The deadly consequences of ‘Stand Your Ground’ laws

By Mark Hoekstra
February 13, 2014

The trial of Michael Dunn in Florida has again raised questions about Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law. Dunn, 47, is charged with fatally shooting Jordan Davis, an unarmed 17-year-old, in the parking lot of a Jacksonville convenience store, over loud music. Many questions swirl around whether Dunn was legally justified under current Florida law, as he insists he was, to fire into the car where Davis sat listening to music. As the jury deliberates, there will be many more discussions about how factors like race and the jury’s interpretation of Stand Your Ground determine the verdict.

This misses the bigger question, however, which is whether this lethal confrontation would have happened without the law. If Florida had not passed its law so that a person has no “duty to retreat” before using lethal force, how would Dunn have responded? Would he still have gotten his gun from his car and fired repeatedly into Davis’s vehicle? Would he have even had a gun with him?

These same questions can be asked of the other cases that have received so much media attention. Would George Zimmerman have followed Trayvon Martin, with a gun, and confronted the teenager if Florida law had not offered him these additional self-defense protections? Would Raul Rodriguez, convicted of murder and sentenced to 40 years for the murder of his Houston neighbor, have confronted his neighbor over loud music and killed him, if not for Texas’s similar law?

For any given case, these questions are impossible to answer, and you can make arguments either way. But it is possible to say something more definitive about whether these laws have led to a greater number of total homicides. That is the question my coauthor Cheng Cheng and I addressed in our recent study in the Journal of Human Resources. We asked what happened to homicide rates in states that passed these laws between 2000 and 2010, compared to other states over the same time period. We found that homicide rates in states with a version of the Stand Your Ground law increased by an average of 8 percent over states without it — which translates to roughly 600 additional homicides per year. These homicides are classified by police as criminal homicides, not as justifiable homicides.

It is fitting that much of this debate has centered on Florida, which enacted its law in October of 2005. Florida provides a case study for this more general pattern. Homicide rates in Florida increased by 8 percent from the period prior to passing the law (2000-04) to the period after the law (2006-10).By comparison, national homicide rates fell by 6 percent over the same time period. This is a crude example, but it illustrates the more general pattern that exists in the homicide data published by the FBI.

The critical question for our research is whether this relative increase in homicide rates was caused by these laws. Several factors lead us to believe that laws are in fact responsible. First, the relative increase in homicide rates occurred in adopting states only after the laws were passed, not before. Moreover, there is no history of homicide rates in adopting states (like Florida) increasing relative to other states. In fact, the post-law increase in homicide rates in states like Florida was larger than any relative increase observed in the last 40 years. Put differently, there is no evidence that states like Florida just generally experience increases in homicide rates relative to other states, even when they don’t pass these laws.

We also find no evidence that the increase is due to other factors we observe, such as demographics, policing, economic conditions, and welfare spending. Our results remain the same when we control for these factors. Along similar lines, if some other factor were driving the increase in homicides, we’d expect to see similar increases in other crimes like larceny, motor vehicle theft and burglary. We do not. We find that the magnitude of the increase in homicide rates is sufficiently large that it is unlikely to be explained by chance.

In fact, there is substantial empirical evidence that these laws led to more deadly confrontations. Making it easier to kill people does result in more people getting killed.

Of course, it is also possible that these laws have benefits. For example, perhaps criminals respond to these laws by committing fewer burglaries, given that victims are now more empowered to use lethal force to resist. Or perhaps people now avoid fights and confrontations out of a fear that they will end badly.

Unfortunately, there isn’t much evidence in the data of this type of deterrence. That means that whatever benefits these laws have, they are limited to the actual victims of crime, who may now be more willing or able to defend themselves, or may experience lower criminal or civil costs for doing so. We don’t know how to quantify those benefits. But we do know there is no evidence that fewer violent crimes are committed as a result of these laws.

So where does that leave us with respect to the Dunn trial, and the broader debate over Stand Your Ground laws? Regardless of the trial outcome, the main damage has been done, and cannot be undone by one verdict or another. But it would be a mistake to ignore the evidence that deadly confrontations like this are more likely to occur as a result of these laws.

So the question people ought to be asking is this: Are the benefits of these laws to actual innocent victims sufficiently large to justify an additional 600 violent deaths per year?

*Correction: An earlier version of this column described one aspect of Florida’s Stand Your Ground law as allowing for the presumption of “reasonable fear.” That provision, however, would not apply to the Michael Dunn case. The column has been corrected. 


