Justin’s Injustice: Why Stand Your Ground Laws Encourage Violence
As a policy experiment, Stand Your Ground has failed. It makes all of us less safe and less equal by giving a select few a license to kill.
In the pre-dawn hours of a Sunday morning in September 2013 near Independence, Missouri, a 35-year-old man, Justin Sneegas, was killed while lying in bed with a woman he’d only recently met.
Naked and unarmed, he was shot three times by a man who claimed he was “standing his ground” in a home that wasn’t his. Justin was my cousin and the closest I had to a brother.
Justin never arrived for Sunday family dinner at his mom’s house, like he had every Sunday before that. His adoring nephew and niece could no longer count on fun uncle Justin to stick a carrot up his nose or put underwear on his head during dinner. The fits of laughter over Justin’s silly pranks instantly vanished from their weekly family time.
Justin didn’t make it to his mom’s on Sunday because the night before, he chose to go with Tiffanie to her parent’s home, where they were alone and intimate. They were but mere acquaintances.
“Stand your ground” laws do not deter crime—in fact, they drive up homicides in states where they are enacted.
Before sunrise, Tiffanie’s estranged boyfriend, 28-year-old Nick, grabbed his 4-year-old daughter he shared with Tiffanie and his .40 caliber Smith and Wesson handgun and drove to Tiffanie’s parents’ house. He accessed a key stored in a mailbox, entered the house with his daughter, walked into the bedroom, and shot Justin three times as Tiffanie ran and locked herself in the bathroom.
Justin went into shock. Nick kicked in the bathroom door, confronted Tiffanie, and then fled the scene. Tiffanie called 911 but my cousin had stopped breathing by the time the police arrived. The officers began CPR and were relieved by medical responders who then transported Justin to Centerpoint Hospital, where he was pronounced dead at 9:38 am.
With the help of his family, Nick quickly secured legal representation and mounted a defense using Missouri’s Stand Your Ground law. He requested and was granted a bench trial. Tiffanie refused to testify. And Nick was acquitted of second-degree murder.
Nick claimed Justin rolled to the side of the bed to grab an unknown object. He could’ve been reaching for his glasses to see or his phone to call for help, but Nick claimed that he believed Justin could’ve been reaching for a gun. “In fearing for the safety of his daughter,” he shot Justin, who never even left the bed.
Though the prosecution was meticulous in presenting the case, in the end, the judge stated there was a “reasonable threat” since Nick was aware that Tiffanie’s parents kept a gun in that room.
Jul 28, 2020
My cousin, Justin, had never owned or used a gun. He was anti-violence, and he believed in peace and paying it forward. He’d buy anyone on the street a sandwich or cup of coffee, or give them the change in his pocket. He couldn’t stand to see people or animals suffer. Justin rescued his beloved dog Shamus, who died shortly after he did.
Before he was shot and killed, Justin was a survivor who had overcome illness and adversity. In his 20s, Justin battled and overcame cancer. And once, while driving, Justin was hit by a semi-trailer truck. Though he suffered massive injuries and shattered numerous bones, he surprised us all by making a full recovery.
Justin cared deeply for his family and held a special place in his heart for his mom and sister. Both have endured a relentless, gripping grief that only those who have experienced this level of tragedy and injustice can relate.
If Justin had died from his cancer or car accident, peace wouldn’t feel so elusive. But he’s dead because he connected with Tiffanie that evening. Nick killed him and suffered no consequences because of Stand Your Ground.
Thirty states have adopted Stand Your Ground laws. These self-defense laws have been vigorously lobbied for by the NRA and other gun lobby groups, and have actually been proven to make people less safe—not more. Stand Your Ground states have seen an 8% to 11% increase in monthly rates of firearm homicides. That equates to 700 extra homicides each year. The largest increases are associated with the enactment of Stand Your Ground laws in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, and Missouri, where increases have ranged from 16.2% to 33.5%.
What’s even more disturbing is that these laws fail to protect victims of racist, sexist, and transphobic violence due to implicit and explicit biases of threat perception. A white shooter who kills a Black victim is 281% more likely to be found justified than if the same shooter killed a white victim. And most domestically abused women who kill in self-defense end up in prison and receive harsher sentences for killing a male partner. Stand Your Ground laws make it easier for white people to kill people of color, for men to kill women, and for straight, cisgender people to kill queer people.
Nick had no incentive to avoid confrontation, no control or tools to handle his emotions—except a firearm and a legal right to kill because of his privilege and perception of threat. With more guns than people in America and the loosening of gun restrictions, we are literally man-making a disaster that is worsening every year.
As a policy experiment, Stand Your Ground has failed. It makes all of us less safe and less equal by giving a select few a license to kill. We do not have to let our country be defined and ruled by an obsession with guns and violence. We can choose to act. To honor Justin and all those we’ve lost to the injustices these laws propagate, we must repeal Stand Your Ground state by state and have an honest reckoning with the value we place on human life.
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