Freedomnomics

Article published Wednesday, April 25, 2012 at The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Stand Your Ground makes sense

By John R. Lott, Jr.

Call them what you will: “Stand Your Ground” or “Castle Doctrine” laws. Mayor Bloomberg and members of Congress, speaking on the House floor, go so far as to label them “shoot first” laws.

This is a gross exaggeration — a slander, in fact, against legislation designed to reform a flaw in our treatment of self-defense. Earlier statutes affirmatively required potential victims to retreat as much as possible before using deadly force to protect themselves, sometimes putting their lives in jeopardy.

The supposedly infamous laws passed in Florida and elsewhere, in contrast, use a “reasonable person” standard for determining when it is proper to defend oneself — requiring that a reasonable person would believe that another individual intends to inflict serious bodily harm or death on them.

Pundits who’ve had a field day ripping apart Stand Your Ground laws repeatedly fail to mention that crucial “reasonable person” standard.

The wild speculation that the laws give broad license for vigilantes to go around recklessly shooting people are a totally irresponsible caricature. Ultimately, it is judges or jurors who determine what constitutes a reasonable fear under such a law, not the person who fires the gun.

A few examples: Under a Stand Your Ground law, you can’t shoot a fleeing criminal in the back. You can’t provoke an attack. You can’t use unnecessary force to stop an attack. Anyone who thinks that the law lets them “shoot first, ask questions later” will end up jail.

And no, I’m not going to get into the twisted case of George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin, the facts of which are still not fully understood. But, whether Zimmerman acted in self-defense with Trayvon on top of him and no place to retreat — or whether, in the other version of events, Zimmerman initiated the attack — the Stand Your Ground law isn’t relevant.

The media have also been busy painting a picture that an epidemic of justifiable homicides has erupted since these laws have passed. The Wall Street Journal ran a story suggesting that an increase in justifiable homicides nationwide from 176 in 2000 to 326 in 2010 arose from a “shoot first” mentality.

But part of that increase is just a trick of numbers; it occurs because the laws have reclassified what is considered “self-defense,” not because more people are being shot.

In addition, the numbers for 2000 (and 2005) are artificially low compared with other years because relatively few states actually reported justifiable homicides. Using the FBI Uniform Crime Report in 2000, justifiable homicides were counted by the FBI for 30 states. In 2010, the number of states counted was 35. And which states reported the numbers also changed.

Curiously, though, this went unnoticed: Over the same period of time, there has been an increase in justifiable killings by police. And there are no similar data problems here, no changing definitions or large changes in jurisdictions reporting. Between 2000 and 2010, the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports show that justifiable police killings rose by 25%, rising to 387 from 309, suggesting that something else is occurring.

The breathless coverage of Stand Your Ground completely ignores the most important issue: Have these laws increased total deaths? And if more criminals are killed in justifiable self-defense — but the number of innocent lives lost falls by more than the deaths of criminals rise — is that really a bad thing?

The third edition of my book “More Guns, Less Crime” provides the only published, refereed academic study on these laws. I found that deterrence works. In states adopting Stand Your Ground and Castle Doctrine laws from 1977 to 2005, murder rates fell by 9% and overall violent crime by 11%. This would mean an annual drop in murders that is about 10 times more than the entire flawed, measured increase in civilian justifiable homicides from 2000 to 2010.

The push to undo these state laws never discusses why they were adopted in the first place. Forcing victims to take time to retreat can put their lives in jeopardy, and a prosecutor might draw the line differently on whether a victim had retreated sufficiently.

Law-abiding citizens are hardly the trigger-happy individuals the media paint them to be. With national surveys showing about 2 million defensive gun uses a year, the number of justifiable homicides is amazingly small.

With 41 states having either Stand Your Ground- or Castle Doctrine-type laws — and an additional six having common-law versions of these rules — the amazing fact is that literally only a few questionable cases over the past decade can be pointed to by the media, and even those cases are debatable.

John R. Lott Jr. is a FOXNews.com contributor. He is an economist and co-author of "Debacle: Obama's War on Jobs and Growth and What We Can Do Now to Regain Our Future.".

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