Expansion of US self-defence laws escalates the number of deaths

Thousands turned out in central Minneapolis earlier this month after 22-year-old Amir Locke was shot by police using a no-knock warrant

STAND-your-ground laws in the United States have expanded legal protections for individuals who use deadly violence in self-defence.

But a new study published today estimates they result in an additional 700 homicides each year – an increase in monthly homicide rates of 11% nationally, but up to 28% in some states.
Published in JAMA Network Open, the study finds the enactment of stand-your-ground (SYG) laws led to an overall increase in homicide and firearm homicide across the US.
While impacts vary from state to state, no state saw reductions in homicide following the introduction of SYG law, and southern states, including Alabama, Florida, Georgia and Louisiana, saw particularly large increases.
According to the researchers, led by a team from the University of Oxford, the University of Pennsylvania and collaborators at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, the accumulation of evidence suggests the expansion of self-defence laws in public places may escalate violence and result in unnecessary loss of life.
According to the paper, ‘Advocates claim that SYG laws enhance public safety by deterring predatory crime through an increased threat of retaliatory violence.
‘Critics … argue that the laws are unnecessary, and may threaten public safety by emboldening the use of deadly violence … There are also concerns that the laws exacerbate social inequalities in violent victimisation since implicit and explicit biases of threat perception discriminate against and cause disproportionate harms among minority groups.’
Some of these concerns have been realised as the laws lie at the heart of a number of high-profile cases in the US, including that of the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in 2012; the killing of Armaud Arbery in 2020, and the trial of Kyle Rittenhouse in 2021.
A stand-your-ground law (sometimes called ‘line in the sand’ or ‘no duty to retreat’ law) provides that people may use deadly force when they reasonably believe it to be necessary to defend against deadly force, great bodily harm, kidnapping, rape, or (in some jurisdictions) robbery or some other serious crimes (right of self-defence).
Under such a law, people have no duty to retreat before using deadly force in self-defence, so long as they are in a place where they are lawfully present.
On August 25, 2020, Kyle Rittenhouse, a 17-year-old from Antioch, Illinois, fatally shot two men and wounded another in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
The shootings occurred during the protests, riots, and civil unrest that followed the non-fatal shooting of a black man, Jacob Blake, by a white police officer. Rittenhouse and the three men he shot were white.
At trial, Rittenhouse used the affirmative defence of self-defence and was acquitted of all charges.
Rittenhouse was armed with a semi-automatic, AR-15 style rifle, and had joined a group of armed men in Kenosha who stated that they were in Kenosha to ‘protect businesses’.
In the verdict, the ‘stand-your-ground’ law was cited.
Senior study author Dr David Humphreys, from Oxford’s Department of Social Policy and Intervention, says: ‘stand-your-ground laws have been enacted in the majority of states, and more states are currently debating their introduction. There has even been a recent bill proposing a nationwide adoption of the law (‘The stand-your-ground Act of 2021’).
‘Supporters argue that introducing these laws will improve public safety by deterring criminals, but this research finds the opposite, showing that rates of violence increase (sometimes dramatically) following the adoption of these laws.’
The research team examined the impacts of SYG laws in 23 states between 2000 and 2016. According to the research, they were associated with 8% to 11% national increases in homicide and firearm homicide rates.
Florida saw the highest increase with a 28% monthly rise in homicides.
Although the biggest increases were in the southern states, no states showed reductions in homicides or firearm homicides following the introduction of the laws. The laws affect all individuals, irrespective of race, sex, or age.
Lead author Dr Michelle Degli Esposti, also from Oxford, says, ‘It is critical that policy and law-makers consider the scientific evidence on the risks associated with stand-your-ground laws before passing more lenient laws on the use of lethal force in self-defence.
More research is needed to understand why these laws have serious negative impacts, but research consistently shows that, in most contexts, the laws are leading to unnecessary and avoidable loss of life.
Meanwhile, hundreds turned out to mourn Amir Locke, a Black man killed by US police on February 2nd.
Locke’s death has provoked an outcry against no-knock warrants, with a push by his family and others to ban them.
Amir Locke, was just 22 years old, shot dead by police during a raid on his apartment, the latest in a series of killings by law enforcement that sparked outrage over police treatment of Black Americans.
Prominent civil rights activist the Reverend Al Sharpton delivered Locke’s eulogy last Thursday, after a public viewing at a church in Minneapolis, a metropolitan area where two high-profile killings of Black men attracted national attention in the past two years.
‘Amir was not guilty of anything other than being young and Black in America,’ Sharpton said.
He said if Minneapolis had banned no-knock warrants ‘we wouldn’t be at a funeral this morning’.
The service took place at the same church where Daunte Wright, shot dead during a traffic stop in a nearby suburb, was memorialised in April 2021.
‘Officers do not need more training, they need to be relieved of their duty,’ Linda Kay Taylor, Locke’s aunt said.
‘You cannot train away racism,’ Taylor said. ‘You cannot train somebody to be empathetic about Black and brown lives.’
‘It’s either in you or it’s not,’ she said.
A large portrait of Locke was at the front of the church as people streamed inside to pay their respects. Locke’s body was in a white coffin topped with roses and multiple bouquets of flowers nearby.
Locke’s death has been compared with the killing of George Floyd, who died when a Minneapolis police officer used his knee to pin Floyd’s neck to the ground in May 2020.
Floyd’s death, captured on a video that went viral, sparked a summer of protests over racial injustice across the United States and abroad.
The circumstances around Locke’s fatal encounter with police also mirrors that of Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old Black woman fatally shot by police during a raid on her Kentucky apartment.
In Locke’s case, he was shot dead by police who obtained a no-knock warrant to search the apartment as part of a homicide investigation. He was not named in the warrant.
Days after his death on February 2, police released video footage of the raid. It showed Locke holding a gun as he twisted beneath a blanket on a sofa after being roused by officers. Police say he pointed the gun at officers before they opened fire. Locke’s family disputes that.
Protests in downtown Minneapolis have drawn hundreds of demonstrators demanding justice and a ban on no-knock warrants.
Activists at the protests said Locke had a right to possess a weapon in his home and was never given the chance to disarm himself in the chaotic moments as police stormed into his apartment without warning.
Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey has placed a moratorium on such searches and some state lawmakers are seeking to enact legislation to limit them.

