Why 'stand your ground' laws may be connected to higher homicide rates

Gun control advocates say states need to rethink the laws.

February 26, 2022, 9:46 AM

"Stand your ground laws," have proliferated around the country after they were first introduced in Florida in 2005, with proponents contending that they've kept neighborhoods safer.

A study released this week, however, has found that those laws, which give gun holders the right to use their weapon in public in self-defense are actually associated with an increase in firearms homicides.

The peer-reviewed report issued by the JAMA Network Open found that the monthly gun homicide rate rose 8-11% in 23 states after they enacted the laws, amounting to roughly 58 to 72 additional homicides a month in these locations.

The increase in homicides was greatest in southern states that first passed the legislation -- Florida, Georgia, Louisiana and Missouri -- ranging from 16.2% to 33.5% after the laws were passed according to the study.

A customer looks at handguns before making a purchase at the National Armory gun store on Dec. 23, 2015 in Pompano Beach, Fla.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images, FILE

"There was no evidence that [stand your ground] laws were associated with decreases in homicide or firearm homicide," the report said. But the report did find that some states, including Arizona and Texas, did not have any significant increases in homicides after the laws were passed.

Researchers did not provide any conclusion as to why the "stand your ground" laws were associated with the rise in killings. The report cautioned that "stand your ground" laws alone may not be sufficient to explain the increase and said other factors, such as other firearms laws, had to be considered.

A gun control advocate who has been analyzing shooting data contended the laws have motivated some to act like vigilantes.

Sarah Burd-Sharps, director of research for the non-profit group Everytown for Gun Safety, told ABC News the laws have emboldened some gun owners to shoot first and ask questions later, because they think they are criminally immune during a conflict.

"We've seen it time and time again. They encourage people to continue aggression even in situations where violence is avoidable," she told ABC News.

The report looked at public health data on deaths from 41 states, 23 of which enacted "stand your ground" laws between Jan. 1, 2000, and Dec. 31, 2016. The data showed that during that period there were 129,831 firearm homicides in the "stand your ground" states while there were 40,828 recorded in the other states.

States that passed "stand your ground" laws saw their monthly gun homicide rates jump from 0.36 per 100,000 to 0.39 after the laws were enacted, the study said. In the states that didn't have "stand your ground" laws, the firearm homicide rate was 0.19 per 100,000 people, according to the data.

The report found that the monthly firearm homicide rate grew from 1.03 per 100,000 to 1.12 per 100,000 for victims who were minorities in "stand your ground" states after the laws were enacted. By comparison, the monthly gun homicide rate for white victims remained level at 0.2 per 100,000 people after the laws were enacted in those states, the report said.

A bump fire stock that attaches to a semi-automatic rifle to increase the firing rate is seen at a gun shop in Orem, Utah, Oct. 4, 2017.
George Frey/Reuters, FILE

The study's authors were not immediately available for comment.

Burd-Sharps said some gun owners have used "stand your ground" to justify their biases against minorities or certain communities. She cited the shootings of Trayvon Martin and Ahmaud Arbery, both of whom were unarmed Black men who were shot by perpetrators claiming they were breaking the law, as examples.

Martin was shot in Florida 10 years ago while Arbery was shot in Georgia two years ago. Both states have "stand your ground" laws and there is no duty by a gun holder to retreat.

"'Stand your ground' laws allow people to shoot people who they perceive a threat," Burd-Sharps said.

Some lawmakers have contended that "stand your ground" laws supplement existing self-defense laws and provide law-abiding gun owners with an option in dire circumstances, such as a mugging.

"In these situations, you don't always have time to decide if you could safely retreat or not," said Arkansas state Rep. Aaron Pilkington, when presenting a bill that passed last year that would allow an armed person to use deadly force if they believe they are in imminent danger.

Burd-Sharps said that most Americans don't realize that traditional self-defense laws are pretty comprehensive and have prevented unnecessary shootings for years.

"[Self-defense law] includes the use of deadly force but that is only as a last resort. You have the right to walk away," she said. "When you teach kids how to respond in times of conflict, one of the things you teach is how to walk away. That's critical for adults as well."

Morehouse College SGA President Stephen A. Green speaks during the "Stand Your Ground" rally in Tallahassee, Fla. on March 10, 2014.
Don Juan Moore/AP, FILE

Following the report's release, Everytown announced Thursday that it created a task force of state and federal leaders who are looking to repeal and modify existing stand your ground laws. The task force, which has 20 members from 19 states, will also work to prevent the passage of bills that mimic current "shoot first," laws, according to Everytown's founder Shannon Watts.

"We must reframe the debate," she said during a news conference Thursday.

ABC News' Kiara Alfonseca contributed to this report.