How Stand Your Ground Laws Allow Implicit Bias to Legalize Death

By:  Ridgeway Woulfe and Robert Bryson

The entire country, and most of the world, is familiar with George Zimmerman and his acquittal of charges after killing black teenager Trayvon Martin.  At the time of Zimmerman’s arrest, the debate concerning “stand your ground” laws surged. By the time Zimmerman was acquitted, over 30 states had stand your ground laws.   Over 6 years have gone by since Martin was killed, and the number is roughly the same.  Though the topic of discussion has changed many times over, Mr. Zimmerman’s bullets did more than kill a teenage boy: it forever scarred minority community’s belief in racial progression.

To understand stand your ground laws, one must understand its antithesis.  Under traditional common law, in order to claim self-defense in a public space, a person would need to retreat “to the wall,” or retreat as much as reasonably possible before using deadly force against another.  Stand your ground laws, by contrast, remove this burden.  Stand your ground permits the use of deadly force by anyone in public anytime they are in reasonable fear for their life.

Stand your ground make intuitive sense. Why should the law put the burden on the victim to determine when they can use deadly force to protect themselves? Why isn’t the aggressor the one deterred? The problem, however, is that the law puts a lot of faith in the average person rationally determining when they are “reasonable fear for their life.” This subjective standard could (and has) resulted in public executions based purely on a person’s fear. Stand your ground laws undermine the fundamental concepts of justice, investigation, and conviction. 

In a perfect world in which everyone reacted to and treated everyone the same, based purely on objective factors, stand your ground might work. However, we don’t live in a post-racial, post-religious, post-label world. There are implicit biases which clouds people’s judgment and causes them to react harsher to those dressed a certain way, those with tattoos or piercings, or based on the color of a person’s skin or the language they speak. And, this bias disproportionately falls on minorities, especially, African Americans.  While the most recent national discussion about implicit bias has been about police officers disproportionately killing African Americans, implicit bias plays out in vastly different situations every day, across the country.

 Keep in mind that juries determine whether the use of deadly force was the result of “reasonable” fear.  If people view minorities as implicitly more threatening, minorities are hurt by these laws on two levels.  On one hand, people are more likely to feel threatened by innocent actions of minorities and are therefore more likely to use deadly force against them (this is of course ignoring race-based murders using the guise of self-defense).  On the other hand, if the killer faces trial, juries are more likely to view the fear as reasonable, and therefore find the killing justifiable self-defense.  These biases create situations in which an African American is killed and his white American killer is set free because he is viewed less as less threatening by the jury. Conversely, a white American could be killed and his African American killer is convicted – despite the assertion of Stand Your Ground – because he is viewed as more threatening. 

An analysis of empirical data in Florida (where Mr. Zimmerman killed Mr. Martin), showed that when the victim was black, 73% of killers claiming self-defense were acquitted.  Meanwhile, where the victim was white, that number was only 59%.  The difference can be even more striking when considered nationally.

As the country continues to grapple with gun control law, it is also important not to forget battles from years prior that went without action.  Unlike gun control, the 2nd Amendment is not central to stand your ground laws, making changes easier to enact.  Simple statutory changes are all it takes to correct this systematically disproportionate oppression.

Implicit bias is present in everything we do, it cannot be avoided. However, it can be controlled through the objective application of the law. Stand Your Ground is based almost entirely on subjective fear, which enhances our shared biases, rather than controls them.

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