Capitol Report – Are “Stand Your Ground” Laws good public policy?

By State Representative, Leon D. Young

Leon D. Young

Last Wednesday, February 6 would have been Trayvon Martin’s 18th birthday,had he not been fatally shot on his way home. However,the observance of Trayvon’s birthday (Feb. 6) and upcoming anniversary of his death (Feb. 26) provide ample reasons to re-visit this thorny issue of “stand your ground” legislation.

A “stand your ground” law states that a person may use deadly force in self-defense without duty to retreat when faced with a reasonable perceived threat. The laws expand on the “Castle Doctrine,” which says that a person is protected under the law to use deadly force in self-defense when his or her property or home is being invaded. More than half of the states in the country have some form of “Castle Doctrine” or “stand your ground” law on the books.

As we are well aware, the controversy surrounding “stand your ground” laws reached a boiling point with the shooting of Trayvon Martin. Although all of the facts of the case have not been made public, what is known is that George Zimmerman, an armed neighborhood watch patrolman, shot and killed the unarmed youth after pursuing him. Although Zimmerman apparently perceived Trayvon as a threat, at the time of his death Trayvon had no weapon but was instead carrying a bag of Skittles and an iced tea.

Proponents of “stand your ground” laws argue that bad people are armed and that good people need to be able to use deadly force if necessary to defend themselves. Opponents of the laws claim that they give too much freedom to use such force, making the laws a license to kill rather than a protective measure.

This begs the question: What impact, if any, have “stand your ground” laws had on homicide rates in the states that have enacted such legislation? According to empirical data provided by Texas A&M researcher Mark Hoekstra, which compares homicide rates in states that have stand your ground laws with homicide trends in states that don’t have the laws, there has been a discernible difference statistically speaking.

The Hoekstra study finds that homicides go up by 7 to 9 percent (that translates as 500 to 700 more homicides) in states that pass the laws, relative to states that didn’t pass the laws over the same period of time. Moreover, “stand your ground” laws are now providing a convenient legal cover in murder cases, according to some defense attorneys around the country. If the defense attorney happens to have a criminal defendant in a “stand your ground” jurisdiction, pretty much no matter what happens, the defendant can allege that he shot the victim because he felt threatened and had a reasonable basis for fearing injury to himself.

The parents of Trayvon Martin have launched a website and political committee, Change For Trayvon, to take aim at Florida’s controversial “stand your ground” law and similar laws around the country. This is a fitting tribute to their slain son, as they work to repeal the very legislation that took Trayvon’s life.

Let me say unequivocally that I stand with the Martin Family. “Stand your ground” laws are bad public policy that put ALL of us at risk by promoting vigilante justice.