What The Media Should Know About The Congressional Hearing On Stand Your Ground

Media coverage of the Senate hearing on the controversial Stand Your Ground self-defense law should not ignore the role the law played in the acquittal of George Zimmerman, research indicating the negative consequences of the law, and that a hearing witness who favors Stand Your Ground has had his research widely discredited by academics.

Senate Judiciary Committee To Examine Controversial Stand Your Ground Law

On October 29, The Subcommittee On The Constitution, Civil Rights And Human Rights Will Hold A Hearing Titled, "'Stand Your Ground' Laws: Civil Rights And Public Safety Implications Of The Expanded Use Of Deadly Force." [United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary, accessed 10/24/13]

Sen. Durbin's Office: Hearing Will Examine “Extent To Which The Laws Have Encouraged Unnecessary Shooting Confrontations” Among Other Issues. In a statement published by The Hill, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL)'s office listed a number of issues that will be raised at the hearing:

"[The] hearing will examine the gun lobby's and the American Legislative Exchange Council's influence in creating and promoting these laws; the way in which the laws have changed the legal definition of self-defense; the extent to which the laws have encouraged unnecessary shooting confrontations; and the civil rights implications when racial profiling and 'stand your ground' laws mix, along with other issues," Durbin's office said in a statement. [The Hill7/19/13]

Juror Cited Stand Your Ground As A Reason For Acquittal Of George Zimmerman

Zimmerman Juror: Stand Your Ground A Reason Why Neither Second-Degree Murder Nor Manslaughter Applied. An anonymous member of the jury appeared on CNN's Anderson Cooper 360 on July 15 to discuss how Florida's Stand Your Ground law provided a legal justification for Zimmerman's actions. According to the juror, neither charge against Zimmerman applied “because of the heat of the moment and the Stand Your Ground”:

JUROR: We just started looking at the law, what exactly we could find and how we should vote for this case. And the law became very confusing.

ANDERSON COOPER: Yeah, tell me about that.

JUROR: It became very confusing. We had stuff thrown at us. We had the second-degree murder charge, the manslaughter charge, then we had self-defense, Stand Your Ground, and I think there was one other one.


COOPER: Did you feel like you understood the instructions from the judge, because they were very complex. I mean reading them, they were tough to follow.

JUROR: Right. And that was our problem. I mean, it was just so confusing what went with what and what we could apply to what. Because there was a couple of them in there that wanted to find him guilty of something. And after hours and hours and hours of deliberating over the law and reading it over and over and over again, we decided there is just no way -- other place to go.

COOPER: Because of the two options you had, second-degree murder or manslaughter, you felt neither applied.

JUROR: Right. Well because of the heat of the moment and the Stand Your Ground. He had a right to defend himself. If he felt threatened that his life was going to be taken away from him or that he was going to have bodily harm, he had a right. [CNN, Anderson Cooper 360, 7/15/13]

Zimmerman Trial Jury Instructions Included Explanation Of Stand Your Ground Defense. The jury instructions for the Zimmerman trial, meant to be a guide for the relevant charges and defenses under Florida law, included the Stand Your Ground justification for homicide:

In deciding whether George Zimmerman was justified in the use of deadly force, you must judge him by the circumstances by which he was surrounded at the time the force was used. The danger facing George Zimmerman need not have been actual; however, to justify the use of deadly force, the appearance of danger must have been so real that a reasonably cautious and prudent person under the same circumstances would have believed that the danger could be avoided only through the use of that force. Based upon appearances, George Zimmerman must have actually believed that the danger was real.

If George Zimmerman was not engaged in an unlawful activity and was attacked in anyplace where he had a right to be, he had no duty to retreat and had the right to stand his ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he reasonably believed that it was necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony. [Scribd.com, via Media Matters for America, accessed 7/16/13, emphasis added]

Stand Your Ground Opponent Dan Gelber: Law “Fundamentally Changed The Analysis Used By Juries To Assign Blame In These Cases.” On his blog, Gelber, a former Florida state senator, provided the pre-Stand Your Ground jury instructions which would have had the jury decide whether Zimmerman “used every reasonable means within his power and consistent with his own safety to avoid the danger before resorting to that force”:

In 2005 the Florida Legislature fundamentally changed the analysis used by juries to assign blame in these cases. When the legislature passed the Stand Your Ground law it changed the rules of engagement. It eliminated the duty to avoid the danger and it eliminated any duty to retreat.

