Freedomnomics

Article published Thursday, October 16, 2014, at Orlando Sentinel.

Right to stand your ground transcends race and politics

By John R. Lott, Jr.

As the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights hears testimony on "stand your ground" laws in Orlando on Friday, charges of racial discrimination will be the central focus. One black mother will testify that she lost her son, Jordan Davis, to gunshots fired by a white man. Almost all the panelists invited by the Democratic-dominated commission will also emphasize race.

The tragic deaths of black teens Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis motivated this debate. But neither had anything to do with "stand your ground" laws. These laws allow people who face serious bodily harm or death to defend themselves without first having to retreat. George Zimmerman was on his back and had no option to retreat from Trayvon, so the law was irrelevant.

And at least according to Michael Dunn, Jordan's murderer, a young man in the car Jordan was riding in allegedly pointed a shotgun at him and announced: "I'm going to kill you." Again, retreat would have been out of the question.

These two examples distract from who actually benefits from the law: poor blacks who live in high-crime urban areas and are the most likely victims of crime. The laws make it easier for would-be victims to protect themselves when the police can't arrive fast enough. Therefore, rules that make self-defense more difficult disproportionately impact blacks.

Blacks make up 16.7 percent of Florida's population, but they account for 34 percent of the defendants invoking the "stand your ground" defense. Black defendants who invoke this statute are acquitted 4 percentage points more frequently than whites.

Those claiming racism point to data compiled by the Tampa Bay Tribune. The Tribune collected 119 cases in which people charged with murder relied on Florida's "stand your ground" law, from the first cases in 2006 to Oct. 1 of this year. The "shocking" claim: 67 percent of those who killed a black person faced no penalty compared to 57 percent of those who killed a white person.

But that misses that blacks are overwhelmingly killed by other blacks. Most of the people acquitted of killing a black person in self-defense were black. About 64 percent of blacks raising the SYG defense were not convicted compared to 60 percent of whites.

If blacks are supposedly being discriminated against because their killers rarely face any penalty, it must also follow that blacks are being discriminated in favor of when they are convicted at a lower rate than are whites. Claims of racism arise from cherry-picking numbers.

The simple averages used by the Tribune also missed important differences in these cases. The data show that compared to whites, blacks killed were 26 percentage points more likely to be armed with a gun and 25 percentage points more likely to be committing a crime. This suggests that their killers reasonably believed they had little choice but to kill their attackers.

The Tribune collected a lot of other useful information, including whether the victim initiated the confrontation, whether the defendant was on his own property when the shooting occurred, whether a witness was present, whether the defendant pursued the victim, and the type of case.

Surprisingly, no one had run regressions with this data to see if these factors might explain the different conviction rates for whites and blacks. Such analysis finds no evidence of discrimination. While the results are not statistically significant, the regressions suggest that any racial bias would go the other way that killing a black person rather than a white person increases the defendant's odds of being convicted, and white defendants were also more likely to be convicted than black defendants.

Forgotten are the reasons that "stand your ground" laws exist. Requiring people to retreat sometimes prevented people from defending themselves. Trying to define an "appropriate retreat" added confusion. Overzealous prosecutors sometimes claimed that people who defended themselves could have retreated even farther.

More than 30 states have adopted laws to remove the requirement to retreat, with some having them since becoming states. In Florida in 2005, the law was passed in the Senate unanimously and the House by a 94-to-20 vote.

Are all these Democrats who supported these laws racist? Hardly. Allowing people to protect themselves should be an issue that crosses both racial and political lines. Again, poor blacks benefit the most.

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Since the first news search was done additional news stories have been added to Nexis:

There are thus now 218 unique stories, and a total of 294 stories counting duplicates (the stories in yellow were duplicates): Excel file for general overview and specific stories. Explicit mentions of defensive gun use increase from 2 to 3 now.

Journal of Legal Studies paper on spoiled ballots during the 2000 Presidential Election

Data set from USA Today, STATA 7.0 data set

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