What's Wrong With Stand Your Ground Laws?

These laws encourage shooting first, asking questions later.

Posted Feb 27, 2021

 Pope Moysuh/Unsplash
Source: Pope Moysuh/Unsplash

On this day nine years ago, Trayvon Martin was shot and killed while returning home from a convenience store. Among the reasons his killer was acquitted is Florida's stand-your-ground law, which encourages a "shoot first, ask questions later" approach.

Stand-your-ground laws are supposed to protect the right of individuals to use lethal force in self-defense, not only in the home but also in any place they are legally allowed to be. They are also intended to allow individuals to use such force in defense of their property. The standard for the right to use such force is “when one experiences what a ‘reasonable person’ would consider a threat, even if the person could safely retreat from the perceived danger.”[1] It is not always clear when one is truly in danger. Many people fear others, but the fear of others and the belief that one’s life is at risk are often unreasonable. Some critics argue that merely feeling threatened can be enough for justifying lethal actions under these laws. This is an unreasonable, incomplete, and often unjust standard.

The Florida stand-your-ground law, which focuses on belief rather than feeling, is one example of this:

A person is justified in using or threatening to use deadly force if he or she reasonably believes that using or threatening to use such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the imminent commission of a forcible felony. A person who uses or threatens to use deadly force in accordance with this subsection does not have a duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground if the person using or threatening to use the deadly force is not engaged in a criminal activity and is in a place where he or she has a right to be.[2]

But an important problem arises here, even if we focus on a reasonable belief standard. The presumed reasonableness of perceptions of danger is often the product of bias or prejudice, including racial bias or prejudice. Whites who kill Blacks are 11 times more likely to be found innocent of a crime in states with stand-your-ground laws than Blacks who kill whites. The rationalizations for the killings of Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis—and we can add Philando Castile, Stephon Clark, and Walter Scott—reveal “a common thread: our legal structures and agents deemed it reasonable to perceive (unarmed) Black people as threatening.”[3]

It is sometimes difficult to ascertain what really happened in such instances, and whether the person standing his or her ground was acting reasonably. This is because in many cases the only other eyewitness is dead. As Ta-Nehisi Coates observes,

What we have in Florida—and doubtlessly in other parts of the country—is the state relinquishing a crucial aspect of meting out justice. The logic here militates toward getting a gun—even for people who don’t like guns. The logic incentivizes an armed citizenry where the beneficiary of justice is simply the last man standing. Your side of the story is irrelevant if you are dead.[4]

Of course, not all people are at the mercy of racial bias and prejudice in these situations. Many within the judicial, legal, and law enforcement communities do not deem “it reasonable to perceive (unarmed) Black people as threatening.” Nevertheless, it is clear that widespread problems exist, and that stand-your-ground laws are susceptible to and are in part born out of prejudice. This means that many people are not using firearms as a true last resort. This is a moral failure, a failure to fulfill their responsibilities in this realm of life. 

The law should seek to limit violence, only allowing it as a last resort. Among their many problems, stand-your-ground laws fail this test. 

References

[1]. Caroline Light, Stand Your Ground: A History of America’s Love Affair with Lethal Self-Defense (Boston: Beacon, 2017), 8.

[2]. “The 2018 Florida Statutes,” Sunshine Online, accessed July 23, 2019, http://www.leg.state.fl.us/Statutes/index.cfm?App_mode=Display_Statute&URL=0700-0799/0776/0776.html.

[3]. Light, Stand Your Ground, 10, 16.

[4]. Ta-Nehisi Coates, “Stand Your Ground and Vigilante Justice,” Atlantic, March 22, 2012, http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2012/03/stand-your-ground-and-vigilante-justice/254900/.

Most of this is adapted from God and Guns in America (Eerdmans, 2020).