ST. PETERSBURG — The “stand your ground” self-defense law had been in effect in Florida for more than six years when it became part of the national vocabulary with the death of Trayvon Martin in 2012. When the 17-year-old was fatally shot, Florida was still one of the few states with the law that removes the duty to retreat before using deadly force in the face of danger.
Now, upward of 30 states have some form of the law and recent research indicates they are associated with more deaths — as many as 700 additional firearm killings each year, according to a study published this week in the journal JAMA Network Open.
The study found that stand your ground laws in those states could be associated with a national increase of up to 11% in homicide rates per month between 1999 and 2017. The largest increases, between 16% and 33%, were in Southern states including Alabama, Florida, Georgia and Louisiana, the study found.
“These findings suggest that adoption of (‘stand your ground’) laws across the U.S. was associated with increases in violent deaths, deaths that could potentially have been avoided,” the study’s authors concluded.
Advocates for the laws, especially the National Rifle Association, have argued they act as a crime deterrent by ensuring a person can protect themselves and others against a would-be assailant.
Florida was first in the nation in 2005 to adopt such a law. It was in force when Martin was fatally shot by self-appointed neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman on Feb. 26, 2012. Martin was Black; Zimmerman had a white father and Hispanic mother.
The initial police report said Zimmerman called authorities to report a suspicious person, a guy who, he said, “looks like he’s up to no good.” He followed Martin despite instructions not to do so. In the confrontation that followed, Zimmerman would tell authorities, Martin attacked him, forcing him to use his gun to save himself. Zimmerman was allowed to go free.
Martin’s parents questioned Zimmerman’s version of events and eventually the news media and others picked up on the case. Zimmerman was arrested six weeks later after then-Florida Gov. Rick Scott appointed a special prosecutor to the case.
Zimmerman’s lawyers opted not to pursue a “stand your ground” claim before trial, which could have resulted in dismissal of murder charges against him and immunity from prosecution. But the law was essentially used as his self-defense argument during the trial, which resulted in his acquittal.
‘License to kill’
Civil rights attorney Ben Crump, who was involved in the Martin case, called the Florida law “a virtual get-out-of-jail-free card that is essentially a license to kill.”
Today the battle rages. Gun-rights supporters argue people should not have to try to retreat before defending themselves, said Alan Gottlieb, founder of the Second Amendment Foundation. He pointed to a Florida homeowner who recently shot and killed a man suspected of shooting a police officer as the man tried to break into his house. While that case could have been covered by other self-defense laws, Gottlieb said “stand your ground” laws offer reassurance.
“It’s made a very big difference in self-defense situations,” he said.
Three new states passed laws last year removing the duty to retreat: Ohio, Arkansas and North Dakota, where its sponsor said the legislation “ensures someone will not have to run away prior to protecting themselves or their family.”
Six more loosened requirements to carry guns in public by removing the requirement to get a permit, the largest number of any single year. More than 20 states now allow permit-less carry.
Gun control activists say the increasing presence of guns and laws like “stand your ground” are a deadly combination.
“Laws like ‘stand your ground,’ or shoot first laws, give people like Jordan’s killer, my son’s killer, the idea that you can shoot first and ask questions later,” said Rep. Lucy McBath, who entered politics after her son Jordan Davis was slain at a Florida gas station in 2012 by a white man who was angry over the loud music the Black teenager and his friends had been playing in their car. Michael Dunn used the “stand your ground” law in his defense but was convicted and is serving a life sentence.
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