Outside the National Rifle Association annual meeting in May, protesters demanded sweeping reforms to the type of lax gun laws that contributed to the slaughter of 19 children and two teachers in Uvalde, Texas, earlier that week.
But inside the Houston convention center, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem bragged about how she was making her state even more gun friendly.
Along with repealing permit fees for concealed-carry licenses and loosening restrictions on carrying loaded guns, Noem and her fellow Republicans had found a way to dramatically expand the power of “stand your ground” laws.
Under the law passed in March, if a shooter in South Dakota claims self-defense, police and prosecutors can’t make an arrest, bring criminal charges or take a case to trial unless they can first show, with clear and convincing evidence, that the claim was false. It’s a procedural change with momentous implications, effectively undoing hundreds of years of legal precedent.
Under traditional notions of self-defense, it’s up to the person making such a claim to prove it. The new law shifts the burden of proof to the state. Now police and prosecutors must prove a negative – that a shooter was not in fear for their life – to even bring a case. According to legal experts, that’s an almost impossible standard to meet, meaning that many shooters won’t face charges for crimes as serious as murder.
“You have a right in South Dakota to protect yourself and your family,” Noem told the fired-up audience.
The South Dakota law may be extreme, but it’s not an aberration. A decade after 17-year-old Trayvon Martin’s killing in Florida brought a groundswell of public criticism of stand your ground as a legal and moral concept, laws that expand the rights of individuals to kill in self-defense have proliferated across the U.S., a new analysis by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting has found.
In February 2012, when Martin was shot, 24 states had some type of stand your ground law, a result of either legislation or court rulings. Now, 38 states have such laws, an increase of nearly 60%.
Florida, which enacted the first stand your ground law in 2005, passed a law in 2017 that forces prosecutors to disprove claims of self-defense. The legislation Noem touted in South Dakota was nearly identical to Florida’s law. Utah also enacted a law modeled explicitly after Florida’s last year.
Reveal has reviewed more than 150 cases from the last decade that involved a claim of self-defense under stand your ground-type laws. We found:
- Expanded self-defense laws are being used to justify the use of deadly force against roommates, in road rage incidents and child custody disputes, and against vulnerable groups such as people with mental illness or who are unhoused.
- Stand your ground laws are being successfully invoked in cases in which the shooter was the aggressor and in situations that could’ve been de-escalated.
- Prosecutors have cited stand your ground laws as a reason not to pursue charges against law enforcement officers and jail guards for in-custody deaths.
- Women in abusive relationships and people of color have tried and failed to invoke stand your ground in many cases, showing that these laws perpetuate inequities that are baked into the legal system.
Stand your ground’s spread has been relentless even during the pandemic, amid mounting concerns that such laws encourage vigilantism and exacerbate racial injustice. Since 2020, five states have passed new stand your ground statutes or expanded existing laws: Arkansas, North Dakota, South Dakota, Ohio and Utah. Legislators in at least five additional states have considered adopting or amending stand your ground laws.
The first wave of stand your ground laws was closely linked to the commercial interests of gun groups like the NRA. They leaned into highly racialized “fear-based messaging to create a market for personal security firearms” while pushing for a dismantling of gun safety laws, said Ari Freilich, state policy director at the Giffords Law Center. With time, those commercial and ideological interests blended together, and stand your ground became part of the conservative playbook that spread to an increasing number of states.
“Conservative lawmakers, when they take over a trifecta of legislative power in the state, this has been high on the to-do list, in part just because there’s been kind of a building momentum from other states where it’s been established that this is a priority for gun rights groups in the gun industry,” Freilich said.
Stand your ground laws are rooted in the castle doctrine, a centuries-old legal principle that allows individuals to use deadly force – such as firing a gun – to protect their home (or “castle”) from a perceived threat without a duty to retreat. Stand your ground laws expand the concept of a castle to include anywhere a person is legally permitted to be: their car, a movie theater, a gas station.
