Whose ground are you standing on?


When Trayvon Martin was killed, the whole world was suddenly confronted with the terrifying reality of the “Stand Your Ground” laws – an approach to “self-defense” that removes from a would-be-shooter the onus to back down from confrontation. Stand Your Ground is a law that specifically grants a license to kill for merely feeling threatened. Of course, given the news-stoked paranoia surrounding black folks in the United States and Canada, simply being black is a threatening act, thus justifying the lynch-mob fantasy of every nutjob with a gun and a nursed belief that life was better in the “good old days” when black people knew their place. Now, in order to avoid getting shot (with no consequence to the shooter), black folks had to make sure they were super-turbo-extra non-threatening.

Now I am not sure that the removal of legal punishment makes murder more likely. While there are undoubtedly people who go out with the intention of murdering black folks, they are rare, and I sincerely doubt that they factor legal consequences into their plans. The issue with Stand Your Ground laws is that they make confrontation more likely. People know that they have a right to accost ‘threatening’ people, and that if push comes to shove, they are armed and can take matters into their own hands.

A cartoon of a black man with a smoking pistol in his hand, speaking to a police officer over the corpse of a similarly-armed white man. The black man is saying "I had a reasonable fear the neighbourhood watch guy following me was going to fear for his life and shoot... so I shot him first." The officer replies "makes sense to me". The caption reads "The 'Stand your ground before he stands his ground' defense"

Stand Your Ground is a nearly perfect equation to result in the death of black folks. Add the nascent fear of The Negro to the fearlessness associated with packing heat, subtract the legal obligation to avoid conflict, and what’s the result? 73% legally justified homicide against black folks:

A Tampa Bay Times analysis of almost 200 cases — the first to examine the role of race in Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” or “Kill at Will” laws — found that people who killed a black person walked free 73 percent of the time, while those who killed a white person went free 59 percent of the time. Questions of race have surrounded Florida’s controversial “Kill at Will” law since George Zimmerman killed unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin in February. The law made national headlines because it was part of a system of laws that helped keep Zimmerman out of jail for more than a month.

Now I know a lot of readers are here from the United States, so I don’t know if y’all find this nearly as batshit insane as I do. First of all, the idea of someone walking around with a gun strapped to their hip is absolutely nuts here in Canada. Sure, if you’re at a hunting lodge or a woods guide or something it’s not uncommon to walk around with a rifle, but to walk around the streets of your neighbourhood strapped is fucking crazy.

This doesn't happen in Canada

It’s worth noting the 14% discrepancy in conviction rate between races. It should be noted that black decedents were (apparently) more likely to be found with weapons on their person, or caught in the commission of a criminal activity. Of course, knowing what we know about the way in which police will absolutely lie through their teeth when backed into a corner (or when it suits them), you are free to take that figure with a grain or two of skepticism. Whatever the reason, Florida’s gun laws are disproportionately stacked against its black citizens to the tune of 14%.

Like yesterday’s post, any one single aspect of this story could be called into question. This effect is not necessarily due to a racial bias, one might argue. No, but at some point you have to explain why this shit always happens to those lower down on the power ladder, whether that be black people or women:

Marissa Alexander is another victim of Florida’s infamous Stand Your Ground law, proving that Florida statute 776.013 is not for battered women or people who won’t shoot to kill. When attacked by her husband in her home, with an order of protection in place, Marissa Alexander shot into the ceiling, instead of into his body, to scare him away. She is now sitting in a jail cell, awaiting sentencing for assault with a deadly weapon.

(snip)

Ms. Alexander requested immunity from prosecution but her claim of self-defense based on the Stand Your Ground Statute was rejected. She is now sitting in the Pretrial Detention Facility in Jacksonville FL, Duval County awaiting sentencing – up to 20 years in prison. That is more than George Zimmerman could get it if he is convicted of manslaughter.

