On Tuesday October 29th the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights held a hearing to investigate Stand Your Ground laws and their impact on civil rights and public safety. Here is the written testimony Million Hoddies submitted to the Subcommittee.
To: Honorable Members of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights
FROM: Amy Frame, National Legislative Director, Million Hoodies Movement for Justice
SUBJECT: Subcommittee Hearing on Stand Your Ground Laws
DATE: October 29th, 2013
On behalf of Million Hoodies Movement for Justice I would like to thank the Subcommittee for this opportunity to submit these comments on the topic of Stand Your Ground Laws and their impact on public safety and civil rights.
About Million Hoodies Movement for Justice
Million Hoodies Movement for Justice is a multiracial alliance of concerned citizens, civil society organizations, and community leaders who are alarmed at the unprecedented levels of unrestrained violence directed at young people of color in the United States of America. Formed in the wake of the shooting of Trayvon Martin, we seek to find creative solutions to end racial violence in America.
Million Hoodies Movement for Justice has over 50,000 members in every state of the union and has created a national network dedicated to confronting the social and legal conditions that contribute to the senseless violence that has taken the lives of too many of our children.
While we recognize that issues of race are a primary driver to this violence, we also understand that permissive and misguided gun laws also contribute to a violent atmosphere in our communities that exacerbates this violence and creates a dangerous environment for all of America's kids. Every child in our country deserves to live in a safe community free from the fear of gun violence.
About Stand Your Ground Laws
Stand Your Ground Laws are extension of what is commonly referred to as the Castle Doctrine; the belief that people have the right to use deadly force to secure their homes against intruders. However, while traditional Castle Doctrine legal protections held that a shooter only has this right in their own home; Stand Your Ground does not. Instead, shooters are allowed to use deadly force anywhere they are legally allowed to be, including public streets and regardless of the presence of bystanders. Stand Your Ground statutes also remove the obligation to retreat in a conflict if it is possible to do so. Shooters may fire even when the opportunity to retreat is present. Additionally, some states allow the use of deadly force to protect property items on nominal value even when there is no imminent danger to the shooter or allow a shooter to use force upon a retreating individual. In short, Stand Your Ground allows shooters to continue to use deadly force even when an immediate threat to personal safety is not present.
Currently, there are Stand Your Ground Laws on the books in 22 US states. This legislation has been supported primarily by the American Legislative Exchange Council that has spent millions of dollars promoting it to state legislatures at the behest of the National Rifle Association and other gun industry groups.
Impacts of Stand Your Ground Laws
The effects of these laws have been devastating in jurisdictions where they have been put into force. Rather than deterring crime, Stand Your Ground statutes appear to have contributed to an increase in in shootings with no impact on the rate of the crimes that these statutes are meant to deter such as robbery or burglary. States that have Stand Your Ground laws have seen an explosion of justifiable homicide. The average increase in rates of justifiable homicides for states with these laws is 53%, with increases as high as 725% in Kentucky. States with Stand Your Ground laws have also seen an increase in the overall rate of homicides and shootings adding an additional 700 deaths nationally a year, while states without these laws have seen a slight decrease in similar crimes. While Stand Your Ground laws have not decreased the crimes they were designed to deter, they have led to a dramatic increase in the number of people willing to shoot other citizens in a conflict.
The reason for this is simple. Stand your Ground laws reduce the perceived costs for shooters when they use deadly force against other community members. These laws give gun owners the impression that shooting in a confrontation is legally permissible and they are legally protected even when they act as the aggressor during an altercation. Whether or not the law will be applied successfully in court is irrelevant, the victim has already been injured or killed and the community must bear the financial and social costs of the violence. Convicting a shooter who incorrectly applies a Stand Your Ground defense cannot bring back a victim or remove the fear created in communities where these shootings occur.
In fact, the legal regime created by many statutes makes it difficult for the justice system to effectively investigate shootings and provide justice for shooting victims. Statutes in a number of states prohibit the arrest of shooters claiming Stand Your Ground or they allow a pre-trial hearing before a judge to determine if the defense is valid. This removes juries of citizens from participating in these cases and keeps community members from participating in the justice system. It also hampers law enforcement from doing effective investigation into shootings. Additionally, some states prohibit civil actions against shooters, even when they injure innocent bystanders, or they place the burden of attorney's fees on victims and their families automatically if they bring a civil suit and lose.
