So-called “stand your ground” laws are associated with hundreds of additional homicides each year in the United States, according to new research conducted by public health scholars, who say that these laws “should be reconsidered to prevent unnecessary violent deaths.”
Published Monday in JAMA Network Open, a peer-reviewed medical journal, the study compares homicide trends in roughly two dozen states that enacted stand-your-ground (SYG) laws between 2000 and 2016 with patterns from 18 states that didn’t have such laws during the study period.
Researchers found that SYG laws were associated with an “abrupt and sustained” 8% to 11% national increase in monthly firearm homicide rates, causing an extra 58 to 72 deaths per month. “This monthly increase alone exceeds total rates of homicides in most Northern and Western European countries today,” wrote the authors.
The enactment of SYG laws contributed to an especially pronounced rise in firearm homicide rates in many Southern states that were quick to adopt the laws, with upticks ranging from 16.2% to 33.5% in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, and Missouri.
However, SYG laws were not associated with significant changes in firearm homicide rates in Arizona, Indiana, Michigan, Nevada, Oklahoma, Texas, and West Virginia.
Researchers acknowledged that “SYG laws alone may not be sufficient in explaining increases in homicide.”
“Understanding the factors shaping these differential associations between states, such as regions endorsing the use of self-protective violence, existing state firearm legislation, and firearm availability, is key to understanding how and why legally expanding the right to use deadly violence in public is associated with increases in homicides in some states but not others,” they continued.
According to the study:
“Stand your ground” (SYG) laws, also known as shoot first laws, overwrite the common law principle of a “duty to retreat,” creating the possibility for individuals to use deadly force in self-defense in public as a first, rather than last, resort. Florida was the first state to enact an SYG law by statute in 2005, and then 23 states enacted SYG laws soon after, between 2006 and 2008.
Advocates claim that SYG laws enhance public safety by deterring predatory crime through an increased threat of retaliatory violence. Critics, on the other hand, argue that the laws are unnecessary, and may threaten public safety by emboldening the use of deadly violence in public encounters in which violence and injury that could have safely been avoided. There are also concerns that the laws exacerbate social inequalities in experiencing violent crime, since implicit and explicit biases of threat perception discriminate against and cause disproportionate harms among minority groups, such as Black people. Anecdotally, critics’ concerns have been realized in an increasing number of shootings of young Black men (e.g., Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, and Markeis McGlockton) where self-defense has been claimed. These high-profile incidents underline the controversy surrounding SYG laws and have served to galvanize the Black Lives Matter movement.
David Humphreys, an associate professor at the University of Oxford and one of the paper’s authors, told the Washington Post that proponents of SYG laws argue that they have “some protective effect on public safety and deterring violence.”
“There doesn’t seem to be any evidence to show that and, you know, we only seem to see the opposite effect,” he added.
The paper states that even though “the enactment of SYG laws was not associated with significant change in violent deaths in all states, there was no evidence that SYG laws were associated with decreases in homicide or firearm homicide.”
“The accumulation of evidence established in this and other studies point to harmful outcomes associated with SYG laws,” researchers pointed out. “Despite this, SYG laws have now been enacted in most states, and the uptake of new SYG bills continues to be popular, unnecessarily risking lives.”
“Although the uptake was initially concentrated in the South, by 2021, 30 states had enacted SYG laws, and this number continues to increase as a raft of ongoing bills make their way through state legislatures,” noted the authors. “Fourteen states currently having SYG bills under active consideration.”