If you’re interested in reducing violent crime, homicides, or racial bias, you should repeal Stand Your Ground laws, according to new recommendations from an American Bar Association Task Force. In a diplomatic fashion, the 62-page preliminary report hedges from calling for the outright repeal of the controversial “shoot first” provisions, but instead suggests that the laws are a “solution searching for a problem,” that they are associated with increased homicide rates and reinforce racial bias, and that any state concerned with these problems should probably do something about it.
“The application of Stand Your Ground laws is unpredictable, uneven, and results in racial disparities,” concludes the report in an assessment of the NRA-backed laws that authorize the use of deadly force in self-defense without any duty to first attempt to retreat. The National Task Force on Stand Your Ground Laws finds that self-defense was more than adequate before, and that the introduction of “shoot first” laws that shift the emphasis to instinctual gunfire has done nothing to decrease violent crime rates. In fact, states that have these laws have seen increases in homicides, and have seen a rash of troubling, racially biased anecdotes emerge, according to several studies compiled in the report.
“We’ve heard nothing good about stand-your-ground laws,” said task force co-chair Jack Middleton. “In fact, the more you look at them, the more problems you find. It’s our hope that the ABA as a whole will take a position against these laws.”
One law professor and former military officer testified that Stand Your Ground laws create a standard more lenient than what the one members of the military follow when they are deployed.
“It is troubling that under Stand Your Ground, there are less restrictions imposed on U.S. service members using deadly force when they return to the United States than when they are deployed in a combat environment,” testified Christopher Jenks, an assistant professor of law at Southern Methodist University and director of the school’s Criminal Justice Clinic.
Testimony from several psychology academics also noted alarming racial biases that show how whites’ perception of threat may be skewed when faced with African Americans, and that the resulting “fear” can result in deadly outcomes when there is no legal check to “constrain the use of force.” In one study, “simply exposing a person to a black face facilitated that person’s ability to see weapons, regardless of the person’s prejudice level,” the Task Force report explained. Another concluded that “people were quicker to shoot black men with guns than white men with guns, and if there existed any doubt, would shoot a black person with no gun over a white man with no gun.”
Texas lawmaker F. Garnett Colemen testified that these perceptions about African Americans were what drove his opposition to Texas’ Stand Your Ground law. “[W]hen the Senate bill passed in 2007, there were 13 of us who voted no on the floor of the House on that bill, and the reason we voted no is because all of us … understood that that would mean that if you were of color that you’d be a target,” he testified. “And how did we know that? Because we were of color. And we know that we had been targets in the past.”
Another professor also provided personal experience along with his testimony on his research. University of California, Berkeley’s john powell (who does not capitalize his name) recalled that he decided not to give his son a cell phone when he turned 15 for fear that police might mistake it for a gun. “[I]n that year when he was about 15 years old. . . there had been a number of killings of young black men when police stopped them in cars,” he testified. “And a number of times the police wrongly assumed when they were picking up their cell phone that they actually had a gun. During that same period, there had not been one killing of a white young man making that mistake.” He said he told his son at the time, “[Y]ou’re black in American. There’s an assumption, a perception, a deadly perception that you’ve done something wrong.”
At every stage of Stand Your Ground cases, the law affects behavior, found the task force whose members include several prosecutors, defense lawyers, and law professors. Individuals may be incentivized to fire shots when they believe they will be protected by the law. Prosecutors testified that they opted not to pursue even cases that they didn’t believe were protected by the law, because it would have been too difficult to prove their case. They also noted that in many cases the notion of having to try cases twice — once at a Stand Your Ground immunity hearing and again at trial — was a deterrent to pursuing these cases. And at the trial phase, jury instructions are confusing and misleading on Stand Your Ground law.
The report calls for a number of reforms short of outright repeal. It notes, however, that while several states have passed new Stand Your Ground measures, not a single one has succeeded in repealing one or even modifying it in a less expansive direction. Among the reforms are requiring that the perceived aggressor be visibly holding a gun, that laws be amended to permit civil lawsuits in Stand Your Ground cases, and that states be required to compile and track data on Stand Your Ground cases. It also that statutes adopt a standard of the “objectively reasonable person” for deciding when shootings are justified so that any subjectivity is eliminated. And it would bar individuals from using deadly force against someone who is already in retreat.
Just last week, prosecutors opted not to charge a man who killed a former friend in a Florida Wal-Mart parking lot, even though witnesses said the victim was walking away at the time of the shooting.
A new Florida law that actually expands Stand Your Ground immunity also includes a provision that makes Stand Your Ground cases secret, even after outrage over the laws stemmed from Trayvon Martin’s death and subsequent incidents in the state. The new law seals records when charges are dropped, and expunges records when defendants are granted immunity. The Tampa Bay Times warned before the law’s passage that it would never have been able to complete its comprehensive analysis of Stand Your Ground laws under the new provision. The ABA report relied substantially upon the findings of the newspaper’s analysis.