Unlike Mr. Zimmerman who stalked and confronted his attacker, Ms. Alexander was trying to get away from hers. In fact, the Stand Your Ground law specifically acknowledges domestic situations and orders of protection. Unlike Mr. Zimmerman, Ms. Alexander did not kill her husband or even wound him, she fired to scare him into leaving her alone.

Is that the problem? Unless you shoot to kill, are you really in reasonable fear of bodily injury or death? Or is the bias against battered women, specifically battered black women, still going strong in America’s court rooms?

Evidently so, since the State of Florida cited this as part of their reason for denying her immunity from prosecution under the Stand Your Ground statute:

instead of shooting at [husband] (as one would do if they were truly in fear of their life) the Defendant chose to fire mere inches to the right of his face to scare him.

So to make this clear, according to Florida law, only one of these things is illegal: 1) hunting down, confronting, and murdering an unarmed 17 year-old on the streets; 2) firing a warning shot in self-defense against your abusive ex-husband instead of shooting to kill.

Again, any of these things can be explained away – they’re just anecdotes. But when we know what we know about the background of radiation of racism that permeates our society, and being good skeptics, we have to decide which is the more extraordinary claim: that racism plays a role in these extremely unjust legal outcomes that are disproportionately stacked against black people; or that black people are just really really fucking unlucky.

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Comments

  1. sivi_volk says

    All of this still kind of blows my mind, and is a major part of why I’m going to try to avoid the US if I can (not easy, if I want to get a post-doc at some point).

    Just the idea that people will be walking down the streets armed is freaky enough, but then having a justice system where you’re likely to face MORE punishment for not killing someone… I want to say I don’t even see how that makes sense, but apparently it does?

    Any chance of an appeal for Ms. Alexander? I know there’s a couple groups that sometimes help out with legal cases like this.

  2. machintelligence says

    Another reason that I don’t live in Florida.
    Slightly off topic and apocryphal, but funny: A German tourist was questioned while clearing customs at the Dade County (Florida) airport and asked if he had any weapons, such as a knife or a gun. When he answered “No, of course not”, they loaned him one.

  3. says

    Now I know a lot of readers are here from the United States, so I don’t know if y’all find this nearly as batshit insane as I do. First of all, the idea of someone walking around with a gun strapped to their hip is absolutely nuts here in Canada. Sure, if you’re at a hunting lodge or a woods guide or something it’s not uncommon to walk around with a rifle, but to walk around the streets of your neighbourhood strapped is fucking crazy.

    To put this in context, I am a former Marine and I think that guns are a lot of fun. Although the idea of pointing one at a human being in order to kill them is repugnant, I would do it in order to defend two things: my life or the life of another person. (Screw material things; they can be replaced. The life of a human being, even a human being who wants my money or stuff, cannot.)

    So, keeping in mind that I am not anti-gun: it is completely fucking nonsensical and paranoid to walk around strapped in most places. I do not want to put myself into that mindset; it is a dark place. I like guns for fun and that’s it, and I wouldn’t own one because the fun is far outweighed by the chance that one of my children could get hold of a weapon. (I don’t even let them pretend to shoot other people because I take guns very seriously.) Keeping in mind that I am lower middle-class and, aside from having been raped by dudes I knew, I’ve never lived with any serious risk, of course, but most of these people who are this paranoid don’t exactly live in the hood, either.

    That being said, I wouldn’t blame a lot of marginalized people for wanting to carry weapons with them to protect themselves. In a world like this? I might. But I am keenly aware that, as it stands, I am not the one who is threatened.

  4. says

    I’m one of those people walking around armed and openly carrying a pistol on my hip. I’m a former Marine, I’ve got plenty of training and such. I don’t know if it is crazy, considering the crime rate in my neighborhood which is apparently getting better, thank goodness. I’m not a gun nut though… those people scare me too. I strap on my pistol when I walk my dog at night, and I go out with my wife when she goes out to smoke after dark. I’ve seen homeless people, drunks, and drug users hanging out around the abandoned houses in the neighborhood and cutting through the alleys and between houses.

