Hundreds of Americans, a disproportionately high number of them Black people, are being shot and killed as a result of controversial “stand your ground” laws that have swept across the nation since the killing of Trayvon Martin, activists say.
A decade after the unarmed Black teenager, walking home from a store, was shot and killed by a neighbourhood watch coordinator who claimed he was acting in self-defence, in a moment that shook the nation, activists say an additional 150 people each month have been killed in gun homicides as a result of laws now in effect in 38 states. The total death toll, according to those estimates, amounts to 18,000 people over the past decade.
Studies show that people of colour are disproportionately impacted as a result of these laws; in those states where stand your ground is operative either as a result of legislation or case law, homicides in which white shooters kill Black victims are ruled to be justifiable five times more frequently than when the circumstances are reversed.
“Nothing good has come from these laws,” says Allison Anderman, senior counsel for the Giffords Law Centre to Prevent Gun Violence, a group established by former congresswoman Gabby Giffords, who was attacked and grievously injured in a mass shooting in 2011.
“A number of studies have shown that they have meaningfully increased firearm homicide rates, and overall homicide rates, that they are racist and are applied in a racially discriminatory manner, most often to exonerate white people who shoot and kill Black people.”
She tells The Independent: “States should repeal them and reinstate the duty to retreat when someone is in a confrontation and can escape without any harm to themselves or others.”
The shooting of the teenager, infamously killed in Florida on 26 February 2012, while wearing a grey hoodie and described by George Zimmerman, the white man who shot him dead after telling a dispatcher he believed he looked “suspicious”, is one of this generation’s epochal moments.
Initially, local police in Sanford decided not to charge Mr Zimmerman, at the time aged 28, citing the state’s stand-your-ground laws, and the shooter’s assertion he was acting in self defence. Florida was the second state to pass such legislation, after Utah in 1994, and signed it into law in 2005, after lobbying from the National Rifle Association, the gun industry group.
A month after the shooting, it was announced that state and federal authorities had launched their own inquiries.
Speaking from the White House, Barack Obama, the nation’s first Black president, said the incident had made him think of the safety of his own children. “My main message is to the parents of Trayvon Martin. If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon,” he said.
Mr Zimmerman was eventually charged with second-degree murder. He was found not guilty, a verdict that sparked dismay among large numbers in the country and would lead to the creation of the Black Lives Matter movement by three Black women, who launched a nationwide campaign for racial justice.
That campaign frequently took to the streets in the years that followed, to protest against the killing of people such as Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Markeis McGlockton and George Floyd.
Yasser Payne, an associate professor of sociology and Black American studies at the University of Delaware, says the only way America will create a just society is to recognise the centuries of slavery, and pay reparations. He says financial equality will lead to other equity.
“Keep in mind Black America, 50 to 60 per cent of Black America has zero dollars in wealth and that by 2053, the entire community is expected to have zero dollars in wealth,” he says. “What is preventing us from stopping these police actions, is the fact we are a bottom caste by design, and we are a wealth-less people. We don’t need reform. We don’t like that word. We need our wealth back in the form of Black reparations, and we’ll create our own policing system.”
He says that in the short term changes can be made to policing, especially in smaller cities such as Wilmington, Delaware, where he does much of his research.
But wholesale change requires a recognition of of the role of slavery and its lingering impact, and financial reparations.
Activists point to several studies that show the impact of stand-your-ground laws.
One 2019 study published in the Journal of the American College of Surgeons that compared the five years before states began enacting these laws (2000–2004) to the 13-year period following their enactment (2005–2017), found justifiable firearm homicide rates increased by 55 per cent in states that enacted stand-your-ground laws. In states where there were no laws, there was an increase of 20 per cent.
Barack Obama says ‘if I had a son he’d look like Trayvon Martin’
Alongside that, a 2013 study published by the Urban League, found that across all states, homicides in which white shooters kill Black victims were deemed justifiable far more frequently than when the situation is reversed.
“This paper finds substantial evidence of racial disparities in justifiable homicide determinations. Regardless of how the data are analysed, substantial racial disparities exist in the outcomes of cross-race homicides,” wrote author John Roman, a senior fellow at the University of Chicago.
An analysis of data by the group Everytown for Gun Safety, from 2014 to 2018, found that in states where the law existed, homicides are deemed justifiable five times more frequently than when the shooter was Black and the victim white.
A new study published in JAMA Network Open, an international peer-reviewed platform, found stand-your-ground laws are linked to an 11 per cent increase in monthly firearm homicide rates, which equates to 700 additional deaths each year.
While the study did not find evidence that Black people were more likely to suffer as a result of the laws, the study’s authors found large regional variation, with the most significant increases in the southeast of the US, where the numbers leaped by as much as 33 per cent.
Michelle Degli Esposti, the study’s lead author and a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Oxford, says she and her colleagues were keen to look at local and national impacts and try to tease out whether Florida was an outlier.
She said the findings of increased firearm homicides echoed some earlier studies.
“But we go one step further to show that it’s not just because of outlier states like Florida, because there was a lot of controversy about Florida’s specifically passing that law and there was a lot of publicity about it,” she says.
“We show that’s not true, and actually a lot of the early adopters are associated with these big increases in homicide, and these states tend to be clustered around the southeast.”
As it is, the increase results in an additional 700 deaths.
“It’s 700 additional homicides each year that could have been prevented. It’s crazy if you think every one is a devastating death,” she says.
Activists for gun safety are using the anniversary of the shooting of the teenager to step up their efforts for action, holding an event where they announced a new task force to take on stand-your-ground laws.
The panel, which said it was establishing a new task force to focus on stand-your-ground laws, was asked how, given the way individual states passed their stand-your-ground laws, there could be a coordinated response by activists.
“It’s important to acknowledge that part of the goal of the task force is to bring these lawmakers together who are fighting these fights in states across the country,” said Monisha Henley, senior director of government affairs at Everytown.
Congresswoman Lucy McBath, who represents Georgia’s 6th Congressional District and whose son, Jordan Davis, was murdered in November 2012, also joined the event.
“In this week alone, we commemorate the lives of both Trayvon Martin and Ahmed Arbery, and this month I solemnly celebrate the birthday of my son,” she said. “As a nation, we remember the lives of 17 children gunned down inside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.”
She added: “On days like these, the heartbreak resurfaces, the reminder every parent dreads is a reminder that as mothers and fathers they’ve had to bury their children. It’s a reminder to the friends and family and survivors of gun violence of the fear and desperation, these anniversaries spring.”