Misplaced shootings put the stand-your-stand law in the spotlight

They were shot after pulling into the wrong driveway, ringing the wrong doorbell and getting into the wrong car in a parking lot.

In a single week, four young, unarmed Americans were shot dead after simple, everyday mistakes. One died.

In a country home to the world's most heavily armed population, where fear of violent crime is often more of an illusion than a reflection of statistics, and where steadfastness laws proliferate, a simple mistake can prove fatal.

Experts say the high-profile incidents illustrate fast-moving and unique cultural and legal trends in the United States, one of the few countries with a constitutional right to bear arms.

Dozens of “Stand Your Ground” state laws passed over the past 18 years have significantly changed the way Americans think about the traditional right to self-defense.

Hundreds of protesters wave signs in Tallahassee, Florida.

Protesters demonstrating against Florida's “Stand Your Ground” law march to the Capitol in Tallahassee in 2014. (Phil Sears/Associated Press)

“As a nation, we are moving ever faster in the direction where people believe they have the right to shoot anyone who approaches them in any way, while mistakenly believing that we are in increased danger,” said Thaddeus Hoffmeister, professor of criminal justice at the University of Dayton. “In reality, things are completely different.”

Recent incidents would be mundane, if not violent.

On Tuesday, a man in Texas shot and killed two teenage cheerleaders after one of them accidentally got into his vehicle, thinking it was her own. She panicked, got out and got back into her friend's car.

A bullet grazed her; Her friend was hit in the leg and back.

On Saturday, a 20-year-old woman and three friends were on their way to a friend's house in upstate New York when they drove down the wrong driveway. After they turned around, a man came onto the porch and fired shots. The woman, Kaylin Gillis, later died.

On April 13, a mother in Kansas City, Missouri, sent her 16-year-old son to pick up his younger brothers. The boy, Ralph Yarl, showed up at the wrong address and rang the doorbell. He was shot twice, once in the head.

This incident sparked additional outrage because the homeowner is white and Ralph is black. The shooter was not immediately arrested, raising allegations of selective enforcement.

According to the family's lawyer, the man told the teenager, “Don't come back here.” He has since been charged and pleaded not guilty.

In Texas, 25-year-old Pedro Tello Rodriguez Jr. is charged with deadly conduct. In New York, 65-year-old Kevin Monahan is charged with second-degree murder.

Experts say 84-year-old Missouri homeowner Andrew Lester is likely to mount a “staunch” defense against assault and armed criminal action charges.

Andrew Lester, 84, appears in court.Andrew Lester, 84, appears in court.

Andrew Lester, 84, appears in court in Liberty, Missouri, for the shooting death of Ralph Yarl. (KMBC via Associated Press/Pool Photo)

“In regular self-defense, a person has a duty to retreat if someone threatens to use force against them,” said Peter Joy, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis.

“Under stand-your-stand laws, a person is not required to retreat before using deadly force if the person reasonably believes that force is necessary to defend himself or a third person from something, which she reasonably believes is imminent use of force by another,” Joy added.

Missouri and Texas are among at least 30 states with these or similar laws. New York law instead includes the “Castle Doctrine,” a more traditional use-of-force rule that says a person has the right to shoot someone who enters their home.

Florida started the “Stand Your Ground” movement when then-Gov. Jeb Bush signed the law in 2005.

The National Rifle Assn. had pushed for the law, arguing it would make communities safer by strengthening individual self-defense.

In press interviews at the time, Miami Police Chief John Timoney spoke out against it.

“Whether it's trick-or-treating or kids playing in someone's yard who doesn't want them there or a drunk guy stumbling into the wrong house, you're encouraging people to use potentially deadly physical force “Where they shouldn’t be used,” he said.

Florida's law came to light in 2012 after teenager Trayvon Martin, who was walking home from the store, was killed by neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman. Zimmerman's lawyers did not use state law in their defense, but the jury that acquitted him received instructions that invoked the law. National protests over Martin's death and the verdict increased criticism that the law encouraged violence.

George Zimmerman sits in a courtroom.George Zimmerman sits in a courtroom.

George Zimmerman, shown in a Sanford, Florida, courtroom in 2013, was acquitted of murdering 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. (Joe Burbank/Associated Press)

Using “Stand Your Ground” as a legal defense in recent cases is unlikely to meet legal standards, said Ari Freilich, a California-based director of state policy at the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. The group is named after Gabrielle Giffords, the former U.S. representative from Arizona who suffered a brain injury in a 2011 assassination attempt.

“These laws don’t allow you to shoot someone just because they ring the doorbell or walk in the driveway,” Freilich said. “If there is no need to use force at all, there is no argument for standing your ground.”

While advocates claim the laws promote safety, many researchers claim the opposite.

“There is ample evidence that the laws have actually led to more violence and are misunderstood by many people, making them believe they have the right to shoot someone when in reality they don't,” said Caroline Light, lecturer and author of “ “Stand Your Ground: A Story of America’s Love Affair with Deadly Self-Defense.”

An analysis published in 2021 by an Oxford University professor that examined data from 1999 to 2017 in 41 states with 248,358 homicides – 184,495 of them in 23 states with “Stand Your Ground” laws – found an 8% to 11% increase in homicides. States with the laws.

There was also criticism of racial differences. A 2015 article in the journal Social Science and Medicine that analyzed data from Florida found that people who used “Stand Your Ground” to defend themselves in court were more likely to be convicted. was twice as high in cases with white victims as in cases with black or Latino victims.

It's a racist dynamic that the Rev. Vernon Percy Howard Jr., president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Kansas City, fears.

“Black people in this country continue to suffer under laws that are immoral and unjust. Because it is used against black people, “Stand Your Ground” is one of them.”

Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas said the self-defense rule hurts everyone.

“If this is the kind of thing where 'steadfastness' can be enforced, then every U.S. postal worker, every Amazon delivery person, every pizza delivery person can be shot,” he said in an emailed statement.

In the shootings in Texas and Missouri, attorneys for the defendants said fear was a factor when the men fired their weapons.

“It’s fair to say that many people who believe in these laws believe that there is heightened danger around them,” said Hoffmeister, a law professor at the University of Dayton.

According to Gallup poll results released in October, 56% of Americans believe local crime is increasing every year. The percentage is the highest in the five decades Gallup has been asking the question.

When asked about the national crime rate, 78% of respondents said it was higher. The percentage was highest at 82% in 1992, when crime across the country, particularly in major cities, reached one of its current highs.

“The actual numbers say that crime is nowhere near as high as it was in a time like the early 1990s,” Hoffmeister said. “And police now have more technology to respond more quickly to crime. So if those fears are the reason you shouldn’t assert yourself, then they don’t exist.”

This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

Anna Harden

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