The law is supposed to solve problems, not create them. Laws should provide for as much clarity as possible, not expand the realms of ambiguity and subjectivity. Laws ought to bring about the practical results their promoters claim they’ll achieve. And at its best, the law can help us to live together more harmoniously.
By all these measures, “stand your ground” laws are a failure. These statutes make the already difficult task of jurors even harder. They aggravate mistrust across racial lines. They appear to increase rather than decrease crime.
We should not have had to go through another racially charged trial in Florida to learn all this. Writing in The Washington Post, Mark Berman offered a succinct account of the facts of the Michael Dunn case that has aroused so much legitimate passion.
“In November 2012, Michael Dunn shot 17-year-old Jordan Davis in a Jacksonville, Fla., gas station parking lot. Dunn had approached a Dodge Durango holding Davis and three other teenagers and asked them to turn down their music. ... An argument developed, and Dunn fired 10 times at the vehicle, including multiple shots fired as it pulled away.
“Davis died almost immediately after he was hit. ... Dunn, who was in town for a wedding, returned to his hotel and drove back home to Brevard County the following morning; he was arrested later that day.” Dunn said he saw a shotgun in the Durango but there was no evidence of one.
Dunn was convicted on three counts of attempted second-degree murder but the jury hung on the first-degree murder charge brought in connection with Davis’ death.
The verdict came seven months after George Zimmerman was acquitted in the Sanford, Fla., killing of Trayvon Martin in another case where stand your ground was at issue. Both Martin and Davis were black teenagers. Should it surprise anyone that many African-Americans fear that the law does not protect young males of color when they find themselves in confrontations with whites?
We shouldn’t fault the Dunn jury, which seemed to be struggling to reach a just outcome. Unlike Zimmerman, the 47-year-old Dunn was not acquitted and could spend the rest of his life in prison. The jury clearly saw no justification for his firing at a fleeing car. But stand your ground undoubtedly sowed confusion on the murder count.
Supporters of the law say it was technically not at issue in the case, but this overlooks the obvious role it played in the trial. Cory Strolla, Dunn’s lawyer, mentioned it in his closing argument: “His honor will further tell you,” Strolla said, “that if Michael Dunn was in a public place where he had a legal right to be, he had no duty to retreat and had the right to stand his ground and meet force with force, including deadly force.” The judge, Russell L. Healey, was required to read the relevant stand your ground provisions to the jury.
Florida’s statute allows someone to use force if he or she “reasonably believes that such conduct is necessary to defend himself or herself or another against the other’s imminent use of unlawful force.” The “reasonable belief” standard is not unique to stand your ground laws, but it opens a vast loophole for extreme subjectivity when it is applied in conjunction with them. This has created problems that even the law’s supporters should acknowledge.
A comprehensive 2012 examination of the law by the Tampa Bay Times concluded: “Seven years since it was passed, Florida’s ‘stand your ground’ law is being invoked with unexpected frequency, in ways no one imagined, to free killers and violent attackers whose self-defense claims seem questionable at best.” The law, the Times reporters wrote, has “confused judges” and has “allowed drug dealers to avoid murder charges and gang members to walk free.”
A study by two Texas A&M economists found that such laws “do not deter burglary, robbery or aggravated assault” but do “lead to a statistically significant 8 percent net increase in the number of reported murders and non-negligent manslaughters.”
Stand your ground laws shift the balance of power on the streets to those who carry weapons. They thus provide an incentive for everyone to be armed, which is why the National Rifle Association has pressured legislatures in some two dozen states to enact them. We shouldn’t have to wait for another death and another controversial trial to recognize that this is no reason for laws that cause such palpable harm. It’s time to repeal them.
E. J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist, professor of government at Georgetown University, and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. His most recent book is Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent (Bloomsbury Press).