Study: 'Stand your ground' laws don't deter crime, may lead to more murders

"Stand your ground" laws do not deter crime and might actually cause an increase in murders and manslaughters, according to a June study out of Texas A&M University.

Researchers in College Station, Texas, looked at 21 states that in recent years expanded their so-called "stand your ground" or "castle doctrine" laws to places other than a person's home.

In those places — a car, a bar, a park — depending on the states, a person has no duty to retreat from a threat before returning deadly force.

The study found no evidence the laws deterred crimes like burglaries, robberies and aggravated assaults, and showed states that had adopted such laws saw a 7 percent to 9 percent increase in murders and manslaughters, compared to states without them.

"Perhaps most troubling," the authors wrote, "is the possibility that under castle doctrine, conflicts or crimes that might not have otherwise turned deadly now do."

Florida's "stand your ground" law came under fire after the February shooting of Trayvon Martin by neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman. Earlier this year former Palmetto Ridge High student Jorge Saavedra avoided criminal prosecution for stabbing and killing a classmate after a judge ruled he acted in self defense under the law.

Since it was adopted in 2005, Florida's "stand your ground" law has had no noticeable effect on crime in Lee County, Sheriff Mike Scott said.

"I see it as being way, way, way overcomplicated and overdiscussed," said Scott, who mostly supports the expanded statute.

"Nobody, cop or civilian, ever in any scenario has to stand, sit, sleep, drive, whatever and be threatened with deadly force. If that is the case, I fully support the right to respond back and stop that threat."

But Elizabeth Megale, a Savannah Law School professor whose writing on Florida's "stand your ground" law has been published in law journals, said the statute is being used in ways lawmakers didn't intend.

One problem? In some cases, a killer is the only witness to a fatal fight.

"When you've got a dead body, there's nobody to speak the other side," Megale said. "If that gets out, if people start understanding that, there really is an incentive to shoot to kill rather than shoot to injure."

In measuring the increase in murders and manslaughters, the authors of the Texas study accounted for variables like economic conditions, region and policing levels. They also compared the time period, 2000 to 2010, to other 11-year periods from 1960 to 2009.

Still, the researchers could think of no other factor that would have caused the increase in killings, "and thus we interpret the increase in homicides as the causal effect of castle doctrine."

That's certainly a possibility, Megale said, but the recession and the widening gap between rich and poor could also have had an effect.

"You have to be very careful," she said. "Just because numbers trend in a particular way does not mean there is a significant correlation."

Marion Hammer, an National Rifle Association lobbyist who helped craft Florida's "stand your ground" law, said she was not familiar with the Texas study but questioned its merits.

"I'm not buying it," she said. "I think they're cooking up studies to try to discredit a law that gives a law-abiding citizen an even break."

The authors of the Texas A&M study note that FBI crime statistics do not tell you if the dead person was the alleged threat-maker or the alleged victim. And the definition of "justifiable homicide" is narrow, according to an FBI crime reporting handbook.

If two men get into an argument, the first man attacks the second, and the second man returns deadly force — that doesn't fit the FBI's parameters. But a store owner who shoots a robber, does.

Although he has been a vocal critic of Florida's "stand your ground" law, Willie Meggs, a State Attorney in the Panhandle, said he does not believe the law causes an increase in violence.

"I'm not sure that these folks are thinking 'stand your ground' when they do their acts," Meggs said. "Where I think that it has an impact is there have been some people killed or injured unnecessarily, and they were able to take advantage."

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