Information is still emerging about the case of Ahmaud Arbery — the unarmed 25-year-old slain on a quiet Georgia street — but what is known is disturbing. Two men eventually arrested in the killing told police that Arbery was running down the road and that they thought he was a burglar and shot him in self-defense. A third man was arrested Thursday. Before state officials intervened, following months of delay, a prosecutor cited Georgia’s stand-your-ground law as an exonerating factor.
Since 2005, more than 20 states have passed some form of a stand-your-ground law. These let people use deadly force to defend themselves even if they can safely retreat. It’s worth remembering that people already have the right to defend themselves with deadly force if there is no safe alternative.
Stand-your-ground laws change this traditional last resort — potentially lethal violence — into a permissible first resort.
The idea is to empower victims of crime. Instead, the laws create more victims. Stand-your-ground laws increase gun homicides by encouraging armed civilians to escalate confrontations, according to a recent review of research from the nonpartisan Rand Corp. One study found the laws resulted in an additional 600 slayings a year.
“By lowering the expected costs associated with using lethal force,” the authors noted, stand-your-ground laws “induce more of it.” Other research, using different methods and data, arrived at similar conclusions. Florida, according to another study, saw an “abrupt and sustained” increase in gun homicides after enacting its stand-your-ground law.
It’s bad enough that stand-your-ground laws increase gun homicides, but they also appear to have racially discriminatory effects. There’s evidence that, after fatal confrontations, the race of the victim is “a significant predictor” of whether a stand-your-ground defense will be effective, with defendants twice as likely to walk free after slaying nonwhites. Another analysis found that in stand-your-ground states, incidents in which white people shot someone who was black were deemed justifiable more than 11 times as often as the reverse.
Throughout U.S. history, and still today, the criminal justice system has taken white Americans’ claims of self-defense more seriously than black Americans’. This is especially troubling in stand-your-ground cases. Split-second assessments of threat may be unreliable and are often influenced by racial stereotyping even in the absence of conscious bias. Americans are more likely to think they see guns in the hands of unarmed black men than white men, for example, and perceive black children as more aggressive than white kids. That fear can quickly become a threat to an innocent person’s life.
Some Georgia politicians are pushing to repeal the state’s stand-your-ground law. That would be wise. Other states should do the same — or at the very least study their existing laws with all due skepticism, to see if they’re actually serving the cause of public safety and justice for all.