the only evidence they have to evaluate is the word of the person who survives. Once you trade empirical evidence for subjective feelings like trust and empathy, you immediately inject potential bias into a decision.
Last week, Attorney General Eric Holder addressed these issues in Orlando, Fla., telling the audience, "It's time to question laws that senselessly expand the concept of self-defense and sow dangerous conflict in our neighborhoods." His sentiments have been seconded by both President Obama and Republican Sen. John McCain.
The doctrine of self-defense was never intended to protect individuals who stalk or pursue victims and then resort to deadly force when their victims fight back. Chaos is not the goal of justice. All communities will be safer and stronger when "stand your ground" laws are removed from the books.
Benjamin Todd Jealous is president and chief executive officer of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
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