More than two years after the Trayvon Martin case inspired a re-examination of Stand Your Ground self-defense laws nationwide, an American Bar Association report to be published this week issues a sweeping condemnation of the policies, citing concerns about public safety and racial bias.
In its final findings after a study that began with a series of hearings around the country in early 2013, the ABA’s National Task Force on Stand Your Ground Laws urges that two dozen state statutes — which relieve shooters of a duty to retreat in the face of danger, even outside their homes — be repealed or significantly scaled back to curb what the task force calls “unpredictable, uneven” enforcement.
When the National Rifle Association and American Legislative Exchange Council began pushing for the self-defense laws more than ten years ago, they sought to protect crime victims from unwarranted prosecution for resisting a threat with force. But the bulk of the ABA’s report takes a decidedly critical look at what it concludes are the laws’ failings: that states with Stand Your Ground laws showed increases in homicides and saw no signs that the laws decreased other types of crime; that they foster a shoot-first mentality that provides “a low-cost license to kill,” especially when an armed confrontation involves race; and that they endanger police officers’ lives and deprive crime victims and innocent bystanders of justice by rewarding some shooters with criminal or civil immunity.
One expert quoted in the report’s conclusions called the laws a solution in search of a problem. “If our aim is to increase criminal justice system costs, increase medical costs, increase racial tension, maintain our high adolescent death rate and put police officers at greater risk, then this is good legislation,” Temple University’s Jerry Ratcliffe told the task force. “But 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.”
The report, an advance copy of which was provided to The Trace, largely echoes a preliminary version released last year, but with a new section detailing an extensive list of studies showing how racial stereotypes can influence behavior when people feel threatened enough to defend themselves with deadly force. As The Trace pointed out previously, the ABA’s task force found that racial stereotypes also influence the courts: a white shooter who kills a black victim is 350 percent more likely to be found justified in the use of lethal force than if the same shooter killed a white victim.
The report’s principal author, University of Saint Thomas law professor Tamara Lawson, tells The Trace that the task force did not seek to take a political stand. Rather, it wants to help lawmakers make better policy based on the testimony and studies it compiled. “There was not a lot of legislative history available in the states that enacted Stand Your Ground,” Lawson says.
Of the 33 states providing murder and assault defendants with Stand Your Ground protections, nine do so through court-made rules while 24 have enacted statutes since Florida’s, the first in the nation, was passed in 2005.
The ABA, a voluntary national organization of lawyers and law students, plays no official role in setting legal policy, but its views can prove influential. The ABA’s House of Delegates, its governing body made up of regional representatives, approved the task force’s recommended policy changes at a meeting in February. Those recommendations include:
- Calling a halt to passing more such laws, and repealing those that are on the books.
- Failing that, amending laws to no longer grant immunity or allow use of Stand Your Ground protections in cases where the shooter is the “initial aggressor” or the target is a police officer.
- Developing safeguards to “prevent racially disparate impact and inconsistent outcomes” that favor whites over blacks.
- Develop clearer jury instructions to resolve confusion over the laws’ provisions.
- Train police officers to be better able to decide whether to file criminal charges.
- Create a national database to track the handling of Stand Your Ground cases nationwide and train gun owners on the rules of self-defense.
The ABA commissioned the study in the months between Martin’s death in Florida in February 2012 and the July 2013 acquittal of George Zimmerman, the Neighborhood Watch volunteer who successfully claimed self-defense for shooting the unarmed teen. Citing the controversial case, the report says the ensuing efforts by a variety of legal and political critics to repeal or scale back the laws have failed in at least 10 states — a trend the task force seeks to reverse.
The task force took pains to avoid characterizing the report as strictly a response to the Martin shooting. But Lawson has called the Martin case a critical turning point in re-assessing Stand Your Ground laws. Even though Zimmerman ultimately did not seek Stand Your Ground immunity, Lawson blamed Florida’s law for authorities’ initial decision not to charge him with murder, which she said further enflamed public opinion over the shooting. Writing in the University of Florida Journal of Law and Public Policy, Lawson placed the case in “the long tradition of impunity that historically followed the unprovoked killing of Black men in America” and urged that Florida and other states rethink their laws.