“Racial stereotypes are still part of American culture, and, by default, part of the American criminal justice system. Instead of being color-blind, an impossible exercise, the impact of race must be addressed head-on and become openly part of the legal critique. It must be discussed where necessary to amend laws that enable race, or the fear of race, to be a guise to harm the disfavored race. This is our task if we choose to accept it.” – Professor Tamara Lawson, “A Fresh Cut in an Old Wound–A Critical Analysis of the Trayvon Martin Killing,” August 2012
Trayvon Martin’s unjust death at the hands of a trigger-happy, self-described neighborhood watchman continues to shock and live on in our nation’s collective consciousness. And with the release of a recent study commissioned by the American Bar Association, it may also become the impetus behind the movement to abolish or scale back Stand Your Ground protections – protections that influenced the ultimate acquittal of Trayvon’s murderer and focused our attention on the dangerous confluence of race and criminal justice in America.
On the evening of Feb. 26, 2012, Trayvon became a tragic illustration of the glaring defects in Florida’s Stand Your Ground law. The 17-year-old, with no criminal record, was walking home from a store armed only with a bag of candy and a can of iced tea when he was confronted and then shot to death by George Zimmerman. Because of Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, Zimmerman was taken in for questioning but was later released on the grounds of self-defense. He would not be charged with murder by the police … that night.
According to the law, which Florida became the first state to adopt in 2005, people are authorized to use deadly force in cases of self-defense without the duty to retreat in the face of any perceived threat to their life or property. As long as you can claim that you are in fear for your life at any given point, the law hands you a license to kill at will. Rather than lower homicide or crime rates, this essentially free pass to commit criminal behavior that has only served to further endanger public safety – particularly the lives of people of color – and exploit the mistrust, animosity and racial injustice that color our daily interactions and justice at every level.
Trayvon’s murder served as the genesis of the ABA’s National Task Force on Stand Your Ground Laws. The task force has researched the impact of Stand Your Ground laws in the 33 states that carry some variation of the law, and their discoveries should give pause to all Americans committed to fair and balanced treatment within our criminal justice system. In a previous study by the Mayors Against Illegal Guns coalition in collaboration with the National Urban League and VoteVets, our data showed that in the 22 states that had enacted Stand Your Ground Laws between 2005 and 2007, the justifiable homicide rate by private citizens was 53 percent higher after the passage of the law. The study also found that in Florida alone, justifiable homicides jumped to 200 percent. A 2012 ABA report cited statistics compiled by researchers at Texas A&M that found that states with Stand Your Ground laws have more homicides than states without the statute. When you take into consideration the history of race in this country, the disproportionate impact of the law on African-Americans should come as no surprise. The task force’s research has also found that a white shooter who uses deadly force against a Black victim is 350 percent more likely to be found justified than a Black shooter who kills a white victim.
Because of the racial bias inherent in Stand Your Ground laws and the danger to the general public caused by this “shoot first, ask later” mentality, we need to do more than review the laws; we need to repeal them. Stand Your Ground has not proven itself to be a common sense law that keeps our communities safe. According to one of the task force’s researchers, “If we are to use science and data and logic and analysis to drive sensible public policy, then there is no reliable and credible evidence to support laws that encourage stand your ground and shoot your neighbor.”
No matter who you are or what ethnic community you claim as your own, we all want the same thing: to be safe. Stand Your Ground laws have proven that rather than curb violence, the laws increase violence. The explosive combination of Stand Your Ground laws and preexisting racial stereotypes and tensions has worked disproportionately against communities of color, making them victims in far larger numbers and depriving them of justice in our criminal justice system. Repealing Stand Your Ground laws would seem like common sense, but unfortunately common sense is not so common. Just weeks ago a bill was introduced by a Florida legislator that would effectively provide more protection for people who claim self-defense, placing the burden on prosecutors to prove that the defendant was wrong to use deadly force. Stand Your Ground laws do not protect us – they hurt, divide and kill – and we must work together to enact public policy and gun laws that will ensure the safety of the American public.