The criminalization of Black people and the use of white vigilantism as a weapon of violence against us are by no means a new concept in America. After all, violence and the very palpable threat of death have followed Black people for 400 years in the land of the free. However, in recent years, part of that legacy of anti-Black violence had assumed a new name: Stand Your Ground.
Beginning in Florida in 2005, through the efforts of conservative lawmakers, the National Rifle Association and the American Legislative Exchange Council, states across the country enacted Stand Your Ground laws. The legislation allows armed people to use deadly force, invoking self-defense as a justification for killing someone they believe poses an imminent threat. Often, these laws justify the murder of Black people by whites. Between 2012 and 2016, Stand Your Ground bills have failed in state legislatures. But now, in GOP-controlled states, these laws — likely motivated by racism — are making a comeback. Black lawmakers, who represent 10 percent of state legislators, are fighting the resurgence of these laws born from segregation fear and ignorance, as The Trace reported.
While U.S. law traditionally followed the “castle doctrine” — which says the home is one’s castle and allows a person to defend his or her home through deadly force without legal consequences — this new breed of legislation has enabled the use of deadly force outside of the home or anywhere, whether or not the alleged perpetrator is armed. Within the context of racial justice, Stand Your Ground has proven highly problematic in a nation that views Black people as a threat to public safety, and where white people have relished the opportunity to deputize themselves in the policing and taking of Black lives.
Stand Your Ground was implicated in a number of high-profile cases involving the racialized killing of Black teenage victims. Two of these incidents took place in Florida in 2012, including the killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman, and the fatal shooting of Jordan Davis over loud music by a white man named Michael Dunn at a Jacksonville gas station. Studies have shown that these laws have made it easier for whites people to kill Black people with impunity. According to a 2012 study from the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center, whites who kill Blacks in Stand Your Ground states are far more likely to be found justified than in jurisdictions without the law — 354 percent more likely as opposed to 250 percent. A 2015 study in Social Science & Medicine revealed the extent of racial bias in Florida’s Stand Your Ground statute. According to the report, the race of the victim predicted whether the defendant was convicted, with a jury conviction twice as likely in cases involving white victims vs. non-white victims.
In addition, Stand Your Ground statutes, also known as “shoot first” laws, have resulted in more bloodshed. For example, according to a 2012 Texas A&M University study, instances of murder and non-negligent manslaughter increased by 8 percent in states with Stand Your Ground laws, translating into 600 more homicides per year.
A study last year from the American Medical Association found that Florida experienced a 24.4-percent increase in homicides and a 31.6-percent increase in gun-related homicides from 2005–after implementing Stand Your Ground– and 2014.
Black people have not benefited from a law that was not meant for them. The case of Marissa Alexander was a salient example. “Stand Your Ground” was not available to Alexander, who ultimately spent three years in prison and two years under home confinement in a plea deal for firing a warning shot to ward off her abusive husband. She was initially sentenced to up to 20 years in prison.
More than 20 states have implemented Stand Your Ground laws. Following four years of legislative inactivity — during which time the Black Lives Matter movement came into being and, with it, heightened awareness of racial justice issues — Republican-controlled state houses are once again enacting these laws, as The Trace reported. Black Democratic lawmakers are on the front lines of the resistance against the laws, but they are witnessing their waning power in many states, including rural districts. Missouri was the first to make this move, followed by Iowa just recently. Florida, the first Stand Your Ground state, is poised to pass an even more stringent law according to the Tampa Bay Times. The Florida House of Representatives voted for a revised and approved Senate bill that favors shooters, shifting the burden of proof in pre-trial hearings to prosecutors, who must now prove that someone invoking Stand Your Ground should not be immune from prosecution. The NRA supported the bill, while state prosecutors, gun control advocates and the entire Democratic caucus opposed the measure. Marissa Alexander testified in support of changes to the law, while Lucia McBath, the mother of Jordan Davis, expressed her opposition to the measure.
“One shot and a 12-minute verdict got me 20 years,” Alexander said in February before a state Senate committee, as the Florida Times-Union reported. “In my own home. Concealed weapon license. White-collar worker. I had just given birth to an 8-month-old, 4-pound, 12-ounce premature baby.”
“You’re going to have an inordinate number of cases now that are going to be brought forth to be tried,” said McBath, as reported by News4jax.com. “More people are going to try to use ‘Stand Your Ground’ as their lawful defense for shooting first and asking questions later.”