Standing Your Ground

A new NBER paper examines the effect of Stand Your Ground self-defense laws, which “eliminate the longstanding legal requirement that a person threatened outside of his or her own home retreat rather than use force.”  Chandler B. McClellan and Erdal Tekin exploit cross-state variations in implementation dates to determine the effect of these laws on homicides.  Their findings are grim: 

Our results indicate that Stand Your Ground laws are associated with a significant increase in the number of homicides among whites, especially white males.  According to our estimates, between 4.4 and 7.4 additional white males are killed each month as a result of these laws.  We find no evidence to suggest that these laws increase homicides among blacks.  Our results are robust to a number of specifications and unlikely to be driven entirely by the killings of assailants.

In the paper, the authors add that:

It is possible that some of the additional homicides associated with the SYG law may indeed be driven by the homicides of assailants.  However, note that the net increase in homicides cannot be accounted by a one-to-one substitution between killings of assailants and killings of innocent individuals unless multiple assailants are killed in some instances (Cheng and Hoekstra, 2012).  If at least some of the additional homicides are due to individuals resorting to the use of deadly force against each other in situations where the threat of death or serious bodily injury is not imminent to either party, this could indicate that these laws impose serious costs not only on criminals both also private citizens as well. It is also possible that potential intruders and attackers, who, in the absence of SYG laws, could have gotten away with their crimes without killing anyone, are now killed as a result of these laws.

Eighteen states have passed Stand Your Ground laws since 2005.

 

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  1. jonathan says:

    One reason there is so little resistance to pro-gun laws in the US is that the vast number of guns hasn’t caused an appreciable spurt in crime. There seems little difference in crime between areas that have stricter or looser gun laws. But these stand your ground laws do seem to cause more gun use, which means they’re bad.

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    • Tom says:

      I don’t have any figures handy, but the gun-related murder rate is invariable lower in almost every Canadian city than almost every American city, per capita. Canada’s big and small cities have very similar poverty problems to American ones, so the big difference seems to be the lack of gun control in the US. So it would seem that more gun control actually does reduce gun-related deaths.

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      • Enter your name... says:

        It’s not just a “number of guns” or “gun regulation” issue.

        Switzerland has half as many guns per adult compared to the US, but the have far fewer BB rifles (which aren’t likely to kill anyone) and far more military-grade weapons. They also have almost half as many guns per household, with most households having a gun and most of them that have a gun having exactly one (their militia weapon). In the US, most households have zero guns, but those that do have gun commonly having multiple firearms (e.g., a shotgun, a deer rifle, a handgun, and a BB rifle for the kids).

        So the Swiss have more access to firearms (more people have one in the home), but their rate of firearm homicide is one-sixth of the US’s. I think there s a cultural component.

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      • Mark Buehner says:

        Except that Canada had very little gun control until the late 90s, but their gun crime rates have always been far lower than the US. Same goes for UK. There is a huge cultural component, but Canada also doesn’t have nearly the level of gang/drug culture big US cities have (even the big Canadian cities). You can’t overstate the effect of the US drug war on all of this. Murder is extremely profitable.

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      • Ken Shelton says:

        Canada, like Japan or Denmark has a more homogeneous population, lacks the gang culture prevalent in metropolitan areas in the US and its ethos promotes stronger social ties than one sees in the US’s cardboard, take-out culture.

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    • Timmy D says:

      Gun control in one state or area is ineffective if you can hop in your car, drive an hour to the next state, buy your gun, and then drive back home. One thing we can be sure of is that there is no scientific proof that demonstrates that more guns result in a safer society.

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  2. Steven Gangstead says:

    Live free or die.

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  3. Mike B says:

    While I disagree with the notion of being required to retreat in the face of a threat, SYG laws need to be tightened to discourage the use of force unless absolutely necessary. For example a person should actually be under threat of attack or attacked before being allowed to use force and they should be required to reasonably prove such a threat or attack took place. Also if such a threat goes away all use of force must stop. Also, as we saw in the Florida situation, one should not get a free pass if they themselves provoke the threat or attack.

    However improved SYG laws can be worded will take careful thought, but following situations need to be clearly out of bounds.

    * Harming an attacker who flees, surrenders or is otherwise no longer a threat. (Shoot ‘em in the back)
    * Initiating physical violence where the imminent threat of violence has not yet been established. (Shoot first and ask questions later)
    * Any situation where one can induce another to trigger an SYG response. (Looking for trouble)

    SYG fanatics will often bring up situations involving the home and finding someone sneaking around one’s home at night and that’s a legitimate concern. More leeway should be given when one is in an enclosed private space like a home (or car or tent), but in a non-enclosed area, even on one’s own private property, the standard needs to be higher. Citizens need to be encouraged to deescalate potentially violent confrontations or summon trained law enforcement authorities. For example, if a crazy neighbor comes on your property because they are mad, that should not automatically empower a homeowner to use deadly force. The United States is not Iraq, we have mechanisms in place to handle that kind of thing.