The NRA and other pro-gun groups and lawmakers have argued that stand your ground laws are necessary to avoid frivolous prosecutions of people who use their guns in self-defense. To investigate those claims, Reveal examined every major study and report on stand your ground and conducted nearly three dozen interviews with prosecutors, defense attorneys, legal experts, researchers and lawmakers across the U.S. Not a single person or study could point to any evidence that traditional self-defense laws weren’t working before stand your ground – or that public safety has improved as a result of its spread.
In fact, a new analysis by researchers at the University of Oxford and University of Pennsylvania suggests that stand your ground laws have made many parts of the U.S. more deadly. The researchers found that stand your ground was associated with up to an 11% national increase in monthly homicide rates – at least 700 additional homicides every year. Southern states saw some of the highest increases in violent deaths, including Florida (28%), Alabama (27%) and Louisiana (20%).
“By enacting these laws, you are encouraging the use of deadly force where it wasn’t needed,” said Michelle Degli Esposti, one of the study’s co-authors, “and in doing that, it is increasing the number of people dying by homicide.”
Our review of cases turned up situations of clear-cut self-defense – for example, when a killer pulled a gun only after someone they were arguing with did so first. But we also came across many instances in which a killer successfully invoked stand your ground – preempting a thorough investigation – despite it being obvious that they had started the fight or had suddenly escalated a minor dispute into a deadly feud. Stand your ground laws afford shooters a legal presumption that they were acting reasonably, but it became apparent in our review of cases that what is considered legally and socially “reasonable” has shifted alongside the proliferation of these laws.
“People see stand your ground laws as a license to pull out their guns before they use their common sense and their social skills to try to mitigate conflict,” said Caroline Light, a Harvard University researcher and author of “Stand Your Ground: A History of America’s Love Affair with Lethal Self-Defense.” Increasingly, she said people see themselves “as good citizens when they preemptively attack or pursue somebody who they believe doesn’t belong.”
Here is a selection of cases that highlight the legal, racial and gender dynamics at play in the evolution of stand your ground:
AN EVOLVING STANDARD OF REASONABLENESS
Using stand your ground’s presumption of reasonableness, police, prosecutors and jurors across the country have shielded shooters from legal accountability, even when the facts are murky or the shooter started the fight. That, combined with the increasing ubiquity of guns, has led to more killings and fewer avenues for legal accountability.
CASES INVOLVING VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN
A little-known fact: The very first stand your ground-type law was introduced in 1994 by a Utah Democrat who wanted to give domestic violence victims more legal leverage when they fought back against their abusers. But the laws that have spread across the country since Florida passed its stand your ground law in 2005 don’t include such language aimed at helping battered women – and research shows that many states have made it difficult for abuse victims to invoke stand your ground.
CASES INVOLVING RACE
Researchers have found significant racial disparities in how self-defense laws are applied. In 2021, the advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety reported that courts in stand your ground states are five times more likely to find a White person’s killing of a Black person to be justified than when a Black person kills a White person.
CASES INVOLVING STATE VIOLENCE
Across the country, there are laws that give special protections to law enforcement officers who kill someone while trying to make an arrest. While these laws long predate stand your ground, prosecutors sometimes cite general self-defense laws when justifying their decision not to bring charges against an officer who killed someone on the job.
This story was edited by Maryam Saleh, Nina Martin, Soo Oh and Andrew Donohue and copy edited by Nikki Frick.
Jonathan Jones can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, Nadia Hamdan can be reached at email@example.com, and Farah Eltohamy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Farah Eltohamy is Reveal’s 2022-23 Roy W. Howard investigative reporting fellow. Follow the reporters on Twitter: @jonathanrjones, @deccamuldowney, @nadzhamz and @farahelto.
Feature photo credits (left to right): Bob Mack/AP Photo/The Florida Times-Union, Al Pereira/New York Jets/Getty Images, mural by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh and photo by Ben Gabbe/Getty Images for Paramount Network, Laura Pellicer, Andy Barron/The Reno Gazette-Journal via AP
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