The impact of Stand Your Ground laws has been particularly disastrous to communities of color. In Stand Your Ground states rate of justifiable homicide against African-Americans doubled since the passage of these laws, while it remained the same in the rest of the country. These laws allow the perception of the shooter to govern whether it is justifiable to shoot. Sadly, often these shooters perceptions are colored by racial stereotypes and prejudice.
The Stand Your Ground defense also appears to be disproportionally successful along racial lines. The most successful use of a Stand Your Ground defense is when a white male shoots a black male. When a white shooter shoots a black victim they successfully use a Stand Your Ground defense in 34% of cases, while black shooters firing on white victims are successful only 3.3% of the time. This underscores the danger of a law that can be applied arbitrarily and can reinforce cultural or racial bias. Shootings of unarmed African-American teenagers like Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis illustrate that shooters feel that they can justifiably shoot African-Americans even when they initiate the conflict themselves simply because they view African-Americans as dangerous or suspicious.
Additionally, the marketing and promotion of Stand Your Ground laws creates an environment that promotes fear and animosity between racial groups. The promotion of Stand Your Ground laws has centered largely on providing protection for “law-abiding” citizens against “thugs,'” a cultural code word for young, African-American men. These laws are pushed as a way of protecting individuals from out of control street crime, even though street crime rates are at a historical low. In reality, the gun lobby and ALEC have used a mythology of urban crime to frighten community members into accepting a radical expansion of gun rights. The National Rifle Association has exacerbated this by its public communication strategy, doing things like selling an NRA hoodie after the shooting of Trayvon Martin and by advertising on websites that contain racist and militia content.
Stand Your Ground laws also create fear and anger within communities of color. When Americans see that unarmed black and brown teenagers can be shot on the streets with no punishment for the shooter, it sends a message that our country does not afford all children the protection of the laws in this country. This understandably terrifies many families who fear that their child will be the next victim, and creates a sense that our country simply places no value on the lives of young people of color. In the context of our larger racial history, this creates yet another hurdle for our communities as they try and work together to create safe streets and build an equitable justice system.
Regardless of the race of the victims, Stand Your Ground laws are dangerous and damaging. It is simply wrong to allow the offensive shooting of unarmed victims based on the emotional perception of a shooter in what is often a stressful situation. We would be much better served by repealing these laws and instead concentrating on building better local police departments. By shifting the burden of self-protection to the individual, we make the entire community less safe and we leave more vulnerable individuals unprotected. Real safety comes from good law enforcement practices, not from untrained, ordinary citizens deciding to mete out justice in our public spaces.
Stand Your Ground hampers good police work and it removes juries from issues of community safety. This decreases confidence in our justice system; especially in communities of color. When we reduce this confidence we erode the sense of security ordinary citizens have in public spaces and we signal to individuals that they cannot get justice when they are victimized.
It is the position of Million Hoodies Movement for Justice that Stand Your Ground laws must be rolled back in order to prevent more senseless violence. These laws are a threat to public safety and create an environment that actually makes it more difficult for communities to seek solutions to crime.
Additionally, it is unacceptable for us to allow the devaluation of the lives of young men of color. Stand Your Ground laws send exactly that message to Americans. Allowing the killing of African-Americans to go unpunished sends a dangerous message and devastates families and communities. It is also an ugly reflection on our nation and our attitudes about race. Most of all, it robs too many of our young people of their future and of the opportunity to build their lives and fulfill their dreams. It is time to lay aside the myth of the thug and look at our gun laws and public safety policy with common sense instead of manufactured hysteria created by those who profit from the sales of firearms. The lives of our children depend on it.
Again, we would like to thank the Subcommittee for allowing this opportunity to comment and for their efforts to evaluate these laws.
Amy K. Frame
National Legislative Director
Million Hoodies Movement for Justice