If the Trayvon Martin killing was tried prior to the Stand Your Ground law being passed, the jury would have been told that self-defense was not available to Zimmerman unless he had used every reasonable means to avoid the danger. The jury would have been told that even if they believed Zimmerman had been attacked wrongfully by Trayvon, he could not use deadly force if he could have safely retreated or run away.

 Here is the actual jury instruction read to Florida juries prior to the legislature's enactment of Stand Your Ground. 

"The defendant cannot justify the use of force likely to cause death or great bodily harm unless he used every reasonable means within his power and consistent with his own safety to avoid the danger before resorting to that force.

The fact that the defendant was wrongfully attacked cannot justify his use of force likely to cause death or great bodily harm if by retreating he could have avoided the need to use that force." 

In this case, did Zimmerman use “every reasonable means within his power...to avoid the danger” or did he follow Trayvon despite admonitions that he did not need to? [The Gelber Blog, 7/14/13, emphasis original] 

Sanford, Florida, City Manager Cited Stand Your Ground As Reason Zimmerman Wasn't Initially Arrested. From the March 19, 2012, statement of City Manager Norton N. Bonaparte, Jr.:

Why was George Zimmerman not arrested the night of the shooting?

When the Sanford Police Department arrived at the scene of the incident, Mr. Zimmerman provided a statement claiming he acted in self defense which at the time was supported by physical evidence and testimony. By Florida Statute, law enforcement was PROHIBITED from making an arrest based on the facts and circumstances they had at the time. Additionally, when any police officer makes an arrest for any reason, the officer MUST swear and affirm that he/she is making the arrest in good faith and with probable cause. If the arrest is done maliciously and in bad faith, the officer and the City may be held liable.

According to Florida Statute 776.032 : 776.032 Immunity from criminal prosecution and civil action for justifiable use of force.--

(1) A person who uses force as permitted in s. 776.012, s. 776.013, or s. 776.031 is justified in using such force and is immune from criminal prosecution and civil action for the use of such force, unless the person against whom force was used is a law enforcement officer, as defined in s. 943.10(14), who was acting in the performance of his or her official duties and the officer identified himself or herself in accordance with any applicable law or the person using force knew or reasonably should have known that the person was a law enforcement officer. As used in this subsection, the term “criminal prosecution” includes arresting, detaining in custody, and charging or prosecuting the defendant. (2) A law enforcement agency may use standard procedures for investigating the use of force as described in subsection (1), but the agency may not arrest the person for using force unless it determines that there is probable cause that the force that was used was unlawful. [Scribd.com, accessed 7/16/13, emphasis original]

To read about media wrongfully dismissing the role of Stand Your Ground in Zimmerman's acquittal, click here, here, hereand here.

Stand Your Ground Shown To Increase The Incidence Of Homicide

Texas A&M Economics Professors: Stand Your Ground Laws Responsible For “An Additional 600 Homicides Per Year.” In a June 2012 study, economics professors Mark Hoekstra and Cheng Cheng found “compelling evidence that by lowering the expected costs associated with using lethal force, [Stand Your Ground] laws induce more of it”:

[W]e find significant evidence that the laws lead to more homicides. Estimates indicate that the laws increase homicides by a statistically significant 8 percent, which translates into an additional 600 homicides per year across states that expanded castle doctrine [Hoekstra and Cheng's term for Stand Your Ground]. The magnitude of this finding is similar to that reported in a recent paper by McClellan and Tekin (2012), who examine these laws' effect on firearm-related  homicide using death certificate data from Vital Statistics. We further show that this divergence in homicide rates at the time of castle doctrine law enactment is larger than any divergence between the same groups of states at any time in the last 40 years, and that magnitudes of this size arise rarely by chance when randomly assigning placebo laws in similarly-structured data sets covering the years prior to castle doctrine expansion. In short, we find compelling evidence that by lowering the expected costs associated with using lethal force, castle doctrine laws induce more of it. [Texas A&M University, Department of Economics, June 2012]

Mayors Against Illegal Guns: Laws Linked To “Striking Increase” In Justifiable Homicides. According to the group's report:

A Mayors Against Illegal Guns analysis of FBI data indicates that Stand Your Ground states experienced a striking increase in the number of justifiable homicides committed by private citizens in the years following the laws' enactment. Other research indicates that this increase is not the result solely of more homicides being classified as “justifiable,” but also of an overall increase in homicides.

