Lucille MacBeth, mother of slain Florida teen Jordan Russell Davis, did all she could to keep from crying during her testimony in front of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution earlier this week. After nearly five minutes of testimony, Lucille stopped speaking, looked down and then back up, this time with tears in her eyes: “I’ll never get to see my son’s prom photo. I never get to hear how much he enjoys his dad’s chili. No one else will ever get to know him. He’ll never get to join the Marines like he dreamed and all because of guns and the power of these laws. These laws embolden people with hate to take action with that hate.”
The hearing was to discuss the growth of violence and injustice associated with the “stand your ground” laws on the books in 25 states. Lucille’s testimony, along with that of Trayvon Martin’s mom, animated a largely academic discussion of the laws that the NAACP lists in their testimony as “the single greatest bringer of angst to our membership.”
Prior to 2005, when “stand your ground” laws began to sweep the country, most states required an individual facing a threat to retreat before using deadly force. Now these laws—accounting for small state-by-state variations—allow individuals to use deadly force if the individual feels threatened without exploring other options, such as retreating to a safe location and evading the conflict all together.
The most serious deprivation of liberty that a person can inflict is killing another individual. The irreversibility of a homicide means that error discovered after a death has occurred cannot be corrected. By creating more situations in which individuals may use lethal force without fear of legal consequences, “stand your ground” laws increase the number of people who are killed without due process of law.
“Stand your ground” laws also exacerbate existing racial disparities in the criminal justice system. An Urban Institute study examining data from the Federal Bureau of Investigations Supplementary Homicide Report found that juries are more likely to find that a killing was justified when the shooter is white and the victim black. Conversely, when the victim was white and the shooter was not, the shooter is more likely to face legal consequences.
As Attorney General Eric Holder said during his remarks to the NAACP annual conference earlier this year, laws like these undermine innocent Americans’ safety “by allowing—and perhaps encouraging—violent situations to escalate in public.” Consistent with common law principles and state statutes nationwide, Americans already have the right to defend themselves with commensurate force in situations where they face imminent harm and safe retreat is not an option. “Stand your ground” laws have nothing to do with legitimate self-defense but instead are invitations for vigilantes to use deadly and unnecessary force.
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