PHOTOS: Michael Dunn returns to the courtroom during jury deliberations in his murder trial over the killing of Jordan Davis, in Jacksonville, Florida February 13, 2014. REUTERS/Bob Mack/Pool 

A woman holds up a sign while attending a rally for Trayvon Martin in New York July 20, 2013. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri 

52 comments

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What has become of our society when “walking behind” someone becomes a “threat”. If part of our society is so traumatized that one can not walk behind them without causing an extreme threat trigger, then it means the authorities are negligent in not posting signs on sidewalks sdviseing pedestrians to keep a 20 yard seperation between people using the walkways. That scenario sounds as ridiculous as it is to me as it should sound to 99% of the population, but to the gang member it makes perfect sense. We will not live the life of a gang member and we will protect ourselves according to law. The ones that will have to adjust are the gang people.

Posted by gregio | Report as abusive

gregio: I’m assuming you’re referring to the Martin/Zimmerman incident. Let’s not paint a false picture. Just walking behind someone doesn’t ordinarily pose a threat. But that hardly describes what happened on the night Trayvon Martin was killed. He was walking home from the store and was followed in a car. Then the car pulled over and after sitting in the car for a minute, an adult male (Zimmerman) gets out and starts following the 17 year old on foot. The 17 year old was obviously in fear for his life because, according to Zimmerman, Martin started running. It was nighttime and a teenager was being pursued by an adult who, at some point, could be seen carrying a gun. But even if Zimmerman didn’t expose his gun to Martin, it would have been wise for Martin to assume his pursuer was carrying a gun. So, yes, there was plenty of reason why Martin would feel threatened by Zimmerman. Who wouldn’t? I sure would.

The question YOU should be asking is, what has become of our society when walking home from the store with a drink and some candy is seen as a threat to the point where it gets you killed? Had Zimmerman practiced restraint, like the police directed him to, there would never have been a confrontation. It would have been the appropriate response. Even if Zimmerman believed that Martin looked suspicious, the appropriate response would be to call the police and repress any urge he might have had to pursue Martin. Zimmerman failed to do this, and that failure made all the difference. It got an innocent young man killed and Zimmerman wasn’t punished for it.

This is why stand your ground laws do more harm than good. It encourages people to act irresponsibly, to shoot first and ask questions later. In our society, “polite society,” as one poster calls it, only people trained to use a firearm to maintain order in a community should be allowed to. Stand your ground overrides this rational practice. It is guaranteed to lead to unnecessary problems, and even death, as we’re seeing and as this excellent op-ed has proven. It is just too difficult to act responsibily when you’re carrying a loaded weapon and you feel your life is being threatened, but you haven’t had the proper training in how to deal with it.

Posted by carnivalchaos | Report as abusive

Good article but since these cases are so racially charged I am looking at how the stand your ground law has been applied according to race; victims and perpetrators.
Anyone knows where to find that info?

Posted by Northlight | Report as abusive

OneOfTheSheep: “The position you would put forth and defend here is simply not credible…fundamentally dishonest and illegitimate; utterly unworthy of respect.”

If you really want to refute a point someone makes, you should spend your time doing that with facts rather than fatuous insults. That contributes nothing to the discussion and says more about your shortcomings than anything else. Obviously you fall short of the “polite society” you seem to be lamenting the passing of. Your polite society seems to be more about appearances than substance anyway.

I’ve made my main point unambiguously. It is not dishonest nor illegitimate. If it was, you would be able to take it apart. Instead, you lob sophomoric insults, which is much easier. I want to know why you think stand your ground only applied to Zimmerman and not Martin. Martin, a teenager, was being pursued by an adult male wielding a loaded gun at night, first by car and then on foot. Most people would feel that their lives were in jeopardy under those circumstances. Not until Martin decides to exercise the right that stand your ground affords him does Zimmerman claim that HE felt his life was in jeopardy, but whose fault was that? Think about it: anytime one person thinks their life is being threatened by another, the moment he acts in accordance with the stand your ground law, then the other person involved WILL feel that HIS life is in jeopardy. That’s the nature of stand your ground. So the question should always be, did the first person to employ stand your ground have sufficient reason to feel that his or her life was being threatened. In Martin’s case there’s no doubt that he had ample reason to believe his life was in jeopardy.

