Racial bias and 'stand your ground' laws: what the data show
Data from states with 'stand your ground' laws raise questions about how notions of self-defense are evolving and whether, under such laws, race-based fears are more likely to influence juries.
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This comes at a time when concealed-carry gun laws are being expanded, meaning the success or failure of stand-your-ground laws will depend on "whether [people believe] guns produce a net social benefit or not," says Brannon Denning, a law professor at Samford University in Birmingham, Ala., and author of "Gun Control and Gun Rights: A Reader and Guide."Skip to next paragraph
Critics say the laws upset a basic social order by, in essence, deputizing citizens. Not only does that raise the risk of minor disputes and misunderstandings becoming deadly incidents, but it also provides some legal cover for Americans to take deadly action based on their own subjective, and possibly racially tinged, views.
The Zimmerman verdict fit into a long narrative of juries refusing to convict white vigilantes on serious charges – from Bernhard Goetz in 1987 to the police in the first Rodney King trial in 1992 – for violence against black men. But a study by John Roman of the Urban Institute suggests that stand-your-ground laws could be amplifying the trend.
In states with stand-your-ground laws, the shooting of a black person by a white person is found justifiable 17 percent of the time, while the shooting of a white person by a black person is deemed justifiable just over 1 percent of the time, according to the study. In states without stand-your-ground laws, white-on-black shootings are found justified just over 9 percent of the time.
Such findings "show that it's just harder for black defendants to assert stand-your-ground defense if the victim is white, and easier for whites to raise a stand-your-ground defense if the victims are black," says Darren Hutchinson, a law professor and civil rights law expert at the University of Florida in Gainesville. "The bottom line is that it's really easy for juries to accept that whites had to defend themselves against persons of color."
The potential reasons behind this are multilayered.
On one hand, young black men are disproportionately involved in violent crime. While blacks represent 12 percent of the US population, they make up 55 percent of its homicide victims, the vast majority of those perpetrated by other blacks.
Gun control has yet to have a clear effect on the situation. Violent turf wars in Chicago have sent the murder rate soaring even though the city has some of the strictest gun controls in the entire country.
An investigative report by the Tampa Bay Times last year added more nuance to the issue of stand your ground. It analyzed 200 stand-your-ground cases in Florida and found that defendants who killed a black person were found not guilty 73 percent of the time, while those who killed a white person were found not guilty 59 percent of the time.
The paper noted that the discrepancy was due in part to the fact that black shooting victims were more likely to be armed and in the process of committing a crime when shot. In the 11 cases that involved whites killing blacks or blacks killing whites, no discrepancy in conviction rates was apparent – four of five blacks who shot and killed a white person escaped punishment while five of six whites who killed a black person escaped punishment.
"What's going on [with protests against stand your ground] is just politics," says Clayton Cramer, a gun rights historian in Horseshoe Bend, Idaho. "The real tragedy in America is not racism, but something that's gone terribly wrong within the black community."