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“Empowering Armed Citizens with ‘Stand Your Ground’ Laws Can Lead to Fatal Consequences for Simple Mistakes”


In one important respect, Ralph Yarl was lucky. The wounds the 16-year-old suffered after his death shot twice on April 13, 2023 by the owner of the house to whom he knocked, thinking that he would pick up his two younger brothers there, proved not fatal.

Others who made similar mistakes have died. To take Renisha McBridewho sought help after vandalizing her car in a Detroit suburb in 2013 Carson Senfield, who got into the wrong car on his 19th birthday in Tampa – thinking it was his Uber. And then there is the case of the 20-year-old Kaylin Gillisa passenger in a car that spun in a driveway in upstate New York on April 15, 2023. What these youths have in common is that they were killed in a chance encounter with armed property owners.

Like a scholar who studied Americas love affair with guns and deadly self defenseI explored the history of laws that selectively protect citizens from criminal liability when they use force and claim self-defense. Since 2005 these “Stand your groundhave laws spread to about 30 statestransforming the US legal landscape.

While pre-existing, justifiable use of force laws allowed the use of deadly force for self-defense in some circumstances, they required that people first attempt to retreat from a perceived threat if it was safe to do so, or to avoid a non-lethal threat. find a solution to avoid this. a hostile encounter. Stand Your Ground laws, meanwhile, allow for defensive violence without a duty to retreat, wherever a person may be legally located. Some also expand the circumstances in which someone can use deadly force to defend property.

While the laws seem to apply to all law-abiding citizens, research shows that they do not applied fairlyand that they may encourage property owners to shoot first and question their actions later, even when there is no real threat of harm.

That certainly seems to be the case with Yarl’s shooting. The injury to the black teen, who was just trying to pick up his siblings, caused widespread outrageespecially when Kansas City Police Chief Stacey Graves suggested that detectives consider whether the shooter — an 84-year-old white man — could appeal to state law enforcement. Stand your ground law as a defense against prosecution.

Since the encounter took place on the shooter’s property, there is a possibility that the shooter could find legal protection in the “Castle Doctrine”, which allows someone to use reasonable force – without trying to retreat first – in self-defense in their home. But he should still have a reasonable reason to fire two shots at the unarmed teen standing outside his front door.

Defining ‘reasonable’ power

It appears that in the case of Yarl, the prosecutors believe that the bar of reasonable grounds has not been met. Andrew D. Lester, the homeowner, has been charged ever since with two points: premeditated assault and armed criminal action.

This does not prevent the defense from invoking Lester’s right to stand and use force in self-defense, if his lawyers can show that Lester actually believed Yarl posed a real threat.

Missouri Stand Your Ground Law, in effect since 2016, removes the obligation to retreat anywhere a person can legally be, even outside one’s ‘castle’. But you still need to prove that reasonable force was used, that it was not done out of aggression or anger, and that your life was genuinely feared.

Indeed, the resolution of cases like the Yarl shooting revolves around a highly subjective consideration of what counts as reasonable force, and which side – prosecution or defense – bears the burden of proof.

Traditional use of force laws place that burden on the alleged self-defense, who must prove that their actions were reasonable. But some other “Stand Your Ground” states, such as Florida, remove the burden of proof of the defense and lays it on the prosecution.

This means that the prosecution must prove that the alleged self-defender was really afraid when he used violence. In some cases, like the shooting of Carson Senfield after he tried to get into a car he misidentified as his Uber, the Stand Your Ground law becomes a shield against prosecution. No charges have been filed in this case, largely because there were no other witnesses to disprove the gunman’s claim that he feared for his life when Senfield attempted to get into his car.

Increase in gun homicides

Unlike the claims of the authors and promoters of Stand Your Ground laws is there little empirical evidence that the laws prevent crime. In fact, multiple studies shows just the opposite.

Public health and crime research reveals a detrimental effect of Stand Your Ground laws on public safety, showing an association with increased gun homicide rates. One study, which includes an assessment of Missouri law, found that the passage of “Stand Your Ground” laws correlates with a 8% to 11% increase in the number of gun homicides.

A analysis of Stand Your Ground cases in Florida, conducted by the gun violence prevention group Everytown for Gun Safety, discussed how lifting the disengagement order encourages violent escalation; researchers suggested that more than half of the cases could have been resolved without loss of life.

Furthermore, recent scholarship shows how Stand Your Ground laws are intensify existing racial injustices in the US criminal justice system. A study by the Urban Institute think tank found significant differences in the rate at which murders in Stand Your Ground cases were deemed justified depending on the shooter’s race and the deceased’s race. White shooters were significantly more likely to be acquitted when their victim was black, suggesting that — particularly in states with Stand Your Ground laws — white people may feel more legally empowered to use deadly force and avoid prosecution, as long as their victims are black.

Encouraging armed civilians

In the case of Ralph Yarl, the possible presence of racial bias is not escaped the attention of Kansas City prosecutors. Lester’s grandson has described his grandfather as a devotee of QAnon with “racist tendencies and beliefs” which likely caused his violent reaction to Yarl’s presence on his doorstep.

Against the backdrop of historic legacies of racial prejudice in the US, Stand Your Ground laws raise the risks of fatal shootings in an increasingly gun-saturated audience. With laws encouraging armed citizens to use force against any perceived threat — real or imagined — even the most innocent of mistakes and chance encounters can turn deadly.

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