In Defense of ‘Stand Your Ground’ Laws

March 23, 2012 05:06

Between 2004 (the year before the law’s enactment) and 2010 violent crime in Florida dropped sharply, and homicides per capita also dropped, though not sharply.



by Walter Olson at Cato @ Liberty


Amid the ongoing furor over “Stand Your Ground” laws, adopted in Florida and about half the other states, the New York Times invited me to take part in a “Room for Debate” round-table on the subject. An excerpt from my contribution:

Under any criminal law, injustice can result if cops get the facts wrong. The Sanford, Fla., police, accused of buying a dubious self-defense tale after the Trayvon Martin shooting, will now come under searching scrutiny for that decision. Sanford’s mayor says his town is eager to stand corrected by the evidence as a fuller story emerges.

So who’s left to disagree? Not the authors of Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, who told The Miami Herald that the law they sponsored applies only to cases of genuine self defense and won’t protect neighborhood-watcher George Zimmerman if critics of the Martin shooting are right about what he did that night. …

I go on to point out ways in which a robust right of self-defense has historically proved to protect the interests of victims of domestic violence and racial minorities. (On the latter, see, for example, cases from Ossian Sweet’s in the 1920s to the present day; more here and here.)

What really set off the NYT commenters was my observation that “Despite doomful predictions from gun foes, concealed carry (now the dominant rule) and liberalized self-defense laws (adopted by half the states) haven’t touched off the great warned-of surge of gun violence.” Here are some particulars. Between 2004 (the year before the law’s enactment) and 2010 violent crime in Florida dropped sharply, and homicides per capita also dropped, though not sharply. News stories often mention that (quoting ABC): “Since the law was enacted seven years ago, justified homicides in Florida have jumped threefold, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.” But a tripling in the assertion of this defense (from a low base) tells us little in itself since the whole idea of the law was to make the defense more available. In particular it does not signify that some sort of killing began to happen three times as often, even if some seem determined to interpret it that way.

I agree that the details of Florida’s or similar laws are not to be assumed optimal and can properly be revisited to make sure they work well. But I note with alarm the number of seemingly liberal-minded persons, at the Times and elsewhere, who seem perfectly comfortable with calls for gutting self-protection as a criminal defense at the behest of prosecutors who would find their jobs easier that way. Have they now decided that the goal of punishing more guilty persons is worth relaxing our vigilance about not mistakenly punishing the innocent among them?


Walter Olson is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute’s Center for Constitutional Studies. Prior to joining Cato, Olson was a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, and has been a columnist for Great Britain’s Times Online as well as Reason.

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