On Friday, the US Commission on Civil Rights will hold hearings on Stand Your Ground laws. CPRC’s president will testify before the commission between 1:30 to 3:30 PM EDT. (Some media coverage from the hearing is shown below.) In the run up to the hearings, Lott published the following op-ed piece in the Orlando Sentinel under the headline (“Right to stand your ground transcends race and politics”):
As the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights hears testimony on Stand Your Ground laws in Orlando today, charges of racial discrimination will be the central focus. One mother, Jordan Davis’ mother, will testify that she lost her son to gunshots fired by a white man. Almost all the panelists invited by the Democratic dominated commission will also emphasize race.
The tragic deaths of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis motivated this debate. But neither had anything to do with Stand Your Ground laws. These laws allow people who face serious bodily harm or death to defend themselves without first having to retreat as far as possible. George Zimmerman was on his back and had no option to retreat, so the law was completely irrelevant.
And at least according to Michael Dunn, Davis’ murderer, a young man in the car Davis was riding in supposedly pointed a shotgun at him and announced: “I’m going to kill you.” Again, retreat would then have been out of the question.
These two examples distract from who actually benefits from the law: since poor blacks who live in high-crime urban areas are the most likely victims of crime, they are also the ones who benefit the most from Stand Your Ground laws. The laws make it easier for would be victims to protect themselves when the police can’t arrive fast enough. Therefore, rules that make self-defense more difficult disproportionately impact blacks.
Blacks make up 16.7% of Florida’s population but they account for 34% of the defendants invoking the Stand Your Ground defense. Black defendants who invoke this statute are actually acquitted 4 percentage points more frequently than whites.
Those claiming racism point to data compiled by the Tampa Bay Tribune. The Tribune collected 119 cases where people charged with murder relied on Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, from the first cases in 2006 to October 1st of this year. The “shocking” claim: 67% of those who killed a black person faced no penalty compared to 57% of those who killed a white.
But that misses that blacks are overwhelmingly killed by other blacks. Most of the people acquitted of killing a black person in self-defense were themselves black. About 64% of blacks raising the Stand Your Ground defense were not convicted compared to 60% of whites.
If blacks are supposedly being discriminated against because their killers rarely face any penalty, it must also follow that blacks are being discriminated in favor of when they are convicted at a lower rate than are whites. Claims of racism arise from cherry-picking numbers.
The simple averages used by the Tribune also missed important differences in these cases. The data actually shows that compared to whites, blacks killed in these confrontations were 26 percentage points more likely to be armed with a gun and 25 percentage points more likely to be committing a crime. This suggests that their killers reasonably believed they had little choice but to kill their attacker.
The Tampa Bay Tribune collected a lot of other useful information: whether the victim initiated the confrontation, whether the defendant was on his own property when the shooting occurred, whether a witness was present, whether there was physical evidence, whether the defendant pursued the victim, and the type of case (a drug deal gone bad, home invasion, etc.).
Surprisingly, no one had run regressions with this data to see if these factors might explain the different conviction rates for whites and blacks. Such analysis finds no evidence of discrimination. While the results are not statistically significant, the regressions suggest that any racial bias would go the other way — that killing a black rather than a white increases the defendant’s odds of being convicted and white defendants were also more likely to be convicted than black defendants.
Forgotten are the reasons that “Stand Your Ground” laws exist. Requiring people to retreat sometimes prevented people from defending themselves. Trying to define an “appropriate retreat” also added confusion. Overzealous prosecutors sometimes claimed that people who defended themselves could have retreated even farther.
Over 30 states have adopted laws to remove the requirement to retreat, with some having them since becoming states. In the case of Florida in 2005, the law was passed the state senate unanimously and the state house by a 94 to 20 vote.
Are all these Democrats who supported these laws racist? Hardly. Allowing people to protect themselves should be an issue that crosses both racial and political lines. Again, poor blacks are the ones who benefit the most.
* John Lott is the President of the Crime Prevention Research Center and a former chief economist at the US Sentencing Commission. He will testify today at the Commission hearing.
Comments on the piece can be found here.
UPDATE: The Orlando Sentinel also mentioned the CPRC in a news story after the commission hearing:
In a briefing he prepared for the panel, Lott wrote that race has been injected into the debate because of the Dunn and Zimmerman cases, which involved the deaths of black teens.
“Poor blacks who live in high-crime urban areas are not only the most likely victims of crime, they are also the ones who benefit the most from Stand Your Ground laws,” he reported.
He also argued Zimmerman, who said he fired while Trayvon was on top of him, and Dunn, who said he thought he saw a gun, relied on traditional self-defense at trial, not “stand your ground.” . . .
From WMFE, the NPR affiliate in Orlando:
Reexamining the Data
John Lott is head of the Crime Prevention Research Center. He says Roman is extrapolating based on data from minority-heavy urban areas. “If I were to go and take data from like Liberty City in the Miami area and then compare that to the state averages, you could say, ‘That’s not a very useful comparison, John.’ I want to make sure that the two groups I’m comparing are the same.”
Lott says African-Americans disproportionally invoke Stand Your Ground in their defense – so it actually protects them. And, the people who most need a weapon to defend themselves are the most vulnerable. . . .