This past week, horrified Americans watched a viral video of two armed white men pursuing and shooting a 25-year-old black man named Ahmaud Arbery. While the murder of the young man out for a jog in his neighborhood took place on February 23, the shooters weren’t arrested until May 7, after the video incited national outrage.
At Giffords, we are disgusted and heartbroken by this blatantly racist attack. This is far from the first tragedy fueled by reckless “stand your ground” laws that embolden vigilantes and help shooters evade justice—and unless we take action, it won’t be the last.
Nearly eight years have passed since Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager, was similarly stalked and murdered while walking in his Florida neighborhood. An acquittal of Trayvon’s murderer sparked national outrage and protests, yet legislators failed to repeal the NRA-backed laws that allow racist vigilantes to kill innocent people of color under the guise of self-defense.
Now, as we watch the disturbing footage of Ahmaud’s murder, bearing the collective weight of living in a country that allows men of color to be murdered with impunity time and again, legislators must find the courage to change the laws that enable these tragedies.
Even though the video shows the attackers appearing to lay in wait for Ahmaud before instigating a physical confrontation, the pair claimed that they shot Ahmaud in self-defense. Prosecutors initially found the shooters’ claims credible, and relied on Georgia’s law granting immunity from prosecution to someone who claims self-defense to justify the lack of an arrest—even though Georgia’s law also explicitly prohibits use of the self-defense law by someone who provokes violence.
White assailants have long used stand your ground laws—which generally allow a person to not retreat from a conflict when the ability to do so safely exists—to justify attacks against black victims. An analysis of Florida stand your ground cases found that a defendant is twice as likely to be convicted in a case that involves white victims compared to those involving non-white victims.
Contrary to their supposed purpose of preventing crime, stand your ground laws can actually encourage unnecessary violence. Since 2005, when Florida enacted the nation’s first stand your ground law, the NRA and the right-wing lobbying organization American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) have helped spread the laws, and their devastating consequences, to an additional 29 states. As a result, homicide rates have significantly increased in states that have passed these laws, resulting in approximately 30 to 50 people across the country being killed each month as a result of these laws.
Studies have associated Florida’s stand your ground law with a 32% increase in firearm homicide rates and a 24% increase in overall homicide rates. In 79% of Florida’s stand your ground cases, the assailant could have retreated to avoid the confrontation, and in 68% of cases, the person killed was unarmed. The state’s stand your ground law has had the largest negative impact on neighborhoods that had relatively low homicide rates before the law was enacted.
Rather than fill a gap in the ability of law-abiding Americans to defend themselves, as the NRA touts, stand your ground laws appear to be utilized mostly by individuals with criminal histories. As the American Bar Association details, the stand your ground policy is a solution in search of a problem.
Moreover, stand your ground laws are frequently utilized under the exact circumstances in which Ahmaud Arbery was murdered.
In nearly a third of cases examined by the Tampa Bay Times in 2013, defendants instigated a confrontation, pursued the victim and/or shot them, and were exonerated.
We join our voices with the swell of calls for justice for Ahmaud Arbery. His murderers must be brought before a jury to answer for their crimes, as should each and every person self-deputized to shoot first and ask questions later. But justice in the courtroom also requires laws that are just.
For the past 15 years, stand your ground laws have been used to sow murder and intimidation and to terrorize black and brown communities. If we’re serious about becoming a more just and fair country that doesn’t empower white men to kill black ones with impunity, these laws must be abolished.