We cannot bring back the loved ones killed by vigilantism disguised as “self-defense” under the purview of Florida’s stand your ground law. But 16 years later, we can at least restore the duty to retreat when a person can safely withdraw from a threat. And yet, state Sen. Shevrin Jones’ “Self-Defense Restoration Act” (SB 1052) faces an uphill battle, given the prevalence of a misbegotten belief in a “shoot first, ask questions later” method of dispute resolution.
When I published Stand Your Ground: A History of America’s Love Affair with Lethal Self-Defense in 2017, I naively believed that the laws that originated in Florida would get dismantled by legislators and outraged citizens, exhausted by the carnage that the laws encourage. But since 2005, 36 other states have passed stand your ground laws — they continue to spread across the nation, a pandemic of weaponized self-defense.
As John Roman of the Urban Institute explained, stand your ground was a “classic solution in search of a problem.” The existing laws, including the castle doctrine and laws governing self-defensive force, already allowed people to protect themselves and their homes, and they allowed non-aggressors to fight back when threatened in public spaces.
Stand your ground proponents have argued that women need the law in order to defend themselves from dangerous perpetrators and rapists. They have asserted that existing laws would force women to retreat from aggressors, thus putting themselves in additional danger by turning their backs on potentially armed, larger male strangers.
But in focusing on the threats of strangers, they ignored a vital fact. By far, women’s greatest statistical threat continues to be men they know, usually their own intimate partners and exes. As the case of Marissa Alexander, who spent years in prison after firing a warning shot at her husband, made tragically clear, stand your ground laws were not designed to provide legal immunity to women defending themselves from violent intimate partners and exes.
The accumulating archive of cases of woman imprisoned for surviving an assault testify to the historic backdrop of our culture’s underacknowledged patriarchal and white supremacist suspicion of women, especially Black, brown and indigenous women, who resist partner violence. As in Alexander’s case, such defendants are often portrayed as “angry” rather than fearful.
In addition to betraying any semblance of gender equity in rules of justifiable force, stand your ground laws amplify gun homicide rates. The implementation of Florida’s stand your ground law was associated with a 24 percent increase in monthly homicide rates and a 32 percent increase in monthly firearm homicide rates. The state’s stand your ground law is also associated with a 45 percent increase in quarterly rates of adolescent gun homicide, driven by a 52 percent increase in the gun homicide rate among Black adolescents.
While these data alone are shocking, what they don’t reveal are the manifold ways in which stand your ground laws invite and reward violence when the aggressor claims to have been acting in self-defense, especially if the only other witness is dead. We have watched as predominantly white aggressors use excessive force against unarmed, usually non-white men or boys, and then appeal for legal immunity. When armed assailants claim to have been victims of an attack and/or to have been in fear for their lives, they are often granted the benefit of the doubt. Those judging the reasonableness of this claim — including law enforcement, judges, lawyers and juries — must weigh the defendant’s claim of fear against the perception of threat that the deceased person may have posed.
Florida’s stand your ground law places the burden of proof on the prosecution to show that the defendant was not acting in self-defense, which also stacks the deck against justice in cases of wrongful violence. As the case of D.J. Broadus — a 31-year-old Black man killed by his white, male (ex)lover — reveals, it’s hard to disprove a defendant’s claim of self-defense when the only other witness is dead. The law provides layers of legal immunity so that an aggressor’s claims of self-defense cannot be questioned, effectively reversing the roles of victim and perpetrator.
While the Self-Defense Restoration Act sponsored by Jones, a West Park Democrat, will not bring back those whose lives were unnecessarily taken in the past 15 years, it will revise the law to reinstate a duty to retreat outside one’s home. This does not mean that law-abiding people will be required to try to run away from violent criminals who may pursue them.
Rather, it means that people will be expected to resist a threat with reasonable and commensurate force if they are unable to retreat. It means that someone who kills another person in legitimate self-defense will need to justify their actions in a court of law, as should be the case when a human life is taken. It means the re-instatement of law and order, and above all public safety, in a state that has already seen too much unnecessary violence and destruction over the past decade and a half.
Caroline Light teaches gender and ethnic studies at Harvard University. She is the author of “stand your ground: A History of America’s Love Affair with Lethal Self-Defense.” Follow her at @carolineelight. She wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.