Had Zimmerman shown restraint and not pursued Martin, the kind of restraint necessary for a peaceful, healthy society; the kind of restraint that the police told Zimmerman to exercise; the kind of restraint that Zimmerman seemed incapable of practicing to the point where the police wouldn’t accept him as a law enforcement officer, then Martin would be alive today. But I suspect that that’s the point. You’re glad Martin is dead. You’ve written him off as a thug, unacceptable to society, but what you base that on is superficial. He was a 17 year old kid trying to find his way in a difficult world. He had the right to try, but Zimmerman robbed him of that. Now Zimmerman’s own wife, now ex-wife, claims he threatened her and her father, just like he previously did to a police officer. He lied to the prosecutor about his knowledge of the stand your ground law, and he lied to the judge about the amount of money he had. There’s more to conclude that Zimmerman was a thug than Martin, but I wouldn’t classified Zimmerman as a thug. To me he’s just a screwed up, confused, and insecure man who seems to be angry at the world. Unfortunately, he got away with taking that anger out on a 17 year old boy, and it was clear that he was angry and not willing to let “this one” get away.

Perhaps you’re defending Zimmerman because you relate to his anger and confusion. How a young person wears their pants or their hat has little to do with who he is on the inside. When I was his age I had long hair and wore bell bottoms. Folks your age made the same kind of bigoted, superficial comments, and I turned out just fine.

You display a trait that I see far too much in many American conservatives. You think the world should fit your insular notion of how people aught to be and can’t seem to accept it when people, most people, don’t fit your narrow view. This is why stand your ground laws are so dangerous. It makes it too easy for folks like yourself to lose their cool and kill. Then all they have to do is claim that they felt threatened. The problem is, they always feel threatened by those different than themselves. They want to force them to change, apparently by any means necessary.

Consider this statement of your: “Every time youngsters unwisely choose to look like or act like a thug they place their very lives at considerable risk. That whole idea is so fundamentally indefensible that I must refuse to participate.”

I’ll disregard that last sentence because it doesn’t make much sense. But you’re trying to dictate to people how they should look. Sorry, but that doesn’t work here in the US. Trayvon and any other American has the right to look and act the way they want, as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else, and they should be able to do so without having to worry about some nut with a gun taking his anger out on the world around him. It’s called freedom. For you to suggest that Trayvon deserved his fate because of the way he looked is unAmerican, and frankly despicable. There’s no indication that Trayvon Martin was doing anything different from what you’d be doing if you were walking home from the store. This is why I brought John Lennon up. You would have been okay with Zimmerman shooting John Lennon based on the fact that he was a teenager trying to be cool, wearing his hair long, a leather jacket, smoking cigarettes and whistling at the chicks walking by. It’s called being a teenager. Lennon my very well have responded the same way Martin did if he felt that Zimmerman posed a genuine threat to his life. And once you decide to stand your ground to some crazy guy following you in the dark witha gun, you’d better be ready to take him out. A punch in the arm would only get you killed. And that’s what Martin tried to do. He tried to take Zimmerman out before Zimmerman killed him. Stand your ground gave him that right.

The point is, you shouldn’t go around judging people by the way they look. Judge them by their actions. Everything we know about that night suggests that Martin was minding his own business, walking home from the store talking on the phone, a very typical picture for a young person today. Everything was cool until he was chased down by a gun toting George Zimmerman. Not only should Martin have felt threatened by Zimmerman, Martin WAS being threatened by Zimmerman. When a man chases you down at night with a gun and all you’re doing is walking along talking to a friend on the phone, then you’d better conclude that your life is at serious risk.

Consider how unreasonable this statement of yours is: “I am not willing to accept the idea that American society benefits by granting undisciplined thugs the right to act deliberately provocative without risk in public.”

You’re suggesting a spurious choice, we either should have the right to shoot someone when someone is acting out or allow people to act “deliberately provocative” without any consequences. If they’re breaking the law then call a cop and have the person breaking the law arrested. That’s what cops are for. But we don’t need Joe Public running around with loaded weapons trying to enforce his idea of how people should act. It’s usually better to walk away than to engage in an act of violence just because you don’t like what someone is doing or how they look. That’s just reality. The world will never be exactly the way you want it to be. I bet Michael Dunn is wishing HE had just walked away. Now he’s forfeited his freedom. I bet that guy who shot a man in the movie theater for texting wishes HE just walked away, or just ignored the texting.

