In most parts of the United States it’s completely legal to hurt or kill someone you think is threatening you, in any location, even if there’s a way you could escape the situation.
This wasn’t always the case. Since 2005, the National Rifle Association and the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council have helped make these so-called “stand your ground” laws the norm in the United States.
As more states adopted the recommended language of special interest groups, gun manufacturing rose. And so did gun deaths.
For most of U.S. history, laws generally allowed people to use deadly force in a home invasion, known as the ‘Castle Doctrine.’ It wasn’t until 1994, that Utah became the first state to pass a law that extended the use of deadly force in public, not just the home, without a duty to retreat.
In 1994 Congress also passed the nation’s first federal Assault Weapons Ban which prevented the sale semi-automatic rifles and large-capacity magazines. Also written into the law was a requirement that the ban be renewed or it else it would expire in 2004.
During the ten years of the ban, sales of all firearms — including pistols, revolvers, rifles and shotguns — saw declines in manufacturing according to data from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Several studies also showed it contributed to declines in gun crimes and mass shootings.
As gun manufacturing declined nationally, the National Rifle Association (NRA) worked with Florida lawmakers to pass the second stand your ground law in the United States in 2005, six months after the Assault Weapons Ban expired.
The Florida law, like the one in Utah a decade earlier, also allowed deadly force if a person believed their life was in danger regardless whether there was a way the person could have fled.
An overwhelming majority of Florida lawmakers supported the bill. One of the few against it, Steve Geller said on the Senate floor: “We never said… that the street is your castle.”
When then Florida Governor Jeb Bush signed the bill into law, lobbyist and former NRA president Marion Hammer was looking on behind him. Just a few months later, the NRA announced that Hammer had presented text for model legislation based on the Florida law to be replicated in other states at the annual meeting of the the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).
ALEC’s Criminal Justice Tace Force, made up of public and private sector members and co-chaired by Wal-Mart, adopted the model legislation unanimously. At the time, Wal-Mart was the largest retailer of ammunition and long guns.
NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre said at the time that Florida ‘slaw was the “first step of a multi-state strategy” that to capitalize on a political climate dominated by conservative opponents of gun control.
“There’s a big tailwind we have, moving from state legislature to state legislature. The South, the Midwest, everything they call ‘flyover land.'” LaPierre told the Washington Post.
A year later, 12 more states passed stand your ground laws. And a year after that, three more. There are now stand your ground laws in 30 states. Eight other states have also allowed for stand your ground rules based judicial decisions and jury instructions.
In 2012 the deadly shooting of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin at the hands of neighborhood watch member George Zimmerman brought criticism to ALEC and the stand your ground initiative, causing hundreds of lawmakers and 60 corporations to cut ties with the interest group.
ALEC disbanded the task force just months after Martin’s killing. Wal-Mart also announced it had suspended its membership with ALEC.
However states still continued to adopt stand your ground laws.
RISE IN GUNS, RISE IN GUN DEATHS
Since the proliferation of stand your ground, gun manufacturing has increased significantly. In 2004 manufacturing of firearms was down to 3.2 million to 13.8 million in 2021, according to data from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms.
An estimate of gun sales by industry data firm Small Arms Analytics and Forecasting found that sales reached nearly 20 million in 2021, the second-busiest year on record. The highest year was in 2020 with 22.8 million sales.
Along with a rise in sales has also come a rise in deaths involving firearms. In 2004 there were 29,569 deaths involving firearms according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. By 2021, firearm deaths reached 48,830, the highest in at least 40 years.
A 2017 study looked at the impact of the Florida law and found that the law was associated with a 24.4 percent increase in homicide and a 31.6 percent increase in firearm-related homicide.
In a 2022 assessment of 41 states, researchers found stand your ground laws were associated with an 8-11 percent increase in monthly rates of homicide and firearm homicide in the U.S. They also found that violent deaths varied among states, with Southern states including Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and Louisiana seeing increases in violent deaths of 16-34 percent.
Another study found a 45 percent increase in teenage firearm homicide after Florida passed its stand your ground law and that the law exacerbated racial disparities. Prior to the law, Black teenagers made up 63.5 percent of all adolescent firearm homicides, after the law they made up 71.8 percent.
An 2013 investigation by the Tampa Bay Times also found that 70 percent of people who used stand your ground to avoid prosecution were successful. The Times reported that defense attorneys were using the law in ways never intended, including a man who shot a bear. In a third of the cases the Times looked at, the defendant initiated the fight, shot an unarmed person, or pursued the person, and was not charged.
More than a decade ago, former state attorney for Florida Willie Meggs said that the consequences of the law in Florida had been devastating. The law was being used by rival gang members, rival drug dealers, and road rage incidents, he said.
“It puts us in a posture that, if you and I had words, and I said, ‘Get your gun and I will meet you on the street,’ we can have a shootout in the street and the winner is standing his ground,” Meggs told the New York Times.