Rising numbers of civilian justifiable homicides across the US are closely linked to states with both weak gun controls and stand-your-ground laws, according to a Guardian analysis of FBI and other data, which show a 25% increase in such killings since the controversial self-defence laws started being introduced around 2005.
Stand-your-ground (SYG) measures, which have attracted increasing scrutiny since the fatal shooting of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin by a neighbourhood watch volunteer in Florida, allow citizens to use deadly force when they believe their life is in danger, without requiring them to retreat or try to escape the threat first.
Florida was the first state to introduce an SYG law in 2005 and similar measures have now been adopted in some form by more than 20 states. Many were passed in 2006.
The Trayvon Martin case has led to calls for the SYG laws to be reviewed or repealed.
But the Guardian analysis shows that these measures alone cannot be statistically linked with the rise in justifiable homicides. However, in states with both SYG laws and the weakest gun controls – as defined by the Brady Campaign against gun violence – we found a statistical correlation with an increase in justifiable homicides.
Across the US, such killings have risen sharply over the last five years, according to the data provided by the FBI and the Florida department of law enforcement. Between 2001 and 2005, there were 1,225 homicides classed as justifable, compared to 1,528 in the period 2006-2010. By contrast, violent crime overall has been falling.
It is likely that the real number of killings could be higher. The data provided on a state-by-state basis to the FBI on justifiable homicide tends to be low and there are gaps in data.
According to the FBI’s crime reporting handbook, “Justifiable homicide, by definition, occurs in conjunction with other offenses”. It reminds reporting agencies to “take care to ensure they do not classify a killing as justifiable or excusable solely on the claim of self-defense or on the action of a coroner, prosecutor, grand jury or court”.
Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign, said: “This research demonstrates a fundamental point. Stand-your-ground laws are dangerous on their own as a mentality. But when combined with weak gun laws they become a recipe for tragedy.”
He added: “Too much of the media focus has been on stand your ground alone. But we need to look at why Trayvon Martin is dead. Trayvon Martin is dead because George Zimmerman had a gun and that gun was put into his hands by the abominably low standards of guns laws in Florida. Zimmerman had a record of violence, but he was allowed to walk the streets with a loaded gun.”
Zimmerman, who admitted killing Martin but claimed self-defence under the law, had previously been charged with resisting arrest with violence and battery on an officer but the charges were dropped. He had also been accused of domestic violence in a case where he counter-accused his partner.
Professor Dennis Kenney, of John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York and a former police sergeant in Florida, said the Guardian’s findings made sense.
He said: “When more and more people carry guns and in more places, there are going to be more shootings.”
Recent years have seen an increase “not just in the number of guns, but also in the places that people have the right to take guns”, said Kenney.
“Various states are trying to remove almost all restrictions, even in bars serving alcohol. There’s a high probability in states like Florida that a large number of people around you are armed.”
Into that mix, the SYG laws remove any responsibility to diffuse a situation, he said, leading to a “wild west” system of justice.
“Justified homicides by police are also up,” said Kenney. “The police are shooting more people and citizens are shooting more people. We’re evolving into an increasingly coarse society with no obligation to diffuse a situation and rapidly turn to force.
“People are literally getting away with murder.”
The relatively low numbers of justifiable homicides per year in some states make it difficult to extend any analysis beyond the US-wide finding and between individual states.
It is worth noting that the relatively low population sizes in places like Hawaii, Alaska and Delaware, which show comparatively large increases in justifiable homicides despite having no SYG laws, make them susceptible to large swings. The numbers in each five-year period for these states are single digits.
In contrast, Florida, one of the states ranked worst for gun control laws by the Brady campaign, saw an almost tripling in the number of justifiable homicides between 2001 and 2005, when there were 66, to 2006 to 2010, when there were 180, according to data from Florida department of law enforcement. Florida’s JH data was the only data included in the Guardian’s analysis which did not come directly from the FBI.
Florida gun legislation includes statutes that ban cities and counties from regulating firearms without the state’s permission, prevent police from collecting data on firearm sales at pawnshops and forbids adoption agencies from considering gun ownership when looking at placing children, according to the San Fransico Chronicle.
Some experts pointed out that the states with weak gun controls are likely to be the same ones where stand-your-ground laws have been introduced, due to the strong belief in the right to carry arms in those states. But this is not universally true.
John Roman, senior fellow in justice policy at non-partisan thinktank The Urban Institute in Washington, DC, said: “The order of events is that we have states where lots of people own guns and believe in guns. They are more likely to pass stand-your-ground laws and weak gun controls.
“Because the stand your ground law make it harder to prove that a homicide wasn’t justified, the justified homicides go up.”
“It changes where the burden of proof lies. In a state without a SYG law, in a shooting, the police arrest you and then the burden is on the prosecutor to prove it is not self-defence.”
“When stand your ground comes into it, the police cannot arrest you before a probable cause finding. The place where the fact finding occurs is moved from the court to the street.
“When you undertake an investigation in a chaotic setting like a shooting you are more likely to make mistakes than in a setting like a trial. It is bad law because it moves the fact finding to the street. It provides a barrier to a prosecution without providing any benefits.”
But Gary Kleck, a criminologist at Florida State University, cautioned that any increase in justifiable homicides should not be taken as an actual increase in killings that might not otherwise have happened. Rather, he said, the rise could be down to a change in how police classify data.
He argued that the tripling of Florida’s civilian justifiable homicides was “implausible” and said that the reported jump from 33 in 2006 to 102 in 2007 “strongly suggests such a definitional change”.
Kleck said that one desired effect of SYG and the right to carry (RTC) laws was to deter violent criminals and reduce violent crime. In an email response to the Guardian’s data, he pointed out that violent crimes had fallen.
“In 2006, the rate of murders and non-negligent homicides (all the criminal homicides that the FBI counts) was 5.8 per 100,000 population; in 2010 (the most recent year for which data are available), the rate was 4.8 – a 17% decline in four years. The robbery rate also declined by an identical 17% over the same period, from 31.6 to 27.5.”
Kleck said: “The decline in crime that paralleled the enactment RTC and SYG laws cannot be considered proof of the effect of these laws. Indeed, I think RTC have no net effect on crime rates. My point, rather, is that these are the same kinds of correlations concerning CJH increases and enactment of these laws that your analysis has produced, and are equally ambiguous in their meaning, and equally relevant to a consideration of the effects of these types of laws.”
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