Editor’s Note: David A. Love writes for thegrio.com, a website dedicated to covering news in the African-American community. He is a writer and commentator based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidALove. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his. View more opinion articles on CNN.
“Stand your ground” laws generally give individuals a license to use deadly force in response to a threat or physical force without the fear of serving a prison sentence. While on the surface the laws give individuals the right to protect themselves, they can provide a literal get-out-of-jail pass for those who use them as legal justification for racially charged acts of violence.
In 2005, Florida was the first state to enact a “stand your ground” law, which allows people to fatally shoot others in public without attempting to escape if they feel threatened, all without fear of criminal prosecution. States across the country have passed their own versions of this law, but Florida’s arguably goes the furthest to protect the shooter.
Under Florida’s “stand your ground” law, not only does an individual have “no duty to retreat” when faced with “imminent death or great bodily harm,” but a recent change to the law made it even easier for defendants to get off by shifting the burden of proof to the state. In other words, the state must prove that the shooter was not acting in self-defense.
It should be no surprise, then, that “stand your ground” cases in Florida have come under the spotlight. Just last month, for instance, Michael Drejka, a white man, fatally shot Markeis McGlockton, an unarmed black man, in front of the victim’s loved ones in a dispute over a handicapped parking space in Clearwater. Invoking the “stand your ground” law, the Pinellas County sheriff did not arrest Drejka – claiming his hands were tied – a decision that even some NRA lobbyists and Republican sponsors of the legislation refute.
Lawmakers have weighed in on the killing of McGlockton. Five Democratic members of Congress have asked the US Department of Justice to investigate the case. Florida Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum has called for a state of emergency in Florida and a repeal of the law, given the concern parents have that they or their children risk being gunned down under the measure.
In a tweet, Gillum did not mince words, noting that the law “is being used by vigilantes to turn themselves into judge, jury and executioner.”
While people may claim self-defense on a reasonably perceived threat, what is reasonable in a society where we’ve seen whites, harboring overt racism or implicit bias, perceive people of color as suspicious or criminals who must be terminated or, at the very least, apprehended?
As Gillum, who is black, said at a news conference, “We all know that stand your ground is not colorblind. If we’re going to talk about it, we’re going to have to talk about it fully.” He continued, “We all know that based on the color of my skin I present a certain threat. A certain level of threat that might cause someone to have the power to snuff out my life or my children’s lives.”
These laws only lead to more bloodshed; they encourage more violence and produce more dead black and brown bodies. This, in a country where the right of lethal self-defense was intended for white-male property owners and denied to slaves, freedmen and Native Americans whose lands were stolen from under them.”
The reality is that the laws’ impact goes beyond letting those who shoot to kill walk free. They also give them the confidence to shoot to kill in the first place, regardless of whether the stand your ground defense holds up in court.
In the 2012 shooting death of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, George Zimmerman was acquitted after invoking the stand your ground defense. Yet Michael David Dunn, who also tried to invoke stand your ground, was sentenced to life without parole for the 2012 murder of Jordan Davis, 17, outside a Jacksonville gas station in a dispute over loud music.
Some may point to these two examples and say the law is not racially biased because Dunn, a white man, was convicted of murdering Davis, a black teen. But to say this is to ignore a crucial point – one that Lucia McBath, Davis’ mother, made very clear. McBath, who is now a running for Congress in Georgia, argued that the law empowered Dunn to spray her son’s car with bullets, as it contributes to the gun violence epidemic.
“People like Mr. Dunn feel empowered to use their gun instead of their voice to reason with others,” McBath said in her 2013 testimony to the then-called subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights.
In fact, a 2015 study in the journal Social Science & Medicine found that stand your ground is rife with racial bias. According to the research, defendants in Florida were nearly twice as likely to be convicted in a case involving white victims than they were in cases with victims of color.
The racial disparities in justifiable homicides under stand your ground only support the notion that this law was designed to benefit white shooters and not gun owners of color. According to the Urban Institute, when both the shooter and victim are white, 11% of these cases are ruled justifiable. When both parties are black, the rate is 8%. However, when the shooter is white and the victim is black, the rate of justifiable homicide is 34%. But when the shooter is black and the victim is white, that rate is only 3%.
Further, those who claim stand your ground helps fight crime should take into account that in the decade after Florida enacted the law, murders increased 22%, with a 75% hike in justifiable homicides. Nationwide, states with stand your ground witnessed a 53% average increase in the justifiable homicide rate after passage of the law. Meanwhile, states that did not enact the law experienced an average decline of 5% in justifiable homicides during the same period, according to a 2013 study from Mayors Against Illegal Guns, the National Urban League and VoteVets.org.
The numbers are hard to argue with: “Stand your ground” is a racially unjust law that leads to an increase in bloodshed. And with heartbreaking acts of gun violence making headlines on a regular basis, the last thing we need is a law that gives people a license to kill.