A Closer Look at Stand Your Ground Laws

Parker parent and DePaul University Associate Professor and Co-Area Head of Media Art Chi-Jang Yin recently led students through a close examination of stand your ground laws and their relationship to violent crimes and implicit bias in a special Morning Ex.

Yin opened this presentation by contrasting data related to actual crime trends showing that violent crime has steadily declined since 1994 with data related to Americans’ perceptions of crime worsening in our country, a perception that has been increasing during that same period of time.

The belief that violent crimes have been growing has led 33 states to pass “stand your ground” or “shoot first” laws since 2005. These laws are unique in that they allow a person to use deadly force in self-defense in public. These laws, previously limited to one’s property, justify the use of deadly force if a person reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death. There are variances among these types of laws as well. Some state laws permit the use of deadly force in public places, with no duty to retreat. Some state laws permit the use of deadly force in public only when the shooter is in a vehicle, and some states have “shoot first” protections, which may be invoked in criminal trials.

The presenter then took a close look at the case of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old African-American teenager from Miami Gardens, Florida, who was fatally shot in Sanford, Florida by George Zimmerman in 2012. Zimmerman claimed self-defense, and the jury acquitted him of second-degree murder and manslaughter in July 2013. Yin then shared an excerpt from the court hearing against “stand your ground laws” that followed this incident.

Yin shared that, while supporters of “stand your ground” laws argue that they not only legally allow people to defend themselves against criminal acts, but also deter would-be criminals from carrying out an attack, the research doesn’t support this argument. Instead, studies support the big argument against “stand your ground” laws: they legally empower people to use force even when it’s not necessary, which could lead to more unnecessary violence. “Shoot first” or “stand your ground” laws allow a person to use deadly force in self-defense in public—even if retreating might safely avoid use of such force.

Some view these laws as undermining the criminal justice system because they have proven to put public safety at risk. Others point to a marked increase in homicides in states that have passed these laws as an indicator that they have increased, not decreased, gun violence over time. Additionally, several studies have shown that the race of the attacker and victim are highly significant factors in determining whether or not an attack is justified, feeding into preconceived stereotypes and fueling a cycle of ignorance and violence.

In closing her presentation, Jin spoke to the realities of today and the need to be wary of strangers regardless of a state’s laws. Putting on her parent hat, she related discussions about these matters with her 1st grade son. Referencing The Berenstain Bears Learn About Strangers, she used the apples-in-a-barrel analogy: some may look good from the outside, but not so great when you cut into them, and others may not look so great from the outside, but the blemishes are only skin deep. The bottom line is you can’t judge the quality of an apple or a person’s character from looks alone. You’ve got to make the effort to investigate further for yourself.

An amazing presentation from an amazing parent and professor!

More information on Chi-Jang Yin and her work is available here.
Francis W. Parker School educates students to think and act with empathy, courage and clarity as responsible citizens and leaders in a diverse democratic society and global community.