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Washington Post: Give ground

Published July 22, 2013 9:44 am

The Washington Post
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

A useful moment in President Barack Obama's thoughtful and thought-provoking remarks Friday on crime, race and Trayvon Martin — one of several such useful moments — came when Obama questioned the thinking behind "stand your ground" laws:

"If we're sending a message as a society in our communities that someone who is armed potentially has the right to use those firearms even if there's a way for them to exit from a situation, is that really going to be contributing to the kind of peace and security and order that we'd like to see?"

The president's question resonated with the words of Eric Holder, his attorney general, who addressed the NAACP early last week. These laws "senselessly expand the concept of self defense," Holder argued. "By allowing — and perhaps encouraging — violent situations to escalate in public," he continued, "such laws undermine public safety."

Critics slammed both men for their remarks. But Obama and Holder were right to address the issue, and they are right on its substance.

Florida was the first to adopt a stand-your-ground statute, in 2005; about half the states have followed. Instead of requiring potential victims of crime to retreat if they have a safe escape route, these laws allow people to use deadly force without attempting to avoid a potentially lethal confrontation. They also often contain other generous protections for killers claiming self-defense.

George Zimmerman, who shot Trayvon Martin, didn't invoke Florida's stand-your-ground statute. But the law could have contributed to the police decision not to charge him for more than a month after he killed Martin. At trial, the judge informed the Zimmerman jury explicitly of the stand-your-ground law, and the statute came up in closing arguments.

There is a reason that the duty to retreat is a concept respected by centuries of legal application. Setting a laxer standard encourages tragic mistakes, poor judgment and perhaps even vigilantism. A recent study from two Texas A&M University researchers found that "lowering the expected cost of lethal force causes there to be more of it." Stand-your-ground states saw more homicides than their peers — about 600 more a year over the period they studied. One possible explanation is that stand-your-ground laws encourage people to escalate conflicts rather than withdraw.

Advocates of stand-your-ground legislation point out that rates of violent crime have diminished in states such as Florida. But they've diminished everywhere. In fact, the Texas A&M study's statistical analysis concluded, somewhat surprisingly, that "the prospect of facing additional self-defense does not deter crime."

Researchers will continue to study the matter. But even before more data come in, the president's position has the virtue of making common sense.