    One of the things with the gun nuts that I found out while using the Internet to comparison shop for my handgun is that they are OBSESSED with scary black people, although they’ll use all sorts of euphemisms like “urban youth” and “inner city thugs” and the like. Their mindset is racism-based but also hugely cowardly and ridiculously delusional when you read their descriptions of their shootout fantasies. They’ll talk about their need for extended-capacity magazines because carrying 50 rounds isn’t enough, they need 90+ rounds to even begin to feel safe. Gotta have a gun in every room too, just in case the street gang from a 1970s grindhouse movie comes after their white women while they’re taking a nap or dropping a deuce.

    They’re so filled with these imaginary thoughts(hopes?) of having to fight off a pack of heavily-armed black people that they’re automatically prone to overreact. And unfortunately part of the online discussions/masturbatory murder fantasies is making sure you kill the other person so they can’t testify, and strategies for talking to the police and prosecutors to avoid indictment and even arrest. Police officers are part of those conversations, and help people figure out how to tell the right story to exploit “Stand Your Ground” and other laws. And you can see it worked for George Zimmerman until it became a national story.

  5. Pteryxx says

    And unfortunately part of the online discussions/masturbatory murder fantasies is making sure you kill the other person so they can’t testify, and strategies for talking to the police and prosecutors to avoid indictment and even arrest. Police officers are part of those conversations, and help people figure out how to tell the right story to exploit “Stand Your Ground” and other laws.

    …Oh gods. That explains so much. *goes aside to throw up*

  6. Narvi says

    “So to make this clear, according to Florida law, only one of these things is illegal: 1) hunting down, confronting, and murdering an unarmed 17 year-old on the streets; 2) firing a warning shot in self-defense against your abusive ex-husband instead of shooting to kill.”

    Well, technically, only one of those things SHOULD be illegal, so they got that part right. They messed up when deciding which one it should be.

  7. ChrisP says

    I still can’t believe that law ever got passed, considering that usually when the local prosecutors are against something, it usually fails. Of course, the police were more concerned about Stand Your Ground being used to let gang members get out of prosecution for gang fights (which has happened once or twice in North Miami, if I remember correctly from some old Miami Herald reports).
    I wish I could tell you that we have more sensible politicians in office right now who will sort things out, but Tallahassee seems to continually attract the worst representatives Florida has to offer.
    Oh, anecdotal story: I’m a white male who grew up in a middle class household, with both of my parents being card carrying (but not gun toting) members of the NRA (ugh). My dad, a lawyer, drilled into my sister and I the knowledge that the courts tend to be more permissive of the use of lethal force in, say, a home invasion, than the use of non-lethal force in the same situation. Of course, whether this only applies to people the courts view as “safe” wasn’t mentioned.

  8. says

    So I am probably speaking from a totally biased perspective, having lived only in major cities in Canada, but NOBODY besides police carries an openly-displayed weapon. I am not up on Canada’s gun laws, but I am reasonably sure that you have to be licensed out the asshole to have a handgun here, and even then you can’t bring it into populated areas unless you are an on-duty officer of the law. I could be totally wrong about that.

    The thing that I find crazy is the fact that having a gun makes violence MORE likely – as you say, if you’re in a place where you don’t know who’s packing, you’d better be packing yourself. An armed person against an unarmed person, it seems to me, is far less likely to fire. I know there is some rudimentary psychological evidence suggesting that the presence of a gun makes violent reaction more likely, even if you’re not the one holding the gun.

    But yeah hoarding weapons is abso-fucking-lutely cuckoo to me. Even owning a gun for self-defense seems weird to me too, but that’s because our major cities are ridiculously low-crime (on a per-capita basis). Plus, y’know, I’m an upper-middle class guy who’s never even been in a fist-fight so my sense of how safe the world is might be grossly skewed.

