Stand Your Ground - A Psychological Inquiry

Does the stand your ground law really make us safer?

Posted Apr 20, 2012

"Do not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block in front of the blind…” Leviticus 19:14

The Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case is making headlines. An unarmed boy is killed. The killer is a man who claims to have responded to a threat. Plus, a law supports a potentially lethal defense, if a person “reasonably” believes that they are in imminent danger. Then there are other factors: race, ethnicity, fear, alienation and guns. Tragic is a poor word for this real life horror. Blame abounds – and nothing can bring this poor young man back. The gun lobby has a point of view. The prosecutor has a point of view. The family has their terrible grief to deal with. And, we may never know the whole truth of what happenned that fateful evening.

But, we all ask why such things can happen in our blessed country. 

My inquiry involves the lawmakers, who structure the safeguards in our society and a law called: Stand Your Ground. Did they properly think this law through, including the possible unintended consequences? 

In legislation, it’s important to strike a balance between explicitness and flexibility. A law that is not flexible can lose its value as time and circumstance change. Our founding fathers were aware of this, and deliberately made our constitution a living, breathing, collection of principles that could be adapted to suit societies changing needs. A law that is too ambiguous can be just as cumbersome - and in certain situations, dangerous. 

The State of Florida instituted such a law in 2005 The Stand Your Ground law as it is now famously known was intended to give people the right to protect themselves if their lives are in danger. According to the law, deadly force against an identified individual can only be used if “the person reasonably believes that he or she is in imminent danger of death or great bodily harm and that he or she has exhausted every reasonable means to escape such danger.”

The law was supposed to be used in situations where force was necessary to save a life. People have traditionally been safe to protect their home from intruders with deadly force; Stand Your Ground extended that right to boundaries outside one’s house or apartment. 

The rub here is psychological (and perhaps, Biblical); and not legal. 

Imminent danger is in the eyes of the beholder. The problem arises, as we have seen, when individuals are asked to determine whether or not something was justifiable. A stimulus – like a young person of color in a hoodie – can lead a few to be “reasonably” fearful (in their own minds). To most people this same person is simply a young man in a hoodie – and no more.  One’s sense of safety  is relative. Some may feel threatened by the mere presence of another human being, late at night, while, others will not be threatened unless they are actively being assaulted. 

We have, in the past discussed emotional triggers, and how they can radically affect a normal person's behavior and turn him or her into a dangerous person. 

The problem with Stand Your Ground lies in the term “reasonably believes”. This is a starkly subjective notion that will vary drastically from person to person. We are all triggered by different stimuli. Some people have been traumatized and get easily triggered. They see danger, because they have seen it before. Do we want a gun to be in the hands of a person who is easily triggered while operating in a legal system that sanctions deadly force if a high level of danger is perceived?

“Do not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block in front of the blind…” 

Such laws presuppose that humans are more or less rational creatures, and therefore they will come to rational decisions regarding what constitutes a threat to life, and a reasonable response. Alas, the human brain does not operate in a world of pure logic. Humans have histories and emotions; we harbor unconscious biases and get triggered because of them. These things make us, well – human.

Everyone’s sense of danger is different. Something that may set off alarm for one person may just seem par for the course to another. And keep in mind that many violent perpetrators have been abused in the past. A person with this kind of history is likely to be triggered more easily than is normal.

Here is a simple example: If someone was hit by a parent during childhood, that person may as an adult react to someone raising their arm in a way that resembles their parents arm motion. In context, obviously raising one’s arm to brush back hair or put on a hat is not a threat, but a person who has been hit may experience it as a threat - deep down in their neurology. Adrenaline will be released, their heart will race, and he or she will have a heightened sensory awareness. 

Fight or flight kicks in; and yet nothing of note has happened. This person may truly experience the feeling of being threatened, even when no actual threat is present. Now think about this relatively benign example taken to its more malignant extreme. Imagine if you are alone at night, feeling threatened and carrying a firearm. Once again, did the lawmakers really think this through?

While we certainly don’t have all the facts yet, the Treyvon Martin case brings us these fears. A law can protect. But some laws can be dangerous. Here the problem is the lack of appreciation about human psychology. Stand Your Ground offers apparent protection from legitimate danger, but it opens the door for trouble as well. 

In the end, there are many factors that can contribute to the unintended misuse of this law. Many will blame the fact that there’s now a lower barrier to the use of deadly force; while others will point to the violence found in our country and the need for citizens to protect themselves. Ultimately it's up to legislators to pass laws thoughtfully - and with the best interest of all people in mind. 

The author of the Leviticus 19:14 understood human psychology quite well. And this law may well be a stumbling block for someone who easily misperceives danger for whatever reason – and there are many.

There must be a better way to protect ourselves.