  • One of three Minneapolis police officers charged with federal civil rights violations in George Floyd’s killing, which triggered global protests and a re-examination of racism and policing in the United States, took the stand last Wednesday at their trial.

J Alexander Kueng is the second of the former officers to testify.
Kueng, Thomas Lane, and Tou Thao are charged with violating Floyd’s constitutional rights when Officer Derek Chauvin pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes as the 46-year-old Black man was handcuffed, face down on the street.
Kueng knelt on Floyd’s back. Lane held his legs and Thao kept bystanders back.
Earlier on Wednesday, Thao testified that he knew Floyd’s pleas that he could not breathe were becoming weaker, but still did not realise Floyd was in danger even as bystanders became increasingly vocal.
Under cross-examination by prosecutor LeeAnn Bell, Thao said he did not relay any of the onlookers’ concerns about Floyd’s wellbeing to the other officers and did not check his pulse after bystanders asked him to.
He said he was relying on the other three officers at the scene to care for Floyd’s medical needs while he controlled the crowd and traffic and that he did not think Chauvin’s knee was on Floyd’s trachea.
Thao, Kueng, and Lane are accused of depriving Floyd of medical care. Kueng and Thao are further accused of failing to intervene to stop the killing.
Prosecutors rested their case on Monday after calling to the stand doctors, police officers and bystanders to build an argument that the officers should have intervened to stop Chauvin and that they violated their training by not rolling Floyd onto his side so he could breathe, or giving him CPR as soon as he stopped breathing and they could not find a pulse.
Defence lawyers are seeking to show that the Minneapolis Police Department provided inadequate training and taught cadets to obey superiors. Chauvin, who was convicted of state murder and manslaughter charges last year, was the most senior officer at the scene.
On Wednesday, prosecutor Bell asked Thao what steps officers took to help Floyd. He replied that they were waiting for paramedics. She also asked if he ever told Chauvin to get off Floyd.
‘I did not,’ Thao replied, adding later that, ‘I think I would trust a 19-year veteran to figure it out’.
When Bell asked Thao if he communicated any bystander concerns to his partners, he replied, ‘Nope.’
On Tuesday, Thao’s lawyer, Robert Paule, asked Thao whether he saw any officers roll Floyd over and perform CPR. He said he did not and presumed that meant Floyd was breathing.
‘It indicated that Mr Floyd was not in cardiac arrest,’ said Thao, who later testified that he did not know there was anything seriously wrong with Floyd even as an ambulance took him away.
But Bell noted video shows Thao looking at the other officers much of the time and suggested that bystanders and traffic were not big threats.
Lane, Kueng and Thao also face a separate state trial in June on charges alleging that they aided and abetted murder and manslaughter.
Chauvin pleaded guilty in December to a federal civil rights charge. The other three officers have pleaded not guilty.