Washington, D.C. – Assistant Majority Leader Dick Durbin (D-IL), Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights, called for state “stand your ground” laws to be carefully reconsidered following recent and high profile shootings of unarmed young people. These laws, one of which played a key role in the trial surrounding the shooting death of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin, give individuals legal permission to use lethal force to protect themselves if they feel their life is in danger, without requiring them to retreat from the situation if a safe retreat is available.
“Whatever the motivations were behind the passage of these laws, it is clear that these laws often go too far in encouraging confrontations to escalate into deadly violence,” Durbin said. “They are resulting in unnecessary tragedies, and they are diminishing accountability under the justice system.”
26 states have passed some form of “stand your ground” laws since 2005. These laws have had harmful consequences when it comes to public safety and civil rights. According to several studies, “stand your ground” laws have led to increases in homicides and firearm injuries - including 600 additional homicides per year - with no deterrent effect on other crimes like robbery or assault.
“Stand your ground” laws have allowed shooters to walk free in shocking and violent situations, including shootouts between rival gangs, drug deals gone bad and more. These laws have raised complications for law enforcement and made prosecution more difficult. David LaBahn, President and CEO of the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, testified that “[b]y expanding the realm in which violent acts can be committed with the justification of self-defense, Stand Your Ground laws have negatively affected public health and undermined prosecutorial and law enforcement efforts to keep communities safe.”
These laws have also emboldened those who carry guns to initiate confrontations where they end up killing unarmed children. Testifying at today’s hearing were Sybrina Fulton and Lucy McBath. Sybrina Fulton is Trayvon Martin’s mother and she said the following about the death of her son: “Imagine how you would feel if you lost a child or a loved one to random violence and then watched their admitted killer evade justice. Words could never capture the feeling of devastation losing my son caused me, nor can they explain the betrayal I felt as I watched his killer go free.”
Lucy McBath is the mother of Jordan Davis, who was killed in Jacksonville, Florida by a man who confronted Davis and a group of friends outside a gas station during an argument about music. “The man who killed [my son] opened fire on four unarmed teenagers even as they tried to move out of harm’s way. That man was empowered by the Stand Your Ground statute. I am here to tell you there was no ground to stand. There was no threat. No one was trying to invade his home, his vehicle, nor threatened him or his family… There are any number of ways this interaction might have gone, but there was only one way it could have ended once a gun entered the equation.”
Finally, these laws have increased racial disparities in the justice system. One study found that in “stand your ground” states nearly 17% of homicides involving white shooters and black victims were ruled justified, compared to only 1% of homicides with black shooters and white victims. A recent study by the Congressional Research Service analyzed FBI data on justifiable homicides before and after the 2005 wave of “stand your ground” laws and found that racial disparities clearly increased.
Ronald Sullivan, Director of the Criminal Justice Institute at Harvard Law School, said of the racial disparities in states with “stand your ground” laws: “It is beyond dispute that Blacks and other racial and ethnic minorities are disproportionately, negatively impacted by our criminal justice system. This disparity is even more pronounced when comparing dispositions in Stand Your Ground states versus non-Stand Your Ground states. In non-Stand Your Ground states, for example, Whites are 250 percent more likely to prevail on a theory of justified homicide of a black person as compared to a white victim. By contrast, in Stand Your Ground states Whites are 354 percent more likely to prevail when the victim is black.”
Congress’s role in reviewing state “stand your ground” laws is necessary in light of proposed federal legislation that implicates those laws. In April, 57 Senators voted for an amendment that would allow a person who receives a concealed carry permit in one state to carry his gun in every state – even if the person would be disqualified from getting a permit in other states because of misdemeanor convictions, inadequate training or other factors. Congress should think carefully about how proposals like this would mix with “stand your ground” laws.
Today’s witnesses testified on two panels. The first included: Rep. Marcia L. Fudge (D-OH); Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez (D-IL); Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX).
The second panel included: Sybrina Fulton, mother of Trayvon Martin; Lucia McBath, mother of Jordan Davis; David LaBahn, President, Association of Prosecuting Attorneys; Ronald Sullivan, Clinical Professor of Law, Director of the Criminal Justice Institute, Harvard Law School; John Lott, President, Crime Prevention Research Center; Ilya Shapiro, Senior Fellow, CATO Institute.
Video of today’s hearing can be found at www.judiciary.senate.gov. Attached are Senator Durbin’s prepared remarks and copies of witness testimony.