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    • Some Random Economist says:

      Please provide one example of a SYG law in any state that allows someone to “shoot first and ask questions later”.

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      • Mike B says:

        If a SYG law sets the bar at “feeling” threatened instead of being threatened then in theory I am legally allowed to open fire without first either being attacked or identifying a weapon. If you do pull a Bernhard Goetz and proactively open fire you should at least be prepared to provide more proof of the threat than your own word. Use of deadly force should be a last resort, not an equivalent option to walking away.

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    • BBob says:

      * Harming an attacker who flees, surrenders or is otherwise no longer a threat. (Shoot ‘em in the back)

      - This is already always against the law, once the attacker flees he is no longer a deadly threat so you no longer have justification for a shoot.

      * Initiating physical violence where the imminent threat of violence has not yet been established. (Shoot first and ask questions later)

      - This is already against the law, if the defender does not fear for his life at the time of the shoot then it is unjustified and illegal.

      * Any situation where one can induce another to trigger an SYG response. (Looking for trouble)

      - This cannot be made illegal because it would involve knowing the future which is impossible, what one person might find alright another doesn’t, one person could take incredible offense to a joke or jest and another could laugh it off. This is something that is impossible to do.

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      • Mike B says:

        - This is already always against the law, once the attacker flees he is no longer a deadly threat so you no longer have justification for a shoot.

        Just because someone has turned and moved away does not meant they cannot make someone feel threatened. The attacker should be maneuvering to outflank you or moving to take cover to return fire or depending on state laws re: protecting one’s private property they could just be making off with your stuff. Who can refute a homeowners claim that they thought an intruder was going for a gun even if that intruder’s back was turned or had “surrendered” first. All I am saying is that if you are going to make that claim there had better be some sort of weapon present.

        Also remember that guy in Texas who was not charged with anything despite shooting two men robbing his neighbors house, in the back, as they were running away. It’s all fun and games until those that get shot aren’t illegal immigrants or weren’t committing a crime in the first place.

        - This is already against the law, if the defender does not fear for his life at the time of the shoot then it is unjustified and illegal.

        There is a difference between fearing for ones life and actually being in imminent danger of harm. The standard should be objective, not subjective. One should not get a free pass if they shoot someone that was not provably going to cause them harm. That should simply be the risk you take when you choose to use deadly force. If you make a mistake, no matter what you “felt”, its on you. My point is that people should be encouraged to retreat or deescalate, not required to. SYG laws go to the opposite extreme, encouraging people to go right to deadly force.

        - This cannot be made illegal because it would involve knowing the future which is impossible, what one person might find alright another doesn’t, one person could take incredible offense to a joke or jest and another could laugh it off. This is something that is impossible to do.

        The standard would be the intent to provoke a confrontation where a confrontation was foreseeable and avoidable. Moreover, even if there was no intent all I am saying is that in that case instead of SYG you would simply have a duty to retreat. Therefore if someone feels insulted and gets angry you would be then required to disengage if possible instead of opening fire.

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    • Kevin P. says:

      You should read up more on SYG laws to find out what they actually are. None of the SYG laws authorize what you think they do.

      Unfortunately, this is fairly common in the gun control debate – folks write lengthy missives with zero understanding of the subject.

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      • Mike B says:

        I know that the Florida law is the most permissive in the country and was written that way at the behest of the pro-gun lobby. Florida prosecutors have complained that they are unable to go after gang members who have shootouts in the street because both parties can legally claim to have felt threatened. With the standard of proof the way it is when two people have an altercation sans other witnesses and one ends up dead the other can just blame the first invoking the SYG law.

        It’s easy to write off as a Florida problem, but the pro-gun lobby makes its money by relaxing gun and self defense restrictions and therefore would give them a new standard in their SYG law efforts.

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      • Some Random Economist says:

        “If a SYG law sets the bar at “feeling” threatened instead of being threatened then in theory I am legally allowed to open fire without first either being attacked or identifying a weapon.”

        All of these laws that I know of, including Florida’s, apply a “reasonable person” standard. They don’t allow you to start blasting away simply because you get creeped out. The laws require there to be a reasonable belief of imminent danger. They also contain language limiting the type of force used to something that is reasonable or proportionate.

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    • Neil (SM) says:

      Interesting discussion and points you bring up, Mike, thanks for that.

