Sunday, December 16, 2012

Race and "Stand Your Ground" Laws

Are “stand your ground” self-defense laws racist? That’s an interesting, but difficult, question to answer.  About one-half of the states have these laws.  Generally, speaking, these laws indicate that people have no duty to retreat before having the option of using force (including deadly) if they “reasonably” fear for their lives or great bodily harm (for themselves or others).  Although there are different nuances among the states in the language, this is the crux of the law.

Is the law racist?  Probably not.  Does the law increase the probability of force being used against Blacks?  Probably so.  Let’s explore this issue.  Prior to stand your ground laws, most states’ self-defense laws were based on something called the “Castle doctrine.”  This doctrine allowed for people to use force (including deadly) in their homes without having a duty to retreat.  They did have the duty to retreat outside of their homes.  The Castle doctrine makes sense.  If there is an intruder in your home, the threat is real, imminent, and having to retreat is no longer reasonable.  Use of force, including deadly force, is a reasonable option in order to protect yourself and the lives of your family.  There is not much of a racial element to the Castle doctrine.

Stand your ground laws, though, remove the “duty to retreat” requirement from places outside of the home.  As long as someone has a legal right to be in the location and have “reasonable” fear for his/her life, force can be used.  Again, force can be used without having a duty to retreat.  What is reasonable?  This is where the element of race/ethnicity is so relevant.  Research (which I will be happy to provide to those interested) shows that young people are viewed more dangerous than older people; males are viewed more dangerous than females; Black are viewed more dangerous than others.  Although these factors, alone, are powerful, the most powerful is the combination of the three: young Black males.  Young Black males are viewed very dangerously, not only in general society, but in important decision points in the criminal justice system (e.g., arrest, sentencing, etc.).  Again, this group is the victim of society’s prejudices.

When young Black males are in society, it presents a fear among many.  This is where the “reasonableness” for fear from stand your ground laws become relevant.  Is it reasonable to fear for your life when in the presence of this group?  Even if words are exchanged or a fight ensues, is it still reasonable to fear for your life?  In the Trayvon Martin case, race appeared to have played a role in why the initial confrontation took place.  In the Jordan Davis case, the shooter felt “threatened” because he “saw” a gun (though there was no gun) in the tinted car of young Black males.  Again, these laws are allowing non-law enforcement citizens to determine “reasonable fear” among a group that research has shown to be viewed dangerous.  People’s unfounded prejudices clearly are playing a role, and state laws create the environment for these prejudices to result in actions.

Unfortunately, because stand your ground laws don’t require a duty to retreat (even when not in your home), people are given the power to determine what is reasonable.  Law enforcement officers are trained extensively on when force can be used, but state legislatures have provided the very untrained general population with the authority to determine this standard when outside of their home, since there is no duty to retreat.  As I mentioned at the beginning, are stand your ground laws racist?  Probably not.  However, do these laws allow for an increased probability of force being used against certain groups?  Take a look at judge for yourself.  What are your thoughts?


  1. I heard about the Jordan Davis incident, and I give the other guys credit for not driving off and staying calm until police arrived... To my knowledge, the cameras show that the boys stayed in the car and did not get out proving that there was no gun in the car...

  2. Do you think that SOME people are using the "stand your ground law" as an excuse to use deadly force?

  3. I'm sure there are some people who use stand your ground as a reason to use deadly force. However, I believe that many people try to use stand your ground as a shield from their illegal actions. Trayvon Martin was killed and the shooter is asserting self-defense. Jordan Davis was killed and the shooter is asserting self-defense. Those men are attempting to hide behind "stand your ground." But the larger issue, though, is whether stand your ground laws allow for people's prejudices to enter into the decision making of what is "reasonable" when deciding to use force.