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 

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