'Stand Your Ground' laws: Civil rights and public safety implications of the expanded use of deadly force
This morning, I submitted written testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee about the effect of Stand Your Ground (SYG) laws on civil rights and public safety.
There are racial disparities throughout the juvenile and criminal justice system in America. African Americans are more likely to be stopped and frisked, to have their motor vehicle searched at traffic stops, and to receive longer prison sentences than are whites.
One area of possible racial disparity—differences in findings that a homicide was ruled justified prior to a trial—had little attention before the investigation and trial of George Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin. Using data from the Federal Bureau of Investigations Supplementary Homicide Report (SHR), my research examined the effects of racial disparities in justifiable homicide findings on public safety:
- Are there racial disparities in the justification of homicides? That is, are homicides by shooters of differing races, or involving victims of different races, ruled justified at different rates?
- Is the degree of disparity higher in states that have SYG laws than in states that do not?
- In states with SYG laws, did the degree of disparity increase or decrease when SYG laws were passed?
The answer to the first question is clearly yes. The starkest contrast is between homicides of blacks committed by whites, of which 11.4 percent are justified, and homicides of whites committed by blacks, of which 1.2 percent are justified.
The answer to the second question is also clearly yes. States with SYG laws have higher disparities than states without SYG laws.
The answer to the third question is the most complex and relies on the smallest set of data. My preliminary answer to this question, too, is yes.
These findings have substantial implications. Justification of homicides is used in a racially disparate manner, and more so in states with SYG laws. Whether SYG laws are more likely to be enacted in those states with more disparity in justifications, and whether SYG laws increase the degree of disparity, or both, is not yet completely clear. But the implications are disturbing regardless.
The purpose of enacting SYG is to increase the rate of justifiable homicide findings. In doing so, SYG could make disparities better, worse, or keep them constant. There is no evidence SYG reduces disparities in the SHR data. If it makes disparities worse, as our study suggests, that is poor policy. If it simply keeps the disparities the same but increases justifiable homicide findings, then it increases the number of people exposed to the disparity, which is also poor public policy.
Finally, I note that 'racial disparity' is a value-free term. It simply reflects the objective observation that the likelihood of an event (in this case a justified homicide finding) varies systematically by race. It is therefore a necessary but not sufficient condition to conclude that racial animus is the cause of the disparity.
I note that in John Lott’s written testimony for the hearing, he concludes that my data support the opposite of what I have described above. More on that later this week.