“Stand your ground” laws, such as the one prominently cited in Florida’s Trayvon Martin shooting last month, are on the books in 28 states. These laws represent a kind of gamble, that by shifting the justice system in favor of the shooter, society will aid people who have acted in self-defense more than it will enable those who might exploit the concept.
By claiming Stand Your Ground status, a shooter (or stabber) never enters a courtroom to defend their actions unless police cite probable cause to believe the homicide or assault with a deadly weapon was, in fact, unjustified.
Those 28 states have essentially concluded they want the benefit of the law (citizens who act in self-defense never have to face the indignity of court) despite the potential cost (maybe a few homicides that wouldn't be found justifiable in court never get there).
This calculation, though, has been terribly misjudged, according to John Roman, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Urban Institute.
“I heard the Trayvon Martin story,” he said, “and I thought to myself, ‘This has to be really, really unusual.’”
Existing statistics from the FBI’s Supplemental Homicide Report can speak to this. Roman and colleague Mitchell Downey pulled national data from the report spanning 73,000 homicides between the years 2005 to 2009. Self-defense cases proved extremely rare: just 2 percent of those killings were found justifiable.
Roman and Downey wanted to look more narrowly at cases similar to Martin’s.
They isolated all of the homicides involving a single shooter and a single victim killed by a handgun (where both were strangers and neither was a law-enforcement officer). There were 4,650 of these homicides, and just 10.9 percent of them were ruled justifiable.
Then the researchers attempted to drill down even further.
“We wanted to look at the facts of the case as we know them that are not in dispute,” Roman said. “We know the shooter’s age and race, we know that they were strangers. We know the victim’s age and race. We know there was one shooter, one victim, and neither were law-enforcement officers. That actually gives you a lot of information.”
In this five-year period, 23 cases fit this pattern. Nine of them – 39 percent – were ruled justified.
The purpose of all of this historical data isn’t to say that it’s 39 percent likely Martin’s shooter, George Zimmerman, acted in self-defense. Rather, Roman argues that it only makes sense to have a Stand Your Ground law if justifiable homicides occur frequently enough to warrant making crucial decisions at the crime scene and not the courtroom.
Instead, because these findings are so uncommon, and occur less than half the time even in cases like Trayvon Martin's, Roman argues the cost of these laws – the potential for miscarriage of justice – is too high to consider them good policy.
The overwhelming majority of all shootings are not justified. And this research could turn up no single homicide type (white shooter/white victim, law enforcement shooter/civilian victim, etc.) where legitimate self-defense rulings arose even 50 percent of the time.
“You want [that number] as high as possible if you’re going to support one of these laws,” Roman said. You probably want that number to be even higher than 50 percent. “That suggests to me there’s very little empirical support for these laws. They’re making justice happen in a place where it’s ill-suited to happen, and that’s the street rather than a courthouse. I think that’s the really damning thing about these laws and these numbers.”
He and Downey also went back to those 4,650 single-shooter civilian homicides that mirror Martin’s and examined the results of them by state. In states with Stand Your Ground laws, 13.6 percent of these cases were found to be justified. That statistic falls to 7.2 percent in states without such laws.
Americans like to think their court system metes out real justice. And so, to the extent these numbers are so different – homicides in Stand Your Ground states are twice as likely to be ruled justifiable as those in states without such laws – that suggests that shooters who would be convicted in a courtroom are walking away in places like Florida because they never get to one.
“In order to get to a courtroom, which is the place where we establish what the facts are, we have to establish what the facts are on the street,” Roman said. “Which really puts the police in a terrible bind.”
These general patterns can’t predict the outcome of the Trayvon Martin case. But, Roman argues, they should call into question the wisdom of self-defense laws that have been highlighted because of it.