'Stand your ground' loses ground

As defendant George Zimmerman tries to raise a $1 million bond in the case of the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, a new study suggests that ‘stand your ground’ laws aren’t a deterrent to crime and increase homicides.

George Zimmerman (c.) appears, along with his attorney Mark O'Mara (r.), in front of Circuit Judge Kenneth R. Lester June 29 for a bond hearing. Mr. Zimmerman faces trial for the murder of Trayvon Martin, a case that has provoked a discussion of state 'stand your ground' laws on the use of guns for self-defense.

The fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman in Sanford, Fla., last February has brought a national debate about whether the incident had racial overtones as well as whether it represented a reasonable use of a firearm in self-defense.

Mr. Zimmerman is trying to raise money for a $1 million bond so that he can be released from jail while he awaits a trial for the murder of Trayvon.

The question of whether his attitudes on race affected his decisionmaking that night may never be settled. But as the months tick by it should be possible to use empirical research to determine if state laws in places such as Florida that permit citizens to “stand your ground” and use deadly force, such as a gun, in self-defense are actually deterring crime or lessening violence.

A recent study suggests they do neither.

Going back hundreds of years English common law, which underlies much of US law, has recognized a “duty to retreat” first before using deadly force to counter an attacker. The exception has been the “castle doctrine,” where an intruder in one’s home (castle) may be countered immediately with lethal force. Since 2005 Florida and 20 other states have enacted laws based on a more provocative “stand your ground” principle, sometimes extending the “castle doctrine” to include specific places outside one’s home.

But a study of reported crimes in these states released in late June found that the prospect of facing more aggressive self-defense from potential victims does not deter criminals engaged in burglary, robbery, or aggravated assault.

In addition, say the authors from Texas A&M University, “we find significant evidence that the laws lead to more homicides. Estimates indicate that the laws increase homicides by a statistically significant 8 percent, which translates into an additional 600 homicides per year across states that adopted [the] castle doctrine.”

The study uses state crime data from 2000 to 2010 reported in the FBI Uniform Crime Reports. 

These findings concur with the personal experiences of former Monitor columnist Walter Rodgers, who spent decades in war zones around the world. He had loaded guns pointed at his head more than once and observed gun violence firsthand. “Stand Your Ground laws are perilous,” he said in an April column. “They get people killed, because they substitute impulse for intelligent thought.”

Do we want a society where more and more citizens resort to guns to deal with threats? “Mexico, Colombia, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Gaza, and the West Bank are awash in guns,” Mr. Rodgers adds. “Their societies are not ones that Americans should emulate.”

The long-accepted “duty to retreat” standard allows time and opportunity for violence to be avoided. “Stand your ground” may demand a split-second decision that even trained law enforcement officers find challenging, and invites tragedy.

As the Zimmerman trial plays out over the coming months, and as “stand your ground” or “castle doctrine” laws continue to build track records in states, legislatures should weigh whether these laws have had the intended effects. Americans can do better than encourage the visceral response of meeting violence with violence.

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