From Trayvon Martin to Ahmaud Arbery—'Stand Your Ground' Laws Remain Controversial

Stand-your-ground laws have long been a core part of the national U.S. discourse surrounding gun violence, self-defense regulations and racial profiling.

The controversial laws rose to prominence following the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed Black teenager, ten years ago this week. Martin was gunned down by George Zimmerman in Sanford, Florida, after he disregarded 911 advice and followed the 17-year-old who he claimed was "suspicious." Martin was killed in the ensuing altercation between the two.

Stand-your-ground laws, while not invoked prior to Zimmerman's trial, did form the basis of his self-defense claim, with Zimmerman claiming he felt his life was in danger during the physical fight with Martin. He was later acquitted.

Broadly speaking, stand-your-ground laws allow people to use deadly force as a means of self-defense without fear of criminal prosecution if they are somewhere they have the legal right to be and believe their life is at risk.

These laws, which were first introduced in Florida in 2005 and later implemented by states across the country, can trump duty-to-retreat laws, which conventionally restrict the use of deadly force as a last resort measure.

Thaddeus Hoffmeister, attorney and law professor at the University of Dayton, explained that the designed intention of the law is threefold.

"The law was originally intended to allow individuals to defend themselves, with lethal force, against an aggressor without first attempting to retreat.

"The law was supposed to specifically apply when someone has a legal right to be where they are, did not start the altercation, and has an articulable fear for their life or of serious bodily injury," Hoffmeister told Newsweek.

In practice, the laws allow someone to fatally shoot someone in public if they feel threatened, without the obligation to flee or threat of a conviction.

The topic has recently found itself at the forefront of cases of armed violence, as the Ahmaud Arbery and Kyle Rittenhouse cases have raised legal concerns over stand-your-ground laws and their use as self-defense claims.

Travis McMichael, his father, Gregory McMichael, and neighbor William Bryan were all found guilty on a number of charges, including felony murder, after they chased an unarmed Arbery in a pickup truck and gunned him down in Satilla Shores, Georgia, last February.

Georgia has stand-your-ground laws in place, but one's right to self-defense is waived if they are the instigating aggressor.

During their trial, the defendants claimed they acted in self-defense, with attorney Robert Rubin arguing that Travis feared Arbery would take his gun and shoot him. The jury rejected this defense.

Stand-Your-Ground Increased Homicides

The stand-your-ground approach has received widespread criticism over the years as opponents have argued that the laws –also known as shoot-first laws– encourage violent crime and cause more harm than good.

"The largest downfall is the third prong the 'articulable fear for their life or of serious bodily injury.' That is an incredibly subjective determination and opponents of the law said that that subjective factor will encourage people to stay in an altercation when they would have otherwise walked away. The law can be misused and manipulated when people's subjective fear is not an objective danger," Hoffmeister added.

These arguments against the law were recently found to be proven right, as a study published earlier this week found that stand-your-ground laws had been associated with an 8 to 11 percent national increase in monthly rates of homicide and firearm homicide. The equivalent of an additional 700 homicides per year.

Rittenhouse protest
Activists attend a rally to protest the verdict in the Kyle Rittenhouse trial on November 20, 2021 in Chicago, Illinois. Rittenhouse, an Illinois teenager, was found not guilty of all charges in the fatal shootings of Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber and for shooting and wounding of Gaige Grosskreutz during unrest in Kenosha, Wisconsin that followed the police shooting of Jacob Blake in August 2020. Scott Olson/Getty Images

The study, published on Monday in JAMA Network Open, a peer-reviewed medical journal, analyzed crime statistics in 41 different states and linked the laws to "increases in violent deaths, deaths that potentially could have been avoided."

The stand-your-ground laws are implemented with slight differences in approach, wording, and interpretation across 38 different states, complicating a universalized tracking of its use and application.

Erdal Tekin, professor of public administration and policy at the American University, has long researched the topic and believes the laws pose an increased risk to public safety.

"The laws may give too much freedom to private citizens to use deadly force, almost making them a license to kill rather than a protective measure. It also has been argued that these laws are open to abuses by those engaged in illegal activities or those with criminal records and might lead to an increased number of people carrying guns and willing to use them.

"Along similar lines, it has been suggested that these laws could embolden individuals to stand their ground rather than simply walk away and could lead to individuals resorting to the use of deadly weapons even during situations posing no imminent danger," Tekin told Newsweek.

