Trayvon Martin’s death was by any measure a tragedy. In the aftermath, a spotlight has shone on what had been a relatively obscure change in law about when a homicide is legally considered to be justified. Stand Your Ground (SYG) laws have been passed in 23 states and, to varying degrees, extend the right to use lethal force in self-defense outside of the home.
Last week, the U.S. Commission of Civil Rights voted to undertake an inquiry to determine whether SYG laws introduce racial bias into decisions about whether a homicide is justified. The American Bar Association National Task Force on Stand Your Ground Laws is holding a series on public meetings, including one Thursday, June 6 in Philadelphia as part of its inquiry. (Full disclosure: I am a member of the ABA task force).
SYG laws extend the Castle Doctrine—which allows for the use of lethal force in the defense of your home—to public spaces. Some further extend the rights of the shooter by not allowing police to arrest a shooter unless they have probable cause that their claim of self-defense is untrue. These laws, in effect, move determinations of justice from a deliberate process in the courts to a chaotic one at a crime scene. Many are concerned that this will introduce racial bias into the process.
Last year, I analyzed FBI data from Supplemental Homicide Reports (SHR) from 2005 to 2009. Most crime data is reported as aggregate monthly data, but the SHR data describe characteristics of the perpetrator, the victim, and the facts of the case (such as whether a firearm was used) in most homicides. Analyzing these data, I found that SYG laws change how often shootings are ruled to be justified and that they are associated with racial disparities in justifiable homicide rulings.
At the time, SHR data were only available through 2009, which meant that there were little data available after many new SYG laws were enacted. Data from 2010 are now available. Here’s what we learn when we crunch those numbers.
Overall, less than 2 percent of homicides are ruled to have been self-defense. However, in SYG states after SYG enactment, it is closer to three percent, and in non-SYG states, it is close to one percent (that difference is statistically significant).
Are there are racial disparities in justifiable homicide rulings? Out of 53,000 homicides in the database, 23,000 have a white shooter and a white victim. The shooting is ruled to have been justified in a little more than 2 percent of cases. In states with a SYG law (after enactment), the shooting is ruled to be justified in 3.5 percent of cases, compared to less than 2 percent in non-SYG states. In cases where both the victim and shooter are black, the numbers are almost identical, if slightly lower.
When the shooter and victim are of different races, there are substantial differences in the likelihood a shooting is ruled to be justified. When the shooter is black and the victim is white, the shooting is ruled justified in about 1 percent of cases, and is actually slightly lower in non-SYG states. Between 2005 and 2010, there were 1,210 homicides with a black shooter and a white victim—the shooting was ruled to be justified in just 17 of them (about 1 percent).
The story is completely different when there is a white shooter and a black victim. In the same time period, there were 2,069 shootings where the shooter was white and the victim black. The homicide was ruled to be justified in 236 cases (11 percent). In SYG states, almost 17 percent of white-on-black shootings were ruled to be justified.
Finally, I tested whether these racial disparities remained when we controlled for whether the victim and perpetrator were strangers, the state where the incident occurred, the year of the homicide, and whether the shooting occurred in a SYG state. The racial disparities remain large and significant. In fact, the odds that a white-on-black homicide is ruled to have been justified is more than 11 times the odds a black-on-white shooting is ruled justified.
No dataset will ever be sufficient to prove that race alone explains these disparities. But there are disparities in whether homicides are ruled to be self-defense, and race is clearly an important part of the story.