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What “stand your ground” laws actually do

The laws have come up after controversial shootings. But they’re widely misunderstood.

“Stand your ground” laws have been around for more than a decade. But it took the 2012 shooting of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, and the more recent shooting of former NFL player Joe McKnight in Terrytown, Louisiana, to shine a national spotlight on these very controversial laws.

The ensuing conversation around these laws, however, has been messy, riddled with myths about what they actually do.

Many people still wrongly believe that the big reason George Zimmerman, who killed Martin, was acquitted of murder and manslaughter charges was Florida’s “stand your ground” law, even though Zimmerman was let go on a much more typical self-defense argument. And many people are worried that Louisiana’s similar “stand your ground” law will let Ronald Gasser, who killed McKnight, go free as well, even though it’s not yet clear if the law will play a role at all in Gasser’s trial for manslaughter.

Much of the misinformation is rooted in a misunderstanding of what these laws do. They’re not free get-out-of-prison cards. Instead, they’re a more arcane redefining of typical self-defense laws — but a redefining that’s big enough, based on the research, to lead to more violence.

What “stand your ground laws” actually do

George Zimmerman appears in court. Joe Burbank/Pool via Getty Images

Under standard self-defense laws, someone who’s under a dangerous threat must retreat if it’s safe to do so, with use of force only legally available as an absolute last resort — what’s called the “duty to retreat.” So through this standard you can only use deadly force if you cannot safely avoid harm or death by, for example, running away or hiding.

But if a “stand your ground” law is in place, someone can, well, stand his ground, and use up to lethal force even if he can safely retreat while under imminent threat. There are also “castle doctrine” laws, which remove the duty to retreat in a legally occupied setting, such as your home, office, or car (your “castle”). “Stand your ground” is by and large an expansion of “castle doctrine”: While the latter only removes the duty to retreat in your home, the former removes the duty to retreat everywhere — whether you’re in a grocery store, park, or street.

These legal concepts go back to 17th century English common law, in which much of American law still finds its basis. The idea was that the king and his soldiers would keep the peace, while everyone else should step aside and avoid violence whenever possible. Similarly, in America today we expect people to step aside to avoid civilian violence as much as possible while police protect us instead. So if you’re in a dangerous situation, you’re expected to retreat if you can, and call on the police to protect you if necessary.

“Stand your ground” captured a lot of media attention after Martin’s death, because it was widely believed that it would play a role in Zimmerman’s defense. But that ended up not being the case: During the trial, it was only mentioned in the jury instructions and in passing by the prosecutor. Zimmerman was acquitted under a more typical self-defense argument.

Zimmerman never appeared to have a chance to retreat once he got into a fight with Martin. His injuries and the forensic evidence suggest that he was lying on the floor with Martin on top of him and hitting him as he opened fire. In those last moments, Zimmerman was under serious physical threat and couldn’t retreat, so he was legally allowed to use force under a typical self-defense law. (Of course, there’s an open question over whether Zimmerman could have avoided the entire encounter to begin with by simply not following Martin after a police dispatcher told him not to. But self-defense law is generally about whether you’re under threat at the moment you use force, not what happened beforehand.)

It’s also unclear if Gasser’s defense will rely on “stand your ground.” Based on what we know so far, the shooting of McKnight was a road rage incident. But Gasser, who appeared to legally own the gun he used, might have been unable to retreat even if he wanted to, because other cars may have been blocking his way on the road when he shot McKnight. And if Gasser didn’t have the ability to retreat, he could argue a simple self-defense standard, not a “stand your ground” standard, to justify his actions. (Still, the sheriff said “stand your ground” is one factor in his department’s investigation.)

Generally, this is the key point with “stand your ground” laws: They are only relevant if you can safely retreat from an attack. If you can’t safely retreat, a self-defense law will protect your use of force. If you can safely retreat, a “stand your ground” law is needed to justify use of force — unless you’re in your home, where a “castle doctrine” law may apply.

One way “stand your ground” was relevant to Zimmerman’s case, however, was the initial, but later reversed, decision to let him go free without charges. A letter signed by Sanford City Manager Norton Bonaparte Jr. explained, “By Florida Statute, law enforcement was PROHIBITED from making an arrest based on the facts and circumstances they had at the time.”

Similarly, Gasser was initially released without charges before he was charged with manslaughter a few days later. But the sheriff’s office hasn’t said if “stand your ground” played a role in his initial release.

This is another quirk in “stand your ground” and “castle doctrine” laws: By putting the burden on law enforcement to prove that someone’s self-defense claim is not credible, these laws can make it more difficult to arrest and charge someone in the first place.

Proponents of “stand your ground” laws argue they make Americans safer. Research shows they don’t.

Despite some of the controversy surrounding “stand your ground” laws, they rapidly spread throughout the states over the past decade, from only Florida in 2005 to 23 states by this year.

Much of this was part of a deliberate lobbying effort, particularly by the National Rifle Association (NRA). At its core, the NRA supports the idea that people should be able to use deadly force to defend themselves from dangerous threats, with little government intervention getting in the way. Hence not just the legal ability to purchase and own a gun, but the legal ability to use it even when safely retreating may be possible.

So the NRA and its conservative partners, like the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), have lobbied state lawmakers to pass “stand your ground” laws. This was part of a deliberate nationwide plan: When Florida became the first state to pass a “stand your ground” law in 2005, NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre called it the “first step of a multi-state strategy.”

Supporters of “stand your ground” laws argue that they not only legally allow people to defend themselves from criminal acts, but also deter would-be criminals from carrying out an attack. The thinking is simple: If would-be criminals know that just about anyone can turn around and use up to lethal force when under threat, these wrongdoers are going to be less likely to carry out criminal acts. The effect of this, advocates argue, is a safer society overall.

The research, however, doesn’t support this. Instead, studies support the big argument against “stand your ground” laws: that they legally empower people to use force even when it’s not necessary, and that could lead to more unnecessary violence.

A 2016 review of the research, published in Epidemiologic Reviews, found that most big studies looking at “stand your ground” and similar “castle doctrine” laws — which only remove the duty to retreat in your home — found that they actually correlated with increases in homicides. The one study that found “castle doctrine” was associated with reductions in homicides came from a widely discredited researcher. The others found increases in homicides associated with “stand your ground” and “castle doctrine” laws.

Researchers summarized one of the more recent studies they reviewed: “stand your ground laws were associated with a 6.8% increase in homicide rates, mainly driven by increments (14.7%) in homicide rates among white males.”

Correlation is not causation, so it’s possible that something else is behind the rise in homicides. But the 2016 review of the research, which also looked at laws related to guns that go beyond “stand your ground” and “castle doctrine,” found time and time again that when governments ease access to guns — and make it easier to use such deadly weapons — there are more gun deaths.

Americans may look at these studies and conclude that it’s still important for them to have the means to legally protect themselves. But the research suggests that this does ultimately come at the cost of some lives.