Opinion

The Great Debate

The deadly consequences of ‘Stand Your Ground’ laws

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.

Obama takes on the presumption of thuggery that permeates Martin case

Everyone looks to their president for protection against calamity, and black voters are no different. One little discussed fact of the Obama presidency is how it has been a singularly disastrous economic period for the first black president’s most loyal constituency: black people.

This has led to a running joke in families like mine where, nonetheless, black people cannot utter a word of criticism about him. They love him unconditionally.

On a recent visit to my older relatives in Detroit, I again asked whether there was anything more they thought President Barack Obama could do for blacks. These are wise retired folks in their 70s and 80s, fixed-income veterans of America’s race relations and unions. With their beloved city then teetering on bankruptcy, declared just days ago, none offered anything but new ways to praise him.

Can federal charges be brought against Zimmerman?

Now that a Florida jury has found George Zimmerman not guilty of second degree murder and manslaughter, people across the nation are demanding federal prosecution. But this public debate has been clouded by misinformation about the possibility and scope of federal charges.

President Obama’s powerful comments on Friday helped put this matter in perspective. The state prosecution deserves a strong measure of deference. The federal government must, however, conduct a thorough investigation and undertake the rigorous analysis necessary to ensure that the federal interest in punishing civil rights violations is vindicated to the greatest extent possible.

The public outcry for federal involvement reveals the legitimate passions stirred by the killing of Trayvon Martin and drives home the importance of getting this right. The decision whether to prosecute, however, must be based on the evidence and the law as analyzed by professional civil rights prosecutors in the Justice Department.

The two trials of Zimmerman: ‘The Wire’ v. ‘CSI’

Now the jury has spoken on the question that riveted the public and filled cable news to the gills: Whether George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, murdered a black teenager Trayvon Martin because he happened to be a black kid in the wrong place at the wrong time and in the wrong outfit.

It is hardly a mystery why this tragedy exploded into the trial of the year. It was not just about Zimmerman’s guilt or innocence. It was about the state of race relations in America —  about our racial guilt or innocence.

Alongside that trial, however, was another one — not about race, but allegedly about evidence and law. This second trial continues to get its share of media attention.

The secretive corporate outfit behind ‘Stand Your Ground’

For many years, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has been a particularly influential organization that has promoted the agenda of corporate America and the political right in state legislatures nationwide, but about which the public has known little. ALEC’s members, who work together to draft model bills, consist of state legislators, who pay little to join, and corporations and trade associations, who pay hefty membership fees. These fees purchase influence over ALEC’s agenda and access to lawmakers. Because ALEC’s issue-areas are quite broad – voter IDs, consumer protection, healthcare, education, the environment and guns, to name a few – not every ALEC bill connects to a particular company’s financial interests. Until now, associating with ALEC’s range of issues seems not to have been much of a problem for most companies, well worth the payoff of having their favored bills promoted. That’s why the stream of recent defections of some of ALEC’s highest-profile corporate members – McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Mars, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Intuit and Kraft – has been so extraordinary.

The principal trigger, of course, has been the taint surrounding ALEC’S “Stand Your Ground” laws, the statute at the heart of the controversy over George Zimmerman’s killing of Trayvon Martin. The business downside of associating with an organization pushing a law that seemingly turns a criminal perpetrator into a lawful executioner has apparently become too much for these companies, thanks to pressure from the civil rights and consumer community. That’s a good thing. But as we focus on Stand Your Ground laws, we shouldn’t lose sight of the breadth of ALEC’s damage around the country. In fact, some of the wider harm can be found in other parts of this very statute. This law does not just protect perpetrators. It is also a direct assault on crime victims themselves. Specifically, buried in ALEC’s Stand Your Ground laws – on the books in some form in about half the states in the U.S. – is a chilling measure that confers absolute civil immunity on perpetrators who successfully avoid arrest and prosecution under this law, stripping crime victims of their legal rights and access to the courts. This is important, because often in cases where the criminal justice system fails, families turn to the civil courts for help by bringing a civil suit against the perpetrators directly. This law blatantly tears away their constitutional rights.

In fact, preventing access to the civil courts for everyday Americans is a pervasive theme that runs through ALEC’s entire, corporate-backed agenda. ALEC has an entire division devoted just to preventing injured people from holding wrongdoers accountable in court. Its very active Civil Justice Task Force is co-chaired by Victor Schwartz, general counsel of the American Tort Reform Association, a corporate group seeking to limit the liability of its corporate members. The legislation generated by this task force has been nothing short of a gift to our nation’s most negligent companies, many of which have been successfully sued over and over for recklessly causing death and injury to their customers. In my conversation with the Florida Justice Association this week, I learned that Florida itself has over 18 such ALEC “tort reform” laws already on its books, with many more under consideration.

Trayvon Martin, Obama, and the persistence of bias

By now the facts are well-known: Trayvon Martin was a 17-year-old young black man who, on Feb. 26, 2012, was walking home from a 7-Eleven in Sanford, Florida, with a bag of Skittles and a bottle of iced tea. George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watchman of white and Latino heritage, though advised by police not to pursue Trayvon himself, got out of his car carrying his 9-millimeter handgun. Allegedly after some confrontation, Zimmerman shot Trayvon dead.

Should we think about this horrendous incident as a random encounter, or does it teach us something about the politics of race and the persistence of racial bias in America today?

When Zimmerman first called the police about Trayvon Martin, he said: “There’s a real suspicious guy. This guy looks like he’s up to no good, on drugs or something. It’s raining, and he’s just walking around looking about.” Writer E.J. Graff termed this “Walking While Black.” In other words, Trayvon was presumed to be guilty of something nefarious simply because of the color of his skin.

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