Why is ‘duty to retreat’ superior to ‘stand your ground?’

by J. Pharoah Doss

Self-defense laws required a “duty to retreat”. Meaning a threatened person could not harm another, especially with deadly force, if there was an opportunity to flee. The threatened person had to be trapped or cornered.

In 2005, Florida became the first state to remove any “duty to retreat”. By 2012, 19 other states did the same. These laws became known as “stand your ground”. Today, there are 38 “stand your ground” states.

But what was wrong with a “duty to retreat”?

Too often, people were found guilty of crimes ranging from battery to manslaughter because they didn’t retreat “far enough” to meet the legal definition of self-defense. “Stand your ground” laws give the benefit of the doubt to the threatened person.

In 2012, “stand your ground” laws were nationally scrutinized after a Black teenager was fatally shot in Florida by a community watch volunteer who claimed he acted in self-defense. The national media reported that an unarmed Black teen was shot and killed by a White man who wasn’t arrested by the police due to Florida’s “stand your ground” laws. At this juncture, “stand your ground” critics claimed there was racial bias in the application of the law. 

John Roman, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center, conducted a study examining racial disparities in “justifiable homicides”. The FBI’s data revealed that the killing of Black people by Whites was more likely to be considered justified than the killing of White people by Blacks. 

Roman emphasized that these figures don’t prove bias because the data doesn’t show the circumstances behind the killings. Unfortunately, that fact didn’t matter to those that opposed “stand your ground” because they were convinced disparities between Blacks and Whites were caused by racism.

John Lott Jr., president of the Crime Prevention Research Center, insisted “stand your ground” laws were not racially biased but were beneficial to Black people. Lott Jr. said, “Blacks are more likely to be successful in making claims using “stand your ground” than any other racial group. Blacks who live in high-crime urban areas are the people most likely to be victims of violent crime in the United States.” 

Since Lott Jr.’s argument centered around Black-on-Black crime, he was accused of ignoring the racial disparities, even though the FBI data on interracial violence showed between 2012 and 2015, there were 540,360 felonious assaults committed by Blacks on Whites, while Whites committed 91,470 felonious assaults on Blacks. 

The overemphasis on racial disparities overshadowed a Texas A&M study that revealed the rates of murder and non-negligent manslaughter increased by 8 percent in “stand your ground” states. (That’s 600 additional homicides per year) The Texas A&M researchers didn’t have an explanation for this increase, but it’s possible the absence of “duty to retreat” has been misinterpreted as the “permission to use force” in response to any perceived threat.

For example, in August, Marc Wilson, a 23-year-old Black man, was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter for the fatal shooting of a 17-year-old White girl in Georgia. Wilson stated he was driving down the highway with his girlfriend, who is White, when a truck load of White people started yelling racial slurs at them and tried to run them off the road. Wilson pulled out his gun, which he was legally permitted to carry, and shot. 

Wilson’s lawyers believed Wilson’s actions were covered by Georgia’s “stand your ground” laws, which allows the use of deadly force based on a “reasonable belief” that such force was necessary to prevent death or bodily injury.

However, Wilson’s girlfriend testified that she didn’t hear any racist language and that she urged her boyfriend to put the gun away.

It was the girlfriend’s testimony that turned the jury against Wilson, but critics are claiming “stand your ground” laws do not work for Black people.

Rev. James Woodland, former state president of Georgia NAACP, described Wilson’s case as a “public lynching” and insisted, “If Black people cannot stand their ground as well, then nobody should be able to.”

If Woodland truly wants “stand your ground” eliminated, then he needs to explain why self-defense with “duty to retreat” requirements are superior to “stand your ground” laws instead of talking about lynchings.

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