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What are stand-your-ground laws, and should they be considered in 2023? What effect do stand-your-ground laws have on crime?
Despite recent cases of homeowners shooting people who mistakenly approached their homes, Republicans are pushing for a national stand-your-ground law. This law would allow people who feel threatened to use deadly force.
Below, we’ll look at the effect of such laws, already established in more than 30 states, on society and on crime rates.
The Debate Over Stand-Your-Ground Is Renewed
In two recent events, homeowners have shot people who approached their homes mistakenly, renewing the debate over stand-your-ground laws, which allow people to use deadly force.
In Missouri, Ralph Yarl, 16, was shot by 84-year-old Andrew Lester, when he mistakenly went to Lester’s door thinking it was the address where his younger siblings were waiting to be picked up. Two days later in New York, Kaylin Gillis, 20, was fatally shot by 65-year-old Kevin Monahan after she and a group of friends mistakenly drove up his driveway while looking for another friend’s house. In both cases, the victim was unarmed and posed no threat to the homeowner.
Some say stand-your-ground laws can contribute to the deaths of innocent people by allowing the use of deadly force in any situation in which an individual feels threatened. Yet in the wake of these incidents, Republican lawmakers have introduced a bill to institute a federal stand-your-ground law, arguing that these laws empower people to defend themselves.
What Is a Stand-Your-Ground Law?
So, what are stand-your-ground laws? Stand-your-ground laws permit individuals to use deadly force to defend themselves without any duty to retreat from a perceived threat, even when retreat is possible. In states that don’t have such laws, an individual must attempt to retreat from a threatening situation before using force if it’s possible to do so safely. In these states, if the threatened individual has a reasonably safe means of escape and doesn’t take it, they can’t legally claim self-defense for any use of force.
Stand-your-ground laws are expansions of what is known as the “castle doctrine,” a common law principle that says individuals have the right to use lethal force to protect themselves against an intruder on their property (i.e. to defend their “castle”).
The specific provisions of these laws have evolved over time and vary from state to state. Currently, 38 states have stand-your-ground laws or have expanded the castle doctrine to apply beyond the home, with Florida being the first state to adopt a stand-your-ground law in 2005.
How Do We Determine What’s Reasonable?
The recent shootings of Yarl and Gillis are still under investigation, so it’s unknown whether stand-your-ground or castle doctrine defenses will be successfully argued in these cases. But Yarl’s case raises some of the same issues that were at the forefront of the most prominent stand-your-ground case—the 2012 shooting of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman.
In both of these cases, a Black teenage boy was shot because he was perceived as threatening, although he did not explicitly provoke or threaten the shooter. So, a challenge with these laws is that they can be applied in a subjective and discriminatory manner. In other words, a jury may be more likely to find it “reasonable” that a white person felt threatened by a Black man approaching his home, or simply walking down the street.
What Effect Do Stand-Your-Ground Laws Have on Crime?
While it may seem like stand-your-ground laws would deter crime, these laws have been linked to higher rates of homicides in some states where they exist. A study by the RAND Corporation found that stand-your-ground laws are associated with an increase in total homicide rates and firearm homicide rates.
A 2021 article published in the American Journal of Public Health reinforces these conclusions. This research examined 25 different studies on the impact of stand-your-ground laws, and concluded that “expanding people’s right to use deadly force has not reduced crime on average across the United States.” On the contrary, they found that in some states, most notably Florida, this law has been associated with increases in homicide rates; critics argue that this is because they encourage people to use deadly force without even trying to remove themselves from, or de-escalate, a conflict.
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