Hannah Knowles and Emmanuel Felton, Washington Post, February 25, 2022
Explaining his latest decision not to prosecute, Marc Bennett ticked through case after case tossed out in the name of “stand your ground.”
A man who fatally shot someone in the back. A man who met punches with gunfire. And a man who stabbed his unarmed neighbor with a sword. All of them, Kansas courts ruled, were allowed to fight back against an attacker, even if they might have safely backed away.
Now Bennett, the Sedgwick County district attorney, was holding a news conference on the death of a Black teenager named Cedric Lofton, detailing how county staff had restrained the 17-year-old facedown for more than half an hour. He said the state’s stand-your-ground law precluded charges because staff had a right to defend themselves after Lofton struck someone and struggled.
When a reporter asked if he would push for legal change, Bennett said, “We’ll try.” He had been trying for years. “It’ll go nowhere.”
Bennett’s comments last month underscored a frustrating reality for prosecutors, police, activists and researchers who have loudly criticized stand-your-ground laws: The policy has only expanded — and grown “more extreme,” some say — since the death of another Black 17-year-old thrust it into the spotlight 10 years ago.
George Zimmerman’s lawyers did not cite Florida’s stand-your-ground law, opting to mount a more general self-defense case that Zimmerman fatally shot Trayvon Martin out of fear for his life. But the jury that acquitted Zimmerman got instructions about the law, and Martin’s killing brought intense scrutiny to a policy that critics accuse of encouraging vigilantism and violence. A growing body of research links stand-your-ground laws to sudden increases in homicide, including unlawful killings.
“Again and again, we are seeing these stand-your-ground laws being used as an excuse to kill Black people and particularly Black children,” said Maurice Evans, a Wichita pastor and spokesman for Lofton’s biological father. “We have to reevaluate these laws and how they’re being applied.”
Stand-your-ground laws have now spread to most states in the United States, propelled by gun groups such as the National Rifle Association and lawmakers of both parties who say people under attack should not have to worry about a legal “duty to retreat.” For some, the policy is also a response to public anxieties during a pandemic marked by rising violent crime, anti-Asian attacks and civil unrest.
Arkansas, Ohio and North Dakota passed stand-your-ground laws last year, and Hawaii is debating the issue. Republican members of Congress introduced a national stand-your-ground bill in December, invoking Kyle Rittenhouse — the teenager acquitted last fall in yet another polarizing trial that hinged on self-defense.
“Like Kyle Rittenhouse, every American has the right to defend their life from an attacker,” Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) said in a statement announcing the bill. Discussing the legislation on a gun-rights group’s podcast, Gaetz argued that stand-your-ground legislation protects “law-abiding” people from those who would hurt them.
“A lot of groups focus on making sure that firearms can be on your person, can be concealed carried, or open carried, whatever,” said Gaetz, whose office declined an interview request for this article. “But that really will be useless if you’re not able to access your firearm and to protect yourself in the event of a violent attack.”
Allison Anderman, senior counsel at the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, said stand-your-ground laws have not only spread around the country, but also have grown “more extreme.” States such as Florida — which kicked off a wave of stand-your-ground laws in 2005 — have augmented their policies by putting the onus on prosecutors to prove that the stand-your-ground law does not apply before going to trial.
Researchers say it is not clear that repealing such laws would reverse increases in homicide, even if it were politically feasible.
The stand-your-ground debate does not always reflect partisan divides. In Kansas, lawmakers passed a stand-your-ground bill unanimously in 2010; a Democratic governor signed the measure. In Hawaii, liberal lawmakers — including a Progressive Caucus co-chair — are pushing for a similar law.
Hawaii Rep. John Mizuno (D) said recent anti-Asian attacks are one of many factors pushing people toward a stand-your-ground law.
“I think people have come to a point where we are tired of being victimized and we’re tired of being attacked and we want to take back our streets,” he said.