(By NCrissie B)
Florida state representative Dennis Baxley (R-Ocala) sponsored the ‘Stand Your Ground’ law that drew national attention after self-styled neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman shot and killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. In March he defended the law on the Lehrer News Hour, claiming it had “saved thousands of lives.”
Representative Baxley offered no evidence to back up his claim, and a new study by Texas A&M economists Cheng Cheng and Mark Hoekstra suggests Rep. Baxley won’t offer evidence anytime soon. Professors Cheng and Hoekstra compared crime statistics in states that had adopted ‘Stand Your Ground’ (SYG) laws, to those of states with previously similar crime statistics that had not adopted SYG laws.
Note: The study’s authors refer to these as “castle doctrine laws.” However the castle doctrine protected the right of self-defense in one’s own home, with no duty to retreat, long before SYG laws were proposed. SYG laws removed the duty to retreat from confrontations outside the home. I have replaced their references to “castle doctrine” with [SYG].
Their conclusion is disturbing (boldface added):
In recent years, more than 20 states have strengthened their self-defense laws by adopting [SYG] laws. These statutes widen the scope for the justified use of lethal force in self-defense by stating the circumstances under which self-defense is justified and removing the duty to retreat from a list of protected places outside the home. In addition, in some cases they establish a presumption of reasonableness and remove civil liability. Thus, these laws could hypothetically deter crime or, alternatively, escalate violence. To our knowledge, this is the first paper to examine empirically which of these possibilities, if any, is true.
The Palm Beach Post op-ed linked above also noted that Rep. Baxley offered no evidence – when he proposed Florida’s SYG law in 2005 – that Floridians had been wrongfully prosecuted after legitimate self-defense situations. The Florida Legislature simply accepted his claim that such wrongful prosecutions could happen, and his argument that SYG would both prevent those wrongful prosecutions and deter would-be criminals. Oops….
We find no evidence that [SYG] law deters crime. Furthermore, our estimates are sufficiently precise as to rule out moderate-sized deterrence effects. Thus, while our view is that it is a priori reasonable to expect that strengthening self-defense law would deter crime, we find this is not the case.
The authors examined crime rates for burglary, robbery, and aggravated assault – crimes one might reasonably expect SYG to deter – in similar states with-and-without SYG, and within states before-and-after SYG laws were enacted. They found no significant difference in the rates of these crimes.
We find suggestive but inconclusive evidence that these laws increase justifiable homicide by private citizens. However, the absolute impact of even the largest and most statistically significant estimates is quite small, given how few homicides are classified in this way. Our estimates suggest the laws cause at most 50 additional justifiable homicides per year across all 23 states that adopted [SYG].
More significantly, results indicate that [SYG] laws increase total homicides by 7 to 9 percent. Put differently, the laws induce an additional 500 to 700 homicides per year across the 23 states in our sample that enacted [SYG] laws. This finding is robust to a wide set of difference-in-differences specifications, including region-by-year fixed effects, state-specific linear time trends, and controls for time-varying factors such as economic conditions and policing and incarceration rates. These findings provide evidence that lowering the expected cost of lethal force causes there to be more of it.
The additional homicides induced by [SYG] could be due to victims practicing self-defense under the terms of the new law, an increased propensity by criminals to use lethal force when committing crimes or encountering resistance, the escalation of other conflicts, or some combination of the above. While we would expect different analysts to weight homicides from these situations differently, it is clear that the primary impact of these laws, beyond giving potential victims additional scope to protect themselves, is to increase the loss of human life. Thus, in light of our findings, our view is that an informed debate over these laws will weigh the increased protection offered to law-abiding citizens against the increase in homicide that results from the laws.
The evidence shows that SYG laws have not “saved thousands of lives.” Quite the contrary, SYG laws have resulted in thousands more deaths. If state legislators care about evidence, and not simply NRA rhetoric, they should start to save lives … by ending the bloody experiment called ‘Stand Your Ground.’