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Recent shootings bring attention back to stand your ground laws


A string of recent shootings have put renewed attention on the self-defense laws, often known as stand your ground laws. In the span of a week, 16-year-old Ralph Yarl was shot twice after ringing the doorbell of the wrong house in the state of Missouri as he was trying to pick up his siblings. In upstate New York, Kaylin Gillis was shot and killed after her boyfriend pulled into the wrong driveway as they searched for a friend's home. And in Texas, two cheerleaders were shot after one accidentally got into a car that she thought was her own. The shooters in these cases have not yet invoked their state's stand your ground laws, but the shootings have raised a lot of concern that they could lean on those laws to justify shooting victims who seem to have just made a simple mistake.

To talk more about this, we called Ronald Sullivan Jr. He's a professor of law at Harvard University, where he focuses on criminal law. When we spoke, he explained the difference between some key legal principles, including self-defense, the castle doctrine, and stand your ground.

RONALD SULLIVAN JR: The stand your ground laws exist as an exception upon an exception to traditional self-defense. What do I mean by that? So with respect to traditional self-defense, there are five qualities that you have to have. There has to be proportionality, temporality, reasonability, you cannot be the first aggressor and there has to be a duty to retreat. So those are the five elements of traditional self-defense. The castle doctrine differs from self-defense in the sense that it says there's no duty to retreat when you are in your castle - your home. So everything else is the same except when you're in your home, you have no duty to retreat. If you reasonably are in fear of death or severe bodily injury, then you can use deadly force in your home.

FLORIDO: And then there's stand your ground laws.

SULLIVAN: And then there's stand your ground law. So you have the castle exception, and then the stand your ground law is an exception to that even. So it says, well, you don't have to have a duty to retreat, not only in your house, but anywhere that you lawfully can be. So it's as though you are in your home, anywhere - you know, on the streets, in the grocery store, in the parking lot of a convenience store - wherever you lawfully can be, you no longer have a duty to retreat.

FLORIDO: Well, in these cases over the last several days, a lot of people have been asking whether we're getting to a point where anyone can just shoot you for knocking on their door and then claim self-defense. It's hard to imagine that this is what lawmakers who've written these laws had in mind when drafting them, but is that the practical effect of what's going on here?

SULLIVAN: What these stand your ground laws have done has emboldened people to engage in private law enforcement. It's emboldened people to engage in a form of retributive justice on their own. So it's a dangerous marriage between our gun laws - allowing these concealed carry laws and open carry laws - plus stand your ground laws. And people think that they have a right to just start shooting people.

Now, of course, the problem is when you're out in a public place, other people have rights there too, and individual citizens can't be police officers deciding on, you know, who has more of a right to be in a particular place. And you just can't start shooting people. So that's the problem with these laws. It's really emboldened people to do things that they wouldn't otherwise do if they didn't have guns at the ready and a law that seems to protect people who go and shoot folks.

FLORIDO: Well, in the case of Ralph Yarl, the 16-year-old boy who walked up to the wrong house as he was trying to pick up his siblings, the prosecutor who's charged the shooter with murder said that race was a factor in the shooting. Ralph Yarl was a Black boy. Is there evidence that these types of self-defense claims made under stand your ground tend to be used more successfully to defend people who shoot, kill or otherwise injure Black people?

SULLIVAN: Yes, the empirical evidence is clear to that point, but it's stated in a slightly different vocabulary than you use. It's the person who invokes stand your ground. If the person who invokes stand your ground is white, they have an increased chance of prevailing on the case - period. If the person is white and the victim is Black, then those chances shoot up even more, which is more to the point that you made. And, of course, the reverse is true. If you are Black and you invoke stand your ground, your chances of winning as compared to the white community is substantially lower, no matter who the victim is. But if the victim is white, those chances drop down to almost zero.

So race seems to have baked its way into the way in which prosecutors and/or jurors understand what constitutes reasonable fear. In the case of the young man who knocked on the door, the question is going to be - the question for the jury is whether that gentleman was in reasonable fear of his safety, not subjectively fearful.

FLORIDO: Professor, you've written and spoken with great passion about the misuse of self-defense laws after major killings like Trayvon Martin's, after the trial of Kyle Rittenhouse, who shot two people during protests in Wisconsin. Are there ways to ensure that these laws are not enabling the killing of people engaged in mundane activities or just making simple mistakes?

SULLIVAN: No, there absolutely is a way - return to basic self-defense law, which has worked just fine for over 200 years in this country. If we did that, we would reduce the sorts of problems we have now. One interesting data point that doesn't come out in many conversations is that homicide rates have increased, not decreased, after stand your ground laws have been promulgated in states across the country. So it's having the opposite effect that its proponents say that it should have. And we have a perfectly good self-defense law that works just fine. Jurors have been doing it for hundreds of years, and we would do well to return to traditional self-defense law in this country.

FLORIDO: I've been speaking with Ronald Sullivan Jr., a professor at Harvard Law School, where he teaches courses on criminal law. Professor Sullivan, thanks for sharing your expertise with us.

SULLIVAN: Thank you so much. Take care.

(SOUNDBITE OF LACK SHO'S "FRIDAY UNDERGROUND") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Adrian Florido is a national correspondent for NPR covering race and identity in America.