Article published Monday, October 28, 2013, at Chicago Tribune.

Perspective: In defense of stand your ground laws

By John R. Lott, Jr.

As Sen. Dick Durbin's (D-Ill.) Judiciary subcommittee hears testimony on "stand your ground" laws Tuesday, charges of racial discrimination will be the central focus. Two black women, one of them Trayvon Martin's mom, are expected to testify about losing their sons to gunshots by white or Hispanic men. It's anticipated that a Harvard law professor will also emphasize race.

This racial angle is nothing new. President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder have already weighed in, linking race and these laws.

Nevertheless, Trayvon Martin's tragic death, which motivated this debate, had nothing 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 as far as possible. George Zimmerman was on his back and had no option to retreat, so the law was completely irrelevant.

Who benefits from the law? Actually, since poor blacks who live in high-crime urban areas are the most likely victims of crime, they are also the ones who benefit the most from stand your ground laws. 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 16.6 percent of Florida's population but account for 31 percent of the defendants invoking the stand your ground defense. Black defendants who invoke this statute are actually acquitted 8 percentage points more frequently than whites who use this very same defense.

Those who conclude the law is racially biased point to data compiled by the Tampa Bay Tribune, which collected 112 cases where people charged with murder relied on Florida's stand your ground law, from the first cases in 2006 to July 24 of this year. The Tribune's "shocking" claim: 72 percent of those who killed a black person faced no penalty compared to 59 percent of those who killed a white.

But this doesn't tell the whole story as blacks are overwhelmingly killed by other blacks. Thus, it is also true that blacks claiming self-defense under the stand your ground law are convicted at a lower rate than are whites. About 69 percent of blacks raising the stand your Ground defense were not convicted compared to 62 percent of whites.

If blacks are supposedly being discriminated against because their killers so often are not facing any penalty, it must also follow that they are being discriminated in favor of when blacks who invoke a stand your ground defense are convicted at a lower rate than are whites. Those who interpret the data as evidence of racism are cherry-picking numbers.

Simple averages also missed important differences in these cases. The Tribune data shows blacks killed in these confrontations were 13 percentage points more likely to be armed than whites. This suggests that those claiming that they were defending themselves often reasonably believed that they had little choice but to kill their attacker.

By a 43 to 16 percent margin, the blacks killed were also more often in the process of committing a crime.

The Tampa Bay Tribune collected a lot of other useful information on the cases: whether the victim initiated the confrontation, whether the defendant was on his own property when the shooting occurred, whether a witness was present, whether there was physical evidence, whether the defendant pursued the victim, and the type of case (a drug deal gone bad, home invasion, etc.).

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 rather than a white increases the defendant's odds of being convicted.

The estimates also show that white defendants are more likely to be convicted than black defendants. Whether the person killed initiated the confrontation and whether there was an eyewitness were the most important factors in determining whether there was a conviction.

More than 30 states have adopted laws to remove the requirement to retreat. In the case of Florida in 2005, the law was passed unanimously by the state Senate and by a 94 to 20 vote in the state House. In 2004, then-state Sen. Obama co-sponsored and voted for a bill expanding the protection of Illinois' 1961 stand your ground law.

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" also added confusion. Overzealous prosecutors sometimes claimed that people who defended themselves could have retreated even farther.

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.

John R. Lott Jr. is the president of the Crime Prevention Research Center and the author of the recently released “At the Brink: Will Obama Push Us Over the Edge?”

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