A wrong turn. A mistaken car. An address mixup. Over the past two weeks, the headlines have been dominated by shootings that never needed to occur. Ralph Yarl, a 16-year-old Black boy, was shot after knocking on the wrong door while trying to pick up his siblings from a friend’s house. Twenty-year-old Kaylin Gillis was shot and killed after her friend turned into the wrong driveway in upstate New York. And two teenage cheerleaders were shot in Texas after one mistook the shooter’s vehicle for her own. These incidents have renewed conversations on “stand your ground” laws and their impact. Who are we protecting when we allow citizens to shoot others in “self-defense”?
“Stand your ground” law protects an individual’s right to use reasonable force, including deadly force, in self-defense without fear of criminal prosecution. Most states have some type of law like this but emphasize that civilians have a “duty to retreat” from the situation before responding with force. However, at least 30 states have “no duty to retreat,” and 10 specifically say individuals can “stand your ground,” hence the term (NCSL). Most states have some version of a “castle doctrine,” similar legislation that says residents don’t have to retreat when threatened in their homes but instead can respond with physical force. These laws are all worded differently, state by state, and some can be more lenient than others. Unsurprisingly, the NRA has helped push the implementation of “stand your ground” laws in several states (Mother Jones).
• Research the self-defense and/or “stand your ground” laws in your state and recent examples of how it’s been enforced.
• Support the victims of the recent shootings. Here are fundraisers for Ralph Yarl, Kaylin Gillis, and Payton Washington, one of the two cheerleaders shot.
Missouri, the state where Yarl was shot, passed a law in 2017 allowing people to use deadly force under certain circumstances, including against someone who “attempts to unlawfully enter a dwelling, residence or vehicle” that is occupied. The NRA backed this legislation. Because the shooter believed Yarl was attempting to enter his home, his legal team could use “stand your ground” as his defense (PBS).
Florida is notorious for having an aggressive “stand your ground” law. Unlike other states, the state has to legally prove that the shooter did not act in self-defense, marking them innocent by default. Those established as having “stood their ground” are granted immunity from criminal prosecution and civil actions (CNN). Markeis McGlockton was shot and killed by Michael Drejka after an argument about a parking spot. Drejka was not arrested for the crime until a month later, though surveillance video showing McGlockton backing away from the altercation eventually led to Drejka being charged with manslaughter (Vox). More prominently, stand your ground laws in Florida were hotly contested after the killing of Trayvon Martin in 2012, when they made it difficult to argue against self-defense and led to George Zimmerman’s acquittal (The Atlantic).
There are clear racial disparities in how “stand your ground” laws are enforced. Defendants are twice as likely to walk free if their victims are non-white. And race is considered a “significant predictor” of whether a “stand your ground” defense will be sufficient. In states with “stand your ground” laws, white people that shot someone who was Black were 11x more likely to be protected than the reverse (Bloomberg).
This notion has been reinforced throughout history beyond the “stand your ground” laws. In 1967, members of the Black Panthers Party protested on the steps of the California state house armed with loaded guns, urging Black people to arm themselves. At the time, this was legal, due to the state’s open-carry laws. But this demonstration scared politicians, who quickly passed the Mulford Act, a state bill prohibiting public carrying of loaded firearms, and prohibited loaded firearms in the state Capitol (History). Strict gun regulation laws were passed across the U.S. shortly thereafter.
And even before this, the notion of “stand your ground” was reserved for white male property owners. Native Americans who wanted to defend their homes from colonization had no legal grounds to do so, and many former Confederate states did not allow Black people to own guns for decades (NPR). This legislation, like so many others, reinforces who is allowed to obtain property and defend it and whose property and life are considered worth losing.
Naturally, the attention on these types of crimes has people calling—once again—for comprehensive gun control. That’s important because self-defense is the leading reason for individuals to purchase a gun. The biggest increase in firearm sales in 2020 was from Black men and women, who bought 58.2% more guns during the first six months of 2020 than the previous year (NPR). Bruce Tomlin, a 63-year-old truck driver from New Mexico, was inspired to buy a gun after seeing the video of Ahmaud Arbery being shot, stating that he’d “rather go to trial than go to the cemetery” (NPR).
Generally, I don’t think we should rely on carceral punishment for anyone’s protection. A more comprehensive re-imagination of our legal system is necessary for an inclusive future. And this case only furthers that point. If a law designed to promote self-defense can be used to protect those perpetuating the harm, it merely protects violence. And as we re-imagine this future, it’s up to us to advocate justice wherever necessary.