Now that pointing firearms at peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters is the magic ticket to a speaking slot at the GOP convention, and we have a president who defends an accused double-murderer, it is time to open our eyes to the irrational fear and racism behind Stand Your Ground laws and immediately repeal them.
Unlike many of the other prominent and sobering examples of systemic racism in our country, Stand Your Ground laws aren’t the product of another century or the lasting vestige of our troubled past. They’re new, but their disparate impact on race is unmistakable and disturbing.
The Stand Your Ground laws are a product of the National Rifle Association and a shadowy right-wing organization called ALEC. The law, first passed in Florida in 2005 and now enacted in 27 states, radically changes the definition of self-defense by removing the duty to retreat when defending oneself outside of the home. It has basically traded self-defense for self-offense and lets people discharge a firearm and even kill someone if they feel threatened, with no requirement to seek to de-escalate a potential conflict before firing.
What is considered “threatening?” Well, that’s in the eye of the beholder. For GOP heroes Patricia and Mark McCloskey, “threatening” is Black people and civil protesters marching peaceably in front of their cavernous, suburban St. Louis home.
The impact of Stand Your Ground laws has been predictably appalling and bears the marks of the racial justice issues America is grappling with today. White-on-Black homicide in Stand Your Ground cases is almost three times more likely to be found justified than a white-on-white homicide, according to a study by the Urban Institute. And in Florida, where these heinous laws started, the odds of convicting a shooter for killing a non-white victim is half that of compared to cases where the victim is white. In other Stand Your Ground states, white defendants are 354 percent more likely to be let off for killing a Black victim than in cases where the victim is white.
Perhaps most troubling, studies found that in 79 percent of Stand Your Ground cases, a safe retreat was available, and in 68 percent of cases, the person killed was unarmed.
These statistics aren’t state secrets, and any state that has enacted a Stand Your Ground law in the past decade knows them. But instead of slowing down or reversing, the law has expanded as the tragedies continue. For example, Missouri passed its Stand Your Ground law in 2017 after the community protests in Ferguson. And it passed with near unanimous Republican support and despite clear testimony from community members and experts that explicitly detailed the disparate effect of Stand Your Ground laws on communities of color and Black Americans—and over a veto by then Democratic Governor Jay Nixon.
Even now, as the country continues to try and approach race with renewed understanding, Republicans in Ohio are considering their own Stand Your Ground bill. Less than a month after the release of video footage depicting the death of Ahmaud Arbery, a case where the white defendants have already attached themselves to Georgia’s Stand Your Ground law, the Ohio state legislature held hearings this past June to resuscitate its failed 2018 effort.
Every sponsor on the Ohio Stand Your Ground bill is a white Republican from a district that is bereft of racial diversity. Lead State Senate sponsor Terry Johnson, who has called Stand Your Ground necessary “to defend the Constitution,” represents a district that is nearly 95 percent white. House sponsor Ron Hood’s 78th District has barely a 1 percent African American population. And yet, as has happened in states across the country, the life and death consequences for Black communities in their states are swept aside.
In 2020, ignorance of these consequences is not an available excuse. Fifteen years after this radical experiment in self-defense was launched and eight years since Trayvon Martin was murdered in Florida in 2012, not a single Stand Your Ground law has been repealed.
If we are now living in a country where Black lives truly do matter, we can no longer make room for a law that encourages a “shoot first” mentality or one that makes fear of Black bodies a justifiable defense to murder. With an eye on restoring justice and safety to communities, states across the country should remove these harmful laws from their books.
Jim Kessler is Executive Vice President and Robert Cotter is a Nancy Hale Fellow at Third Way, a Washington DC-based think tank.