Standing Your Ground: Fear as a Legal Defense

Many critics of the Stand Your Ground laws insist that they allow defendants to bring racism to court as a legal defense. Because the stand your ground laws allow people to kill in self-defense, so long as they acted upon a “reasonable belief” of an “imminent” threat, critics point out that that reasonable fear may be based entirely upon racist beliefs.

The Stand Your Ground laws stem from a series of old English Common Laws having to do with self-defense.

Duty to Retreat, a policy which acts as the basis for all other American self-defense laws, holds that no one has the right to act violently in self-defense – at least not until his back is against a literal wall. In other words, we all have a duty to at least try to run away from our attackers. Only after we have nowhere left to go is an act of homicide justifiable.

Next came the Castle Doctrine, which gives those who are attacked in their own homes the right to defend themselves against intruders without first having to try to run away. Today, every U.S. state supports the Castle Doctrine in some form or another.

The Stand Your Ground laws stem directly from the Castle Doctrine, with some important differences. In states where SYG laws are strongest – notably Florida, Alabama, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Alaska, and Arizona – people can commit justifiable homicide in self-defense without ever having to run away from a threat. The SYG laws are often criticized for assuming that those who pull the trigger in self-defense are acting upon a reasonable fear of “imminent” danger, thereby forcing the prosecution to prove that this wasn’t the case. The SYG laws offer a sort of immunity for those who shoot to kill – so long as they are aiming out of fear.

Those who claim that the SYG laws are an act of institutional racism point out that the fear that inspires many to shoot may be based on a racist frame of mind. Indeed, 16 percent of justifiable homicides involve whites killing blacks. Compare that to the 3 percent of non-justifiable homicides that involve whites killing blacks. On the other hand, only 3 percent of justifiable homicides involve blacks killing whites, compared to 7 percent of non-justifiable homicides.

The Black & White of Stand Your Ground

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