Do Stand Your Ground Laws Incentivize Killing?

Since the shooting of Trayvon Martin, there has been increased criticism over Stand Your Ground laws in the United States. One of the biggest problems has been racial bias. Following the Zimmerman trial, Marissa Alexander was denied a Stand Your Ground defense after firing a warning shot at her husband, who is alleged to have history of abuse, and was sentenced to 20 years. Zimmerman was acquitted in part because of the same defense, after killing an unarmed teenager.  

But what if there was more at work here? While some early studies suggest there is a racial bias to the laws, another important difference is a lot simpler: Someone was killed in Zimmerman case, whereas in the Alexander case, someone was only threatened.  

One of the most pernicious aspects of the Stand Your Ground law in Florida is that it authorizes “meet[ing] force with force, including deadly force” in response to a threat. Likewise, not only is there not any requirement to stop a situation from escalating, but it also exempts any such measures by saying the person using a Stand Your Ground defense “has no duty to retreat” or attempt to leave the situation.   

What this means is that someone would have to actually use force, up to and including killing someone, for the defense to be viable in court. This creates a perverse incentive to kill and injure during a possibly dangerous situation — the exact opposite of self-defense.

Studies have suggested this as well. Texas A&M found that during the time most states adopted Stand Your Ground laws, it actually increased their rates of homicide and manslaughter. They wrote, "We find significant evidence that the laws increase homicides. Suggestive but inconclusive evidence indicates that castle doctrine laws increase the narrowly defined category of justifiable homicides by private citizens by 17 to 50%, which translates into as many as 50 additional justifiable homicides per year nationally due to castle doctrine. More significantly, we find the laws increase murder and manslaughter by a statistically significant 7 to 9%, which translates into an additional 500 to 700 homicides per year nationally across the states that adopted castle doctrine."

Another study (yet to be peer-reviewed) also suggests that there is an increase in homicide, this time especially among white men.

It is important to remember that behind the statistics are real people. The fact that the law leads to hundreds of homicides per year is a serious cause for concern. Put simply, Stand Your Ground laws do not just "try to fix something that was never broken” as the attorney general recently put it. They make things worse.

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Dan Gamarnik

Dan is currently an undergraduate studying political science at Penn State University. He's pretty solid when it comes to politics and movies, with a research interest in US and international political systems.

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