Murders climbed 22 percent in Florida in the decade after the state enacted its “Stand Your Ground” self-defense law, even after accounting for the expected spike in justifiable homicides, a new study suggests.
Before the law took effect in October 2005, Florida residents had a right to use lethal force when they felt their life was endangered by a home intruder. The “Stand Your Ground” law extended this right beyond the home, justifying deadly force for self-defense in other situations.
On average, from 1999 to 2005, lawful homicides accounted for just 3.4 percent of all homicides in Florida. Between 2006 and 2015, the proportion of lawful homicides rose, accounting on average for 8.7 percent of homicides, researchers report in JAMA Internal Medicine.
This translates into a 75 percent increase in justifiable homicides after the `Stand Your Ground’ law took effect. But it also means lawful homicides don’t explain the surge in murders because they made up just a fraction of the total fatalities, said lead study author David Humphreys of the University of Oxford in the U.K.
“While the right to defend yourself is an important legal defense embedded in legal systems across the world, there is a careful balance to be struck between affording individuals the right to use violent force in certain circumstances and actively encouraging the use of lethal violence to resolve minor conflicts,” Humphreys said by email.
Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law gained widespread notoriety in 2012 after Trayvon Martin, an unarmed teen, was fatally shot by a neighborhood watch captain, George Zimmerman, who claimed he acted in self-defense. Zimmerman was charged with second-degree murder and later acquitted.
A study published last year by Humphreys and colleagues found an abrupt and sustained increase in homicide rates in Florida after the law took effect. Critics of this study said it didn’t distinguish between justifiable homicides and murder, and suggested a spike in lawful killings might explain the rising homicide rates.
The current findings should put that critique to rest, said Alex Piquero, a criminology researcher at the University of Texas at Dallas who wasn’t involved in either study.
“Both justifiable and unlawful homicides increased substantially after the law’s effective date,” Piquero said by email.
“Unlawful homicides made up the majority of that increase,” Piquero added.
One shortcoming of the study is that researchers only had data on how homicides were classified by the authorities, not what people were thinking when they decided to use lethal force.
“The difference between murder and justifiable homicide hinges largely on the self-reported and difficult to refute subjective feeling of being threatened prior to killing someone,” said Aaron Kivisto, a psychology researcher at the University of Indianapolis who wasn’t involved in the study.
Some previous research, however, suggests that gun owners are no less likely than other people to be victims of crimes, and that self-defense laws like `Stand Your Ground’ don’t change this, Kivisto said by email.
“Often, the reverse is true and gun owners are at heightened risk relative to non-gun owners for being the victim of a violent crime,” Kivisto added. “In contrast, laws strengthening background checks and enacting permit-to-purchase requirements for gun ownership are strongly linked to reductions in gun homicides.”
Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law goes further than laws in other states in defining what can be considered self-defense. In Florida, for example, people aren’t required to retreat when possible to avoid a lethal conflict. A recent change to Florida law also requires self-defense claims to be disproved by prosecutors, not proven by the defense.
“Situations can escalate quickly and become fatal when retreat isn’t necessary to claim self-defense, even in public places,” said Ziming Xuan, a researcher at Boston University School of Public Health who wasn’t involved in the study.
“In the context of self-defense, when someone is confronted with a threat of safety in a public place, it should be better to retreat when retreating is safe and practical to do,” Xuan said by email. “To take the fatal action of using deadly force can endanger the lives of innocent people in public space.”