- (Photo: Reuters/Joe Burbank)
The acquittal of George Zimmerman for the death of Trayvon Martin has brought national attention to "stand your ground" laws. One concern is that there may be a race-based component to how the laws are applied in practice.
President Barack Obama raised the issue of the intersection of race and SYG laws in a Friday speech about the Zimmerman trial.
"And for those who resist that idea that we should think about something like these 'stand your ground' laws," he said, "I'd just ask people to consider, if Trayvon Martin was of age and armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk? And do we actually think that he would have been justified in shooting Mr. Zimmerman who had followed him in a car because he felt threatened? And if the answer to that question is at least ambiguous, then it seems to me that we might want to examine those kinds of laws."
It is not only those on the political left who are reconsidering SYG laws in light of Martin's death. On PBS' "Newshour" Friday, conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks said that Obama's remarks caused him to rethink his support for SYG laws. And on Sunday, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) argued that states should take a second look at SYG laws.
"No one I know of has said this case is flawed or corrupt, or that there's anything wrong with the system of justice," he said on CNN's "State of the Union." "I can also see that the 'stand your ground' law may be something that needs to be reviewed by the Florida Legislature or any other legislature."
John Roman, senior fellow at the Urban Institute's Justice Policy Center, conducted an analysis for PBS' "Frontline" of homicides by race in states that have SYG laws versus states that do not have them.
There are racial disparities in all states, Roman found using FBI data. When a white person kills a black person, it is far more likely to be considered a justifiable homicide than when a black person kills a white person or a black person kills a black person. In states that have SYG laws, though, the difference is even greater. In states that do not have SYG laws, a white person is 250 percent more likely to be considered justified in killing a black person than a black person is to be considered justified in killing a white person. In SYG states, though, that difference increases to 354 percent.
While there is a clear correlation between SYG laws and racial disparities in justifiable homicides, the cause is unknown. Do SYG laws increase the chances that the death of a black person at the hands of a white person will be considered a justifiable homicide, but not increase the chances that the death of a white person at the hands of a black person will be considered justifiable homicide; or is there a third variable that explains both the passage of SYG laws and the racial disparities in justifiable homicides? Only more research will be able to answer that question.
All states allow for justifiable homicides in cases of self-defense. The difference in states with SYG laws has to do with an ability to retreat. Without an SYG law, justifiable homicide cannot be claimed if there is an opportunity to retreat rather than use lethal force. There can be differences in the retreat requirement if you are in your own house or vehicle.
The SYG laws eliminate the retreat requirement when using lethal force in self-defense. In an article for Reason, though, Jacob Sullum points out that the retreat requirements in many non-SYG states, such as New York, are so weak that there may be little effective difference between SYG states and those non-SYG states.
About 31 states, depending on how you count them, have some form of an SYG law. While they are common in conservative states, some liberal states, such as California and Massachusetts, have versions of the law as well. Obama himself sponsored a bill that strengthened the SYG law in Illinois when he was a state senator.
There is also a debate about whether SYG laws should even be discussed in relation to the Zimmerman trial. Zimmerman's attorney never used the SYG law for an obvious reason -- Zimmerman did not have the opportunity to retreat, so SYG was not an issue in the case.
On the other hand, the presence of the SYG law may have influenced the verdict. The judge used the phrase "stand your ground" in his instructions to the jury, and one juror said that Florida's SYG law was taken into account during the jury deliberations.