WSJ – Do ‘Stand-Your-Ground’ Laws Lead to More Homicides?
Attorney General Eric Holder said Tuesday that “stand-your-ground” laws, such as the one Florida authorities initially cited as a reason for not charging George Zimmerman in the death of Trayvon Martin, undermine public safety by encouraging violent situations.
Mr. Holder’s remarks, his first public criticism of stand-your-ground laws, came at the NAACP Annual Convention in Orlando, Fla., not far from where Mr. Zimmerman was acquitted last week.
Florida’s law is one of about 25 around the nation. With some variation, such laws remove a person’s duty to try to run away in the face of danger before using deadly force, create a presumption that such force is lawful and immunize those who kill in self-defense from prosecution and private lawsuits.
In Florida, a person who claims to have killed in self-defense can seek a court ruling before trial that he acted legally, forcing the state to drop its case against him if a judge finds in his favor. Mr. Zimmerman and his lawyers decided against that path for strategic reasons. And it’s not clear that retreat was an option for Mr. Zimmerman. He told police that when he shot Mr. Martin in the heart, the 17-year-old was on top of him, beating him.
Still, the stand-your-ground law seems to have made an impression on the jurors — and on Mr. Holder.
“There has always been a legal defense for using deadly force if — and the ‘if’ is important — no safe retreat is available,” Mr. Holder said Tuesday, according to his prepared remarks.
“But we must examine laws that take this further by eliminating the common sense and age-old requirement that people who feel threatened have a duty to retreat, outside their home, if they can do so safely. By allowing and perhaps encouraging violent situations to escalate in public, such laws undermine public safety.”
Mr. Holder cites no evidence that such laws do more harm than good.
In April 2012, The Wall Street Journal looked at justifiable homicides in states with stand-your-ground laws, using data provided by state law enforcement authorities and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Here’s what we found:
In absolute terms, the number of homicides of all kinds reported in the data increased slightly between 2000 and 2010. But when adjusted for population growth, the overall homicide rate declined slightly in that data.
By contrast, over that period, the number of killings categorized as justifiable rose by 85% to 326 cases in 2010 from 176 in 2000, the figures show.
Five of the states that enacted “stand your ground” laws during the past decade—Kansas, Alabama, Mississippi, Montana and West Virginia—reported no significant change in justifiable homicides. In Michigan, which passed its law in 2006, they fell.
Overall, the figures show the sharpest increase in justifiable homicides occurred after 2005, when Florida and 16 other states passed the laws.
While the overall homicide rates in those states stayed relatively flat, the average number of justifiable cases per year increased by more than 50% in the decade’s latter half, the data show.
In Texas and Georgia, such cases nearly doubled and in Florida, they nearly tripled. Meanwhile, in states that saw no change in their self-defense laws, justifiable homicides reported to the FBI stayed nearly flat after a slight uptick in the middle decade.
In a study published a few months later, an economics professor and a PhD student at Texas A&M University use state-level crime data from 2000 to 2009 to investigate the laws’ impact on crime. The authors, Professor Mark Hoekstra and Cheng Cheng, found no evidence that the laws deter crime, but concluded that they have led to an increase in homicides.