Last week, a judge in Florida ruled that the trial of George Zimmerman in the death of 17-year-old Travon Martin will begin next week, as scheduled.  The case will put Florida’s “stand your ground” (SYG) law front and center.  How does Florida’s SYG law work?  What was it supposed to do, and does it accomplish those goals?

I was interviewed on SYG laws on WESA Public Radio’s Essential Pittsburgh on June 3.  (The interview is here.)  Here’s a brief rundown of what I know.

For centuries, Anglo-American law on homicide and self-defense have had a singular goal: avoid violence and death.   If a person is faced with an illegal forcible attack, he or she can engage in self-defense, using as much force as necessary but no more.  An attack with fists can be met with fists, but not with firearms. (Possible exception: the fists of a trained fighter or martial arts expert.)  If one is faced with deadly force, one can use deadly force in self-defense, but if there is a way that one can retreat from the threat  in absolute safety — that is, if the victim can get away without putting himself at risk — the law required him to retreat and avoid the fight.  This was consistent with the overall idea: avoid injury and death if at all possible.

The one exception to the rule of safe retreat was that one did not have to retreat within one’s own home.  This was called the Castle Doctrine: your home is your castle, your ultimate place of safety, and one should not have to flee to safety when they are already at home.

Florida’s SYG law changed this.  A person under deadly attack did not have to retreat in his home, or in any other place that he had a right to be.  There was no more obligation to retreat outside the home; rather, the person could stand his ground and resort to deadly violence in his own defense, even if there was a safe way out of the situation.  In addition, the Florida SYG law put in place strong presumptions preventing a victim who killed an attacker from being criminally charged, and preventing him from being sued.  Most SYG laws have some or all of these features.

SYG laws were supposed to do three things.  First, advocates said the laws would lower the rate of serious crime, because criminals would be deterred.  Second, SYG laws would be a particular deterrent against homicides.  Third, they would put an end to criminal charges against people engaged in legitimate self-defense and the lawsuits that these people were facing from the criminals who they shot (or their survivors).

How has this worked out?

I am a member of the American Bar Association’s National Task Force on Stand Your Ground Laws, which is currently holding a series of hearings on SYG laws around the U.S., and collecting the relevant research studies on these laws and how they work in practice.  (The next hearing is in Philadelphia on Thursday, June 6, and is open to the public; complete information is here.)   The studies show something different than advocates for these laws expected.  The leading scholarship on SYG laws, from researchers at Texas A & M University, shows that in states that have passed SYG laws, serious crime is unchanged — not down — and homicide has shown an overall increase of 8 percent.  (Here is another study that also shows how homicide increases.)  And as far as criminal charges and/or lawsuits, those seem not to have been anything more than anecdotes in the first place.

I’ll post more on what we learn as the Task Force does its work.

  1. susan freiman says:

    The use of the defense here seems to give the jury a chance to acquit because they’re racially prejudiced.

    Israel has a similar law, which permits killing a trespasser without personally being threatened. It was enacted to permit settlers to kill trespassing Palestinians who are suspected of maybe wanting to steal agricultural equipment. It was enacted after a settler killed a trespasser by shooting him in the back.

  2. Professor Clifford Sanders says:

    This is a timely and relevant article that has been written on the stand your ground laws. Florida has given the dangerous decision making abilities to the citizen in deciding when their safety is being threatened to level that justifies the use of deadly force. Because there is no “duty to retreat” under this law. Consequently, many private citizens in Florida have been murdered in cold blood with this being used as a shameless scapegoat.

    However, when one looks at the Zimmerman case, there are several unequivocal facts that create an inability for the defendant to utilize this law:
    1) the defendant was armed which violated any hoa laws of the complex as it relates to security personnel.
    2) the defendant admitted to following the deceased even after being told by law enforcement not to.
    3) according to a cell phone call that he was on minutes before the killing, the deceased became frightened when he realized that he was being followed by a man with a gun.
    4) as a result, the deceased started running from the perceived threat that the defendant posed and the defendant continued to pursue the deceased and initiated the contact.
    5) at such time, the deceased not the defendant had the right to stand his ground and defend himself against what was a threat to his safety. George does not share a similar scenario and will Consequently be found guilty of murder.

  3. Tom Barker says:

    Why the discussion of “stand your ground laws.” I didn’t think that the defense was going to use it.

    • Hi Tom — Zimmerman has only elected to waive the pre-trial SYG immunity hearing, but has preserved his SYG defense, which he intends to assert at trial. Essentially, Zimmerman has elected to merge his SYG hearing with the trial to permit the jury to decide the validity of his defensive claims as opposed to the judge alone, which would be the procedure had he not waived the pre-trial immunity hearing. Sorry I was slow to get back to you, but I wanted to double check my understanding with a Fla attorney who knows the case.

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