Humans often do not act rational. If everyone is allowed to run around in public with a loaded gun and they are informed that if they ever feel threatened they can shoot the person they feel threatened by, then a lot of innocent people are going to get hurt. We should be passing laws that minimize that, not laws that exacerbate it. Mark Hoekstra has given us the proof of that in this op-ed. But you shouldn’t take that to mean that anything goes and lawlessness should rule the day. There are better ways of dealing with people who break the law than to give citizens, who lack the proper training, loaded guns to carry with them so that they can try to keep others in line as they see fit. If you can’t understand that rather simple concept, then you certainly are not justified in calling ME ignorant.

Posted by carnivalchaos | Report as abusive

To One Of The Sheep. . .

Did you, personally, know Trayvon Martin? Had you spent hours counseling him, listening to his hopes, his dreams, his fears? If the answer is “no”, then you have no right to call him a thug, a hoodlum, a gangsta, or any of the other pejoratives you have used to attempt to turn him into the ‘bad guy’ instead of the victim that he, unfortunately, became.

Did you personally know Michael Dunn, have you spent hours counseling him, drinking with him, socializing with him and his family? Do you know first-hand what his hopes, dreams and fears are? If this answer is also “no”, then you have no basis for your support of his actions, no support for your supposition of what his motives were or are.

Every single one of your arguments, then, come down to your projection of what you believe over the actual complex reality of two different complex people. Michael Dunn is as likely to have shot YOU over an argument about which beer is better grown violent, and Trayvon Martin could just as easily have given his life attempting to keep Michael from putting the second bullet into you.

You cannot argue against either of the possibilities I have just put forward with any basis of knowledge. You can only argue against what I have suggested as a possible alternate scenario through your clearly-displayed paranoia and ingrained bigotry.

I am tempted to ask if you watch Fox News, and avidly listen to Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, nodding in time to the ranting and hate-mongering, but I believe I know the answer. And so, I expect, does everyone who has partaken in this discussion with you, OOTS.

Stop being one of the sheep, OOTS. Stop being PROUD of being herded, along with the rest of the flock, toward that shiny-fenced enclosure right outside of the slaughter house. Take your mind back from the Becks and Hannitys of this world, the people who glory in being able to lie gleefully to you, and who exult in your belief of their lies, their hatred.

I am an old, white male, and am not using a screen name other than my own. Feel free to look me up, come on over, we’ll talk. I’ll show you how to free your mind from the hate-mongers and rabble rousers, if you have any interest at all in being your own person, instead of a parrot for Roger Ailes and Rupert Murdoch.

It’s not even hard, OOTS. The most difficult thing you’ll have to face is embarrassment when you read some of the things you wrote again, and choosing a more appropriate screen name.

You might even choose to be proud of your own name. . .

Henry D. Rinehart

Posted by HenryDRinehart | Report as abusive

SYG is not about self-defense. It is about gun owners not having to act like civilized people. I got a gun, mine is bigger than yours, I won’t act like a girl and retreat.

Posted by Gaius_Baltar | Report as abusive

@Gaius_Baltar
I’m a gun owner and I don’t feel even remotely like you seem to think all of us gun owners do. Perhaps your statement tells us more about your thought processes than about ours.

Posted by JRTerrance | Report as abusive

@Gaius_Baltar,

Yes, SYG goes beyond self defense. It is society’s way of deciding that thugs do NOT “own the streets” wherever and whenever a cop isn’t in sight. It allows “we, the people” to say “NO!” to self-indulgent people that have never heard the word from birth in a way they had better understand.

None of the “civil population” sheds a tear when gangs have their shoot-outs and kill one another, unless one of the bullets kills an innocent bystander in the wrong place at the wrong time. We do sympathize with those who are hard working, upstanding citizens that dare not speak out against the toughs that reign supreme most of the time in minority communities. No one deserves to have to live that way.

If you ask any policeman they will tell you the average time it takes from the time they get a call (or 911 does) and they are at your door. If someone is kicking down your door, they will be in, you could be dead and your stuff gone; likely never to be recovered.

