The disagreements start over the most mundane of matters.
An argument over someone texting in a movie theater; a customer at the checkout in a grocery store being jostled; a driver getting cut off by another car. But then someone pulls a gun and what could have — should have — been resolved with a little calm, and some plain common sense, ends in needless tragedy. Fueling the spiraling escalation of violence that has made the United States a global outlier in gun violence are laws that give license to people to shoot first.
“Stand your ground” laws, which allow individuals to use deadly force in public as a first resort rather than a last, came into vogue in the United States in the early 2000s and, according to a new study, are linked to a rise in gun homicides. Florida was a pioneer, enacting in 2005 a measure that essentially eliminated a citizen’s duty to retreat before using deadly force if they “reasonably believe″ their lives are threatened. Stand-your-ground was a factor in George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the 2012 fatal shooting of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin. It was cited as a reason the original prosecutor in the Ahmaud Arbery case initially decided not to bring charges against the three men ultimately convicted of fatally shooting Arbery. And it loomed over the trial of a Florida man recently acquitted for shooting to death a moviegoer with whom he had quarreled about cellphone use.
Proponents of stand-your-ground laws, put in place in some 20 states that followed Florida’s lead, say the laws enhance public safety by reducing barriers that prevent people from exercising their right to self-defense. They also claim that such laws deter crime. But a study published last week in JAMA Network Open, a peer-reviewed medical journal, found stand-your-ground laws are associated with an 11 percent increase in monthly homicide rates. That monthly increase alone, the authors wrote, is greater than total rates of homicides in most Northern and Western European countries.
The authors of the study analyzed 23 states that enacted stand-your-ground laws between 2000 and 2016, and 18 states that did not have the laws during the full study period, from 1999 to 2017. Their analysis found that stand-your-ground laws could be linked to 700 additional homicides each year. Most striking was the rise in Southern states — Florida, Alabama, Georgia and Louisiana — that were early adopters of the laws. The study’s findings also echo a 2020 review by the Rand Corp. about strong evidence linking stand-your-ground laws with an increase in firearm homicide rates.
No doubt other factors have contributed to an increase in gun violence, but laws that encourage people to grab a gun and shoot when they think they are being threatened — rather than counting to 10, walking away, calling 911 — are not an effective means of self-protection. They should be recognized as what they are: a prelude to tragedy.