In states that passed these laws in 2005-07, the justifiable homicide rate was on average 53% higher in the years after passage of the law than in the years preceding it. (See Figure 1.) By contrast, in states that did not enact Stand Your Ground laws during this period, the justifiable homicide rate fell by 5% on average over the same period. [Mayors Against Illegal Guns, 9/16/13]

SYG image

Researchers From The National Bureau Of Economic Research: Homicide Figures “Raise Serious Doubts Against The Argument That Stand Your Ground Laws Make Public Safer.” NBER researchers Chandler McClellan and Erdal Tekin, who is also a professor of economics at Georgia State University, found that homicide data and hospital data indicate that Stand Your Ground increases the incidence of homicide and injurious shootings:

Despite the implications that [Stand Your Ground] laws may have for public safety, there has been little empirical investigation of their impact on crime and victimization. In this paper, we use monthly data from the U.S. Vital Statistics to examine how Stand Your Ground laws affect homicides and firearm injuries. We identify the impact of these laws by exploiting variation in the effective date of these laws across states over time. Our results indicate that Stand Your Ground laws are associated with a significant increase in the number of homicides among whites, especially white males. According to our estimates, between 28 and 33 additional white males are killed each month as a result of these laws. We find no consistent evidence to suggest that these laws increase homicides among blacks. Auxiliary analysis using data from the Supplemental Homicide Repots indicates that our results are not driven by the killings of assailants. We also find that the stand your ground laws are not related to non-homicide deaths, which should not respond to gun laws. Finally, we analyze data from the Health Care Utilization Project to show that these laws are also associated with a significant increase in emergency room visits and hospital discharges related to firearm inflicted injuries. Taken together, these findings raise serious doubts against the argument that Stand Your Ground laws make public safer. [National Bureau of Economic Research, June 2012

Stand Your Ground Associated With Racially Disparate Impacts

Tampa Bay Times: “People Who Killed A Black Person Walked Free 73 Percent Of The Time, While Those Who Killed A White Person Went Free 59 Percent Of The Time” When Stand Your Ground Was Claimed. In a June 2012 investigation, the Times analyzed 200 Florida homicides, one of the first states to enact Stand Your Ground, and found a disparate outcome on the basis of the victim's race when Stand Your Ground was claimed as a justification:

A Tampa Bay Times analysis of nearly 200 cases -- the first to examine the role of race in “stand your ground” -- found that people who killed a black person walked free 73 percent of the time, while those who killed a white person went free 59 percent of the time. [Tampa Bay Times6/2/12]

MAIG: Homicides Of Black People Deemed Justified Have Doubled In Stand Your Ground States. According to the group:

A Mayors Against Illegal Guns analysis of demographic data shows that the increase in justifiable homicides has disproportionately affected the African American population. The number of both black and white justifiable homicide victims has increased in Stand Your Ground states, but because the rate of victimization among black Americans was already much higher before enactment of Stand Your Ground laws, the subsequent increase has also been more dramatic. (See Figure 3.) Controlling for population, the number of homicides of black people that were deemed justifiable in Stand Your Ground states more than doubled between 2005 and 2011 -- rising from 0.5 to 1.2 per 100,000 people -- while it remained unchanged in the rest of the country. [Mayors Against Illegal Guns, 9/16/13]


Urban Institute: Stand Your Ground Laws Associated With Statistically Significant Increase In Likelihood Homicide Will Be Ruled Justified, Except For Black-On-White Homicides. In a report titled, “Race, Justifiable Homicide, and Stand Your Ground Laws,” the Urban Institute analyzed FBI supplementary homicide report data to determine that the presence of Stand Your Ground increases the likelihood that homicide is ruled justified for white-on-black, black-on-black, and white-on-white homicides. However, "[t]he change in likelihood for black-on-white homicide being found justified is not significant." [Urban Institute, July 2013]

Urban Institute: Stand Your Ground Worsens Racial Disparity In Outcome For Shootings With Similar Circumstances To Travyon Martin Killing. The Urban Institute report studied homicides with known facts similar to the Martin case -- such as the age and race of the shooter and decedent -- and found under such circumstances Stand Your Ground laws “exacerbate” racial disparities in justifiable homicide rulings:

Several facts about the Martin homicide are known. Zimmerman and Martin were strangers, they were the only two people involved in the incident, neither was law enforcement, a handgun was used in the homicide, Zimmerman was white, Martin was black, and Zimmerman was older than Martin. All those variables can be observed in the SHR data, and the frequency of findings that shootings are justified can be calculated to compare cases with those attributes to all cases.