The choices of the average American aware of those facts are few. They can buy a gun, learn how to keep and use it, and assume primary responsibility for their protection and that of their family. They can look in the mirror and admit they are a “victim in waiting, as is their family, totally at the mercy of those who have little, if any. They can do nothing (see sentence preceding). Choose wisely.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

“…perhaps criminals respond to these laws by committing fewer burglaries, given that victims are now more empowered to use lethal force to resist…. Unfortunately, there isn’t much evidence in the data of this type of deterrence.”
****
Give it time… as noted, there has been little evidence, but America has just started to be able to legally respond in like kind to the open threatening of hoodlums, burglars, assualts, and home invasions. It will take a little time before the perpetrators learn that they may meet potentially deadly force opposition to their unacceptable actions.
When under attack, the intended victim should be able to respond with any defense at hand.

Posted by Mikon | Report as abusive

Well, Dunn is going to prison where he belongs. He’s an idiot, just like the theater shooter in Florida who killed a guy for texting during previews.

Now Dunn can explain it all to the other inmates. In the showers.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

@HenryDRinehart,

I guess I should be proud that my recent words, after years of posting on Reuters, have drawn YOU from under your rock to spew personal revulsion at me for a whole TWO comments on successive days. Because you are unknown, your comments pop up out of proper sequence and only now do I see and read them. Fine.

Let’s presume you’ve heard of free speech guarantees in the American Constitution? That means I can state a personal opinion in a public forum regardless of whether you like my nom de plume or not, regardless of where I live or the cross section of “my” community, whether or not I “know” Trayvon Martin (in the nromal or biblical sense) or Michael Dunn.

You seem unaware that, while I agree with the latter that there “outa be a law” against adjacent vehicle-rattling noise from another vehicle, an excellent example of “in yo’ face” public harassment that is all too commonplace, I understand that there isn’t. Accordingly, I think his convictions thus far are appropriate; and that the one on which the jury deadlocked a “reach too far”. Perhaps the next trial (if there one, what’s the point?) will be a lesser charge of murder for which he can be convicted. I have no “dog in that fight”.

As an American citizen who sees on the evening news daily the demographics of the “uncivil” in our society, I remember a time fifty years plus ago when I did not have to be VERY AWARE of who is around me when refueling my car in an unfamiliar area, or entering a convenience store, or even getting out of my car to enter a restaurant or a store. When prudence dictates ordinary Americans of ALL races have to verify the absence of a threat before proceeding with “life, liberty and pursuit of happiness”, something very precious has been taken without discussion, debate or consent.

Those younger than my 73 years may have no such “frame of reference”. I feel it important to shine a light on such loss so as they may at least be aware of a kinder, simpler time.

Do I have to know and counsel at length every criminal my society catches, convicts and incarcerates to recognize a pattern that warrants greater attention and discouragement? I think not. If your ambition in life is to become a social worker, have at it.

If I see someone in a convenience store with a gun, knife or other weapon that obviously isn’t the proprietor or his employee, I don’t HAVE to know what he will do. As an ordinary citizen interested in protecting my society, I will slip out, if possible, and call 911.

My reaction will not be based on race, but on observation; and it is the reaction of someone willing to “become involved” rather than avert my eyes and yield the streets to sociopaths. What would you do?

But my purpose here is to make people think, not make myself a target for those who might choose to violently object to them “with extreme prejudice”. So, while I’m quite proud of my name, I don’t share it with those I don’t trust.

My home is in the country, more than a few miles from the nearest police station. Accordingly, the only defense of my home, wife, pets, etc. from predators, whether four legged or two legged, is me. All my guns are kept loaded and accessible. In the military I shot “Expert”. At present I don’t have a license to “carry”, nor feel the need to; but that could change.

When people who think as you do can do no better than call me names, I really get the giggles.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

There seems to be a fundamental lack of understanding of the math being used here.

There is one person citing homicide rates but that is not what the authors are using. The homicide rate in one quoter is the number of deaths per 100,000 people which is not the way the authors are referencing. They are referencing the total number of homicides as being pointed out by the second citer of statistical information found here:

http://www.disastercenter.com/crime/flcr ime.htm

If you take the 5 years proceeding the enactment of the law and total the number of homicides average them out to about 911.6 deaths per year up to 2005 when SYG was enacted and then the total number of homicides the 5 years after you see a jump to an average of 1100.6 deaths per year. The homicide rate as a percentage versus the proceeding 5 years has increased by a large number. Very large.

If you look at the states homicide total number, Florida homicides were falling till 2005 when SYG was passed. Afterwards, you had a very big jump in homicides. Well over 600 additional deaths that their study is attributing to no other factors other than the one thing that changed, the passage of the SYG law.

Posted by khazhadar | Report as abusive