Rittenhouse trial
Kyle Rittenhouse, center, looks over to his attorneys as the jury is dismissed for the day during his trial at the Kenosha County Courthouse on November 18, 2021 in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Rittenhouse was found not guilty after shooting three demonstrators, killing two of them, during a night of unrest that erupted in Kenosha. Stand-your-ground laws were a central part of the Rittenhouse trial. Rittenhouse was 17 at the time of the shooting and armed with an assault rifle. Sean Krajacic/Getty Images

The introduction of such laws has also failed to address the issue of rising crime, according to a study from Mayors Against Illegal Guns, the National Urban League and VoteVets.org. In the decade since Florida instated stand-your-ground rules, murders rose by 22 percent– with justifiable homicides surging by 75 percent.

Fellow states across the country that adopted the law saw a 53 percent average rise in justifiable homicides, whereas states where the law is not in place, saw an average decline in justifiable homicides of 5 percent over the same time period.

Racially Biased Law

Additionally, stand-your-ground laws have also been criticized as a tool that fosters convictions based on racial bias.

Following Martin's shooting in 2012, local news outlet the Tampa Bay Times analyzed 200 cases in which stand-your-ground defense had been used in Florida. They found that almost 70 percent of those using the law had escaped punishment, but the chances of successfully avoiding charges was dependent on race.

In cases where the victim was Black, 73 percent of defendants invoking stand-your-ground were successful, while cases with white victims saw 59 percent of defendants avoid punishment.

Ahmaud verdict
People react outside the Glynn County Courthouse following guilty verdicts for the defendants in the trial of the killers of Ahmaud Arbery on November 24, 2021 in Brunswick, Georgia. Greg McMichael, his son Travis McMichael, and a neighbor, William "Roddie" Bryan were found guilty in the February, 2020 fatal shooting of 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery. The case once again brought issues surrounding stand-your-ground laws into the national debate. Sean Rayford/Getty Images

These findings were echoed in a similar study published in the journal Social Science and Medicine, which found that "stand-your-ground legislation in Florida has a quantifiable racial bias." According to their research, stand-your-ground claimants were almost twice as likely to receive a conviction if the victim was white.

Additionally, a study analyzing FBI homicide data between 2005 and 2010 revealed that the chances of a homicide where the perpetrator is white and the victim is Black being deemed justifiable were 281 percent greater than a scenario where both victim and aggressor were white.

"Essentially, people's racial biases need to be at the forefront of jurists' decisions to implement stand your ground statutes equitably. Since that is unlikely to happen, the statutes could be limited in scope," Hoffmeister said.

Duty To Retreat Is 'Too Much To Ask'

Nonetheless, stand-your-ground advocates maintain that the laws strengthen legal protections for law-abiding citizens to exert their right to self-defense without worrying about civil penalties, providing them with increased security.

"Some citizens feel safer knowing that they may use their firearms to defend themselves without proving the burden that they tried to retreat first," Hoffmeister said.

Last November, Kyle Rittenhouse was found not guilty after he fatally shot two people during the civil unrest in Kenosha, Wisconsin, on the grounds of self-defense.

As Wisconsin does not implement stand-your-ground laws, Rittenhouse's defense had to convince the jury that he had "exhausted every other reasonable means to escape from or otherwise avoid death or great bodily harm." Had he been unable to prove his attempts to retreat, and with stand-your-ground not an option, Rittenhouse would have faced up to life in prison.

Trayvon Martin and Ahmaud Arbery
The fatal shooting of 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery (right) brought issues surrounding stand-your-ground laws into the national debate like it had with Trayvon Martin (left). Handout

Ilya Shapiro, a prominent libertarian and senior lecturer at Georgetown Law School, has long defended the need for laws such as stand-your-ground.

"Stand-your-ground laws are a tremendously misunderstood aspect of the debate over firearms regulation and criminal‐justice reform. All they do is allow people to assert their right to self‐defense in certain circumstances without having a so‐called 'duty to retreat.' The old 'duty to retreat' rule made it hard to invoke self defense even if you had faced an immediate threat of assault," Shapiro told Newsweek.

As far as he is concerned, the option to retreat as a solution does not provide somebody with a legitimate means of self-defense, and he referenced domestic abuse victims as a demographic harmed by such an approach.

"What's been overlooked in the current debate about these laws is that they only apply to people under attack. Again, the rationale is that it's bad enough for an innocent person to find themselves threatened by a criminal, but to then have to worry about whether they should retreat, lest they face prosecution or lawsuits for hurting the criminal, is simply too much to ask," he stated.