      One comment I have is that requiring the shooter to reasonably prove a threat seems to uncomfortably shift the burden of proof in the wrong direction.

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  4. Some Random Economist says:

    At least this paper weights regressions by state population and somewhat acknowledges common law as affecting the treatment (another recent paper on the topic did neither); however, they appear not to understand how far common law can go in some states. Virginia, for example, has no “stand your ground” law on the books; but the courts have provided strong enough protection that gun-rights groups in the state have helped defeat SYG bills that they felt would lessen their protection under the law. My understanding is that many of the states that have SYG bills now had similar protections in common law before their passage.

    It’s not clear to me that there is a well-defined, exogenous treatment in this case.

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  5. kilroy says:

    One (maybe) uninteneded consequence of these laws that I noticed during the Trayvon Martin saga was the potential for a situation where it is perfectly legal for EITHER of two parties to kill each other.

    For example, two men go to a place where it is legal for them to have concealed weapons. They start talking. The talk turns to politics. The talk escalates into an argument which escalates into a full-blown fight each going back and forth with progressively more severe threats/physical contact. If the standard for stand your ground laws is to feel reasonably “threatened” or “in danger”, couldn’t either man justifiably kill the other? How would you determine when the discourse went from acceptable to someone instigating the fight?

    And is this “wild west” scenario something the voters thought about and were in favor of?

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    • alex in chicago says:

      Not true. Instigators lose the ability to claim a SYG defense unless they have actively retreated from the scenario and been re-engaged by the other party (for instance, you run out of the barfight to your car, and get chased as you are jangling you keys trying to open the door).

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      • Mike says:

        True. Understanding the “meat and potatoes” of the law helps instead of just reading blogs about it. Instead of only reading articles and blogs, anyone who is interested would be well served to find the SYG law in their own state, or in a neighboring state if their own state does not have SYG, and do some homework. Debate doesn’t help too much, unless it’s informed debate.

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  6. ed says:

    How do the authors account for reduced victim deaths as a result of the laws? Or do they look at only one side of the safety ledger?

    The key logical gaps in the authors’ analysis appear equally problematic. Obviously, permitting potential victims to confront their assailants will produce more deaths, but when the authors themselves concede they cannot determine what percentage of those killed were assailants, one can draw no conclusion regarding the laws’ efficacy or impact on safety from an increase in deaths. Note two logical errors the authors employ to avoid that reality when they claim results are “unlikely” to be driven “entirely” by the killing of assailants: 1) They believe the result is “unlikely” because “multiple assailants” would need to be killed by putative victims in some circumstances, yet they offer no reason why that result is unlikely. 2) Whether the increase is “entirely” driven by the killing of assailants is irrelevant to the underlying question, of course. If the increase is predominately driven by the killing of assailants, one could easily argue the laws are effective and increase safety.

    The only thing that’s grim, frankly, is the sloppy “empirical” research some people are using to justify their desired public policy goals.

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    • Seminymous Coward says:

      The other obvious question along these lines is: how many rapes have been halted by shooting the assailants? I, for one, don’t think that such incidents causing an increase in homicides is all that regrettable.

      Analogous questions are obvious for other crimes, though it’s obviously a sliding scale. For example, a society might be willing to trade a few carjackings for less homicides, even justified ones.

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      • RPM says:

        Absolutely. But not just rapes are prevented, other crimes too. And not just from shooting the assailant. Many crimes are prevented just by the victim producing a weapon. We just don’t hear about them on the news.

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    • tlm says:

      Do you have statistics on the reduction of victim deaths due to stand your ground laws? Why not provide them to bolster your point?

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  7. James says:

    “It is also possible that potential intruders and attackers, who, in the absence of SYG laws, could have gotten away with their crimes without killing anyone, are now killed as a result of these laws.”

    Isn’t that exactly the intent of SYG laws, to raise the potential cost of such crimes to the criminals, while decreasing it to the intended victims?

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  8. P says:

    The fact that the above paper is unable to distinguish between assailant death (justified homicide) and unjustified homicide (murder, manslaughter, etc) greatly limits its utility at determining the effects of SYG laws. As has been pointed out, increasing the costs to criminals of criminal behavior is a likely rationale for the existence of SYG laws. It should be apparent to any resident of a major US city that fear of the criminal justice system is an insufficient deterrent to violent (and recidivist) criminals.

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    • MikeL says:

      1) These studies are relatively new. I hope that there are links to any followup ones that explore the statistical validity of the studies.

      2) Also I hope that there is some attempt to determine the different types of people were killed in SYG states than others. If there were a lot of potential murders, rapists… killed in SYG states where as so far only a few victims were saved, then one might see a long term benefit even if in the short term there are more SYG deaths.

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