As the director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center, I've dedicated much of my career to researching the issue of gun violence. Too often I have seen policy makers make decisions about guns which were dictated not by the scientific evidence but rather by emotion and special interests. Thus their policy decisions have often reduced rather than promoted public safety. I hope the same phenomenon does not occur in Florida with respect to its Stand Your Ground Law.
Following the tragic shooting of Trayvon Martin, Florida Governor Rick Scott's Task Force on Citizen Safety and Protection has spent five months reviewing the state's Stand Your Ground law. I was pleased to hear that one of its monthly meetings would be devoted to scholarly research about the effects of the law since its passage in 2005. This was the Task Force's chance to take scientific evidence into its assessment of what has understandably become an emotionally charged issue.
The Task Force asked the University of Florida to conduct research on the impact of the state's Stand Your Ground law. Not surprisingly the researchers were unable to draw strong conclusions given the data and the short time frame they were allowed. But frighteningly, the Task Force seemed to take the researchers' incomplete report as evidence that Stand Your Ground is a good law. Task Force member and Stand Your Ground bill sponsor Rep. Dennis Baxley even went so far as to assert that the data supported his contention that the law is not associated with an increase in violent crime.
Contrary to that claim, the best available research evidence indicates that Stand Your Ground laws are dangerous, with few redeeming benefits to
A new study by economists at Texas A&M University, available through the National Bureau of Economic Research (2012), uses police data and concludes that Stand Your Ground laws are associated with a significant increase in homicides and that these homicides are classified as murders.
Using public health data, economists at Georgia State University also recently (2012) found that passage of a Stand Your Ground law is associated with a significant increase in homicides, and particularly homicides of white males. They conclude that "these findings raise serious doubts against the argument that Stand Your Ground laws make public safer."
Researchers also find striking racial disparities in how Stand Your Ground laws play out once a defendant claims self-defense. John Roman and Mitch Downey of the Urban Institute find that in states with Stand Your Ground laws, twice as many homicides are deemed justified as in non-Stand Your Ground states. In the Stand Your Ground states, when white shooters kill black victims, 34 percent of the resulting homicides are deemed justifiable, while only 3 percent of deaths are ruled justifiable when the shooter is black and the victim is white.
Have Stand Your Ground laws had some beneficial impact by allowing law-abiding citizens to protect themselves? The evidence doesn't show that. The Texas A&M study finds no evidence that Stand Your Ground laws deter crimes: rates of burglary, robbery and aggravated assault are unaffected by the laws. Instead, too often the law is used to protect criminals rather than innocent victims. In a review of the close to 200 Stand Your Ground cases heard in Florida courts since 2005, the Tampa Bay Times finds that most people who raise a Stand Your Ground defense have a criminal arrest record. Indeed, in more than 1/3rd of Florida Stand Your Ground defendants who killed someone have previously been arrested for threatening someone with a gun or illegally carrying a weapon. The law has been used to free gang members, drug dealers fighting with their clients, and perpetrators who shot their victim in the back. Indeed, in most of the Florida Stand Your Ground confrontations, the victim was not committing a crime that led to the confrontation, and was not armed.
The best available research makes Stand Your Ground laws look like a disaster.
The Task Force is meeting this month for the last time and will issue its recommendations to the legislature as to whether Stand Your Ground should be reformed. The Task Force should take the opportunity to seriously examine the scientific evidence. Lives depend on it.