Study claims "Stand Your Ground" laws linked to higher homicide rates

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Gun control activists have long claimed that “Stand Your Ground” laws, which remove a legal duty to retreat in the face of an attack before an individual can act in self-defense, encourage vigilantism and actually cause more crimes than they help prevent. Now a new study purportedly backs up those claims, with researchers alleging that the laws led to a dramatic increase in homicides in some of the states that put SYG laws in place.

Stand-your-ground laws are associated with an 11 percent increase in monthly firearm homicide rates, according to the new study, with especially striking jumps in Southern states that embraced stand-your-ground early on. That amounts to 700 additional homicides each year, according to the findings published Monday in JAMA Network Open, a peer-reviewed medical journal.

Justifications for stand-your-ground often “center around these laws actually having some protective effect on public safety and deterring violence,” said David Humphreys, an associate professor at the University of Oxford and one of the paper’s authors, in an interview. “There doesn’t seem to be any evidence to show that and, you know, we only seem to see the opposite effect.”

The research echoes some other studies that found spikes in firearm homicides after the laws were passed — especially in Florida, which kicked off a wave of stand-your-ground legislation in 2005. Michelle Degli Esposti, the study’s lead author, said she and her colleagues “really wanted to unravel whether [Florida] was just this outlier.”

First off, I’m not convinced that Florida’s homicide rate dramatically increased after Stand Your Ground was passed in 2005. According to FBI Uniform Crime Report statistics, Florida’s homicide rate in 2005 was 5.0 per 100,000. The homicide rate did rise for three years after the law’s passage, ultimately reaching 6.6 homicides per 100,000, but then declined for the next six years. In 2019, the state’s homicide rate was 5.2 per 100,000, which isn’t a significant difference from the pre-Stand Your Ground homicide rate. And both figures are far below the  state’s high of 15 murders per 100,000 people set back in 1981.

But that’s not the only issue I have with this new study. According to the researchers, some states that adopted Stand Your Ground laws saw huge increases in the number of murders, but many others saw no impact whatsoever.

The largest jumps in homicides and firearm homicides — as high as 33.5 percent — occurred in southern states including Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana and Missouri. In contrast, stand-your-ground laws were not associated with significant changes in Arizona, Indiana, Michigan, Nevada, Oklahoma, Texas and West Virginia, the study found.

That suggests stand-your-ground is not the only factor at play, the researchers acknowledge.

No, this doesn’t just “suggest” that Stand Your Ground laws aren’t the only factor. It suggests that this study is utter nonsense. Why would the establishment of these laws led to a 33% increase in homicides in places like Louisiana and Alabama, but had virtually no impact on murders in Arizona or Texas? One academic has a theory, but I’m not buying it.

Michael Siegel, a doctor and researcher at Tufts University School of Medicine who was not part of the research team, expanded on the possible explanations in a commentary for JAMA Network Open: “I would argue that the most important factor is the public’s awareness of the change in the law,” he writes, pointing to intense media coverage, public discussion and a campaign by the National Rifle Association as Southern states passed stand-your-ground laws in 2005, 2006 and 2007.

Siegel also speculates that another factor may be “required to interact with the presence of a [stand-your-ground] law to result in increased homicide, such as a culture of violent self-defense, a high prevalence of gun ownership, or easier access to guns because of weaker state regulation.”

Texas passed its Stand Your Ground in 2007, amidst a lot of media coverage, public discussion, and widespread gun ownership. According to Siegal’s theory, homicides should have soared in the state as a result, yet the study’s authors say there was no noticeable impact at all after the law took effect.

There’s another major issue with this new study that’s worth pointing out. According to the researchers, one of the things they were hoping to look at any “protective effect on public safety and deterring violence” generated by Stand Your Ground laws, yet they didn’t study anything other than homicides. What happened to armed robberies, carjackings, home invasions, or even burglaries after Stand Your Ground took effect in these states?

According to FBI crime stats, robberies, aggravated assaults, and burglaries all declined by about 50% in Florida between 2007 and 2019; a steeper drop than what was seen during the same time period in gun control-friendly California, which doesn’t have a Stand Your Ground law in place.

This research looks more like junk than science to me, especially given the wide disparity in homicide rates found in states that have adopted Stand Your Ground laws. Sadly, most people aren’t going to read beyond the headlines and really will be left with the impression that these laws lead to more murders, even though the data itself tells a much different story.