Table 3 describes the likelihood a homicide is ruled justified when there is a single victim and single shooter, they are both male, they are strangers, and a firearm is used. In the six years of FBI data, this fact pattern occurred in 2,631 cases.

Overall, the rate of justifiable homicides is almost six times higher in case with attributes that match the Martin case. Racial disparities are much larger, as white-on-black homicides have justifiable findings 33 percentage points more often than black-on-white homicides. Stand Your Ground laws appear to exacerbate those differences, as cases overall are significantly more likely to be ruled justified in SYG states than in non-SYG states (p = 0.02). [Urban Institute, July 2013]

To read about the conservative media myth that Stand Your Ground laws benefit African-Americans, click here.

Hearing Witness John Lott's Primary Thesis That More Guns Lead To Less Crime Has Been Thoroughly And Repeatedly Debunked

Harvard Injury Control Research Center's David Hemenway: “More That A Dozen Academics Have Found Enough Serious Flaws In Lott's” More Guns, Less Crime Thesis “To Discount His Findings.” In Private Guns, Public Health, Hemenway noted that Lott's research -- which purports that more permissive gun laws reduce crime rates -- had significant coding errors and that "[r]esults from a more appropriate model suggest that permissive gun carrying laws increase violent crime in most states":

One study by John Lott (1998a) has frequently been cited in the national gun debate. The initial results seemed to show that permissive gun-carrying laws significantly reduced murder, rape, and aggravated assault but not robbery and increased larceny, auto theft, and property crimes generally (Lott and Mustard 1997).
In at least eight published articles, more than a dozen academics have found enough serious flaws in Lott's model to discount his findings (Alschuler 1997; Webster, Vernick, and Ludwig 1997; Zimgring and Hawkins 1997a; Black and Nagin 1998; Dezhbakhsh and Rubin 1998; Ludwig 1998; Dugan 2001; Ayres and Donohue 2003a, 2003b). These studies found, among many other problems, that Lott did not sufficiently account for the cyclical nature of crime or the differing nonlinear effects of the laws on various localities. The general consensus among those who have seriously analyzed the results is that “any inference that is based on the Lott and Mustard models is inappropriate, and their results cannot be used responsibly to formulate public policy” (Black and Nagin 1998, 219). The results of extending Lott's model through 1999, once his data coding errors are eliminated, show no significant effect of concealed carry laws on crime, except to increase property crime (Ayres and Donohue 2003a). Results from a more appropriate model suggest that permissive gun carrying laws increase violent crime in most states (Ayres and Donohue 2003b). [Hemenway, Private Guns, Public Health, pgs. 101-2] 

Stanford Law Review: Lott's Central Hypothesis Is “Without Credible Statistical Support.” In a Stanford Law Review report, Ian Ayres and John J. Donohue III studied how coding errors in data undermine Lott's “More Guns, Less Crime” hypothesis. The authors explain:

PW [Lott's co-authors Florenz Plassmann and John Whitley] seriously miscoded their new county dataset in ways that irretrievably undermine every original regression result that they present in their response. As a result, the new PW regressions must simply be disregarded. Correcting PW's empirical mistakes once again shows that the more guns, less crime hypothesis is without credible statistical support. [Stanford Law Review, accessed 12/3/12 via Deltoid

John Hopkins Center For Gun Policy And Research: Contrary To Lott's Research, Concealed Carry Laws Most Consistently Linked To Increase In Aggravated Assault. An October 2012 report that surveyed research on the effect of loosening concealed carry laws noted problems with Lott's research and found that enacting such a policy was associated with a 1 to 9 percent increase in aggravated assaults:

A large body of research has been conducted to investigate the effect of RTC [right to carry] laws on violence. Most notably, research led by John Lott, Jr. suggests that RTC laws have led to significant reductions in violent crime. But the research showing crime-reducing effects of RTC laws, including Lott's, has been carefully reviewed by a National Council of Research panel of experts, and others, and has been found to have serious flaws. The most consistent finding across studies which correct for these flaws is that RTC laws are associated with an increase in aggravated assaults. Using various statistical methods, estimates range from a one to nine percent increase in aggravated assaults as a result of RTC laws. [John Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, 10/25/12

To read more about criticism of Lott's research on gun violence, click here and here.