By Chris Persaud, FloridaBulldog.org
Florida’s gun murder rate reached record lows in 2005. But ever since state lawmakers passed the nation’s first “Stand Your Ground’’ law in October that year, the rate has crept up to levels not seen since the 1990s. And firearm homicides increased most in white suburban areas, say a team of researchers led by a University of Oxford professor.
Florida’s “Stand Your Ground’’ law effectively allows someone to kill an attacker as long as he can show he feared that he would be killed. Before October 2005 in such a scenario, someone who shot an assailant would have been more likely to get arrested and tried for murder or manslaughter. But critics say “Stand Your Ground’’ has led to more murders and caused otherwise culpable shooters to invoke it to avoid criminal liability.
A team of professors led by Oxford’s David Humphreys has studied Stand Your Ground’s effect on Florida’s murder rate for years. Their conclusion: Stand Your Ground is the biggest reason why the number of firearm killings increased after October 2005 and has remained higher ever since. The biggest increases in killings happened in well-off white suburbs, Humphreys and his colleagues state in a study published in October in medical journal Preventive Medicine.
Humphreys’ team compared counties’ gun murder rates pre- and post-Stand Your Ground to their demographics. Those demographic stats included unemployment rates and the share of the population that is white, 18 to 64 years old, or single mothers. They found that in populous, suburban counties — where whites made up 85 percent of the population on average — firearm killings rose by 40 percent on average. In smaller, equally white counties, the rate rose 32 percent. In more diverse big metro areas, the rate rose just 26 percent.
As for why gun homicides rose more in suburban white counties, where unemployment and single-mother households are rarer, Humphreys believes it comes down to inexperience, opportunity and fear. Residents in these communities are likely more unaccustomed to using firearms and dealing with disputes, he explained. People may think “Well, we have extra rights to defend ourselves in public with lethal force, I’m going to take full advantage of it,” he said. “Or what if I get in a quarrel with someone and they pull out a gun? Maybe I should pull out my gun.”
One 2018 example of a shooter trying to take full advantage of Stand Your Ground ended with a father dead in a parking lot in Clearwater in July. Two black parents, Markeis McGlockton and Britany Jacobs, had parked in a handicap space at a convenience store. A white man, 47-year-old Michael Drejka, walked up to Jacobs and started arguing with her over the space when McGlockton shoved him to the ground. Drejka pulled out a pistol and fatally shot McGlockton. Drejka claimed self-defense, so Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri decided not to have him arrested, the Tampa Bay Times reported. Weeks later, after protests and national media attention, Drejka was arrested and charged with manslaughter.
Another incident happened in October at an Army-Navy surplus store owned by Lakeland City Commissioner Michael Dunn, who is white. Security camera footage showed Dunn chasing a shoplifter before fatally shooting him. Dunn claimed he acted in self-defense. He was arrested 16 days after the shooting, charged with murder, and his Stand Your Ground claim was rejected, the Tampa Bay Times reported.
The lag time between a shooting and an arrest upsets University of Miami law professor Tamara Rice Lave. “[Stand Your Ground] makes it easier to kill someone and literally not spend a day in jail,” she said. Without this law, police could interrogate suspects immediately after the shooting, rather than letting them stay on the streets, Lave added.
Lave has opposed Stand Your Ground ever since she read the statute, she wrote in an email. One big reason involves race. “Not only are we making it easier to kill people, we made it harder to prosecute them,” Lave said. “We’re doing this in a time when people have explicit and implicit biases.” She refers to a 2012 Tampa Bay Times investigation of nearly 200 Stand Your Ground cases. The Times showed that shooters who killed a black person went free 73 percent of the time compared to 59 percent of white victims’ shooters.
Overall, Floridians’ chances of getting killed by someone wielding a gun remain higher today than before Stand Your Ground. Humphreys’ team found that an average of 8.7 percent of firearm homicides were ruled justifiable from 2006 to 2015, compared to 3.4 percent from 1999 to 2005. In other words, Stand Your Ground applied to less than 1 in 11 fatal shootings.
In 1989, shooters killed 888 people in Florida — seven for every 100,000 people, Florida Department of Law Enforcement data shows. By 1995, those numbers fell to 687 victims or about five per 100,000. In 2005, 521 people died in shootings, less than three persons per 100,000.
A year after Stand Your Ground passed, the number of people fatally shot in Florida jumped to 740 — more than four per 100,000 — and since then, the state’s gun murder rate has hovered at those levels. Meanwhile, non-firearm weapons in 2017 killed a near-record low number of people — 266, or about one per 100,000.
Like many Stand Your Ground opponents, Lave blames the law for the increase in killings. “When people have guns on them and they get angry, they’re more likely to use them,” she said. “When you’re letting people take the law into their own hands, we’re saying ‘We don’t trust the court system to handle it.’ ”