  9. says

    See, my perception is that it is a lot more sane to carry a weapon openly than it is to concealed carry. If you’re paranoid enough to go outside packing, then I want to know that you are paranoid enough to be outside packing so that I know to stay the hell away from you. No offense, Improbable Joe, as I am sure that you are most sane, but I have never met a person IRL who feel the need to carry AND is not so paranoid that I am afraid that they will open fire if a black kid so much as runs into the room. I think that laws making it so that concealed carry is the norm, so that we can’t know who it is carrying a handgun, are seriously screwed in their priorities.

    I think that the biggest problem is that even the well-intentioned people who carry around weapons aren’t properly trained to deal with stressful situations, and so they will be more likely to hit an innocent person. One vivid example is the dude who very nearly shot people who were trying to help Rep. Giffords when she was shot before recoiling in horror.

  10. says

    Yeah, you rich Canuckistanians and your cheese curd french fries and safe city streets… :) But to make sure I’m clear here, I carry at night walking in my crap neighborhood not to the grocery store or to the movies or to get take-out Chinese food. And if I ever get out of this neighborhood and into a safer neighborhood I’ll be HAPPY to stop carrying the gun.

    And Jennifer, I’d rather be seen as “crazy gun nut” and avoided than be seen as “easy target” and have someone go after me or my wife. Some guy got robbed at gunpoint just four houses down from me a few months ago. I figure since everyone sees my gun, they’ll find some other easier victim and leave me alone.

  11. Paul from VA says

    Actually 1.) is illegal in Florida:

    Use of force by aggressor.—The justification described in the preceding sections of this chapter is not available to a person who:
    (1) Is attempting to commit, committing, or escaping after the commission of, a forcible felony; or
    (2) Initially provokes the use of force against himself or herself, unless:
    (a) Such force is so great that the person reasonably believes that he or she is in imminent danger of death or great bodily harm and that he or she has exhausted every reasonable means to escape such danger other than the use of force which is likely to cause death or great bodily harm to the assailant; or
    (b) In good faith, the person withdraws from physical contact with the assailant and indicates clearly to the assailant that he or she desires to withdraw and terminate the use of force, but the assailant continues or resumes the use of force

    Bolding mine. The prosecutor and police were just morons.

  12. Pen says

    “homeless people, drunks, and drug users”… they sound like a dangerous lot, far worse than the “urban youth” or “inner city thugs”.

    Anyway, the way I think about guns is this: I’m small and female. Anyone on the street who wants anything I’ve got can get it from me with minimal force. If they’re confident I don’t have a gun, minimal force is probably what they’ll use. What interest do I have in upping the ante?

  13. says

    There are lots of homeless people in Vancouver; very few of them are dangerous. Drunks and drug addicts are far more likely to harm themselves than someone else.

  14. says

    I’m pretty sure the guy who we saw sleeping on the porch of an abandoned house is homeless. I’m pretty sure the guy who asked my wife to do drugs with him is a drug user. I’m not 100% sure, but the guy staggering through the alley behind my house with a brown paper bag with a glass bottle neck poking out of the top was probably drunk. And in all cases, within spitting distance of your person is different from the hypothetical “urban thug” that the suburban and rural gun nuts are talking about.

    And the way you think about guns is perfectly fine, for you. The very last thing I would want is for you to be in a dangerous situation with a gun that you aren’t going to use, and it puts you in a much worse situation.

  15. kagekiri says

    You know, I’ve thought for a while that Penn’s joke solution (from the gun episode of Bullshit) would make some sense if it were actually possible to implement: give guns to every woman, don’t allow men to carry. That’d stop a lot of cases of assault and rape: men do kill people with guns far more often than women.

    The problem (besides the sexism and possible ableism that solution would require, and the whole “well what if a man just steals a gun from a woman?”), is that most people (male or female) don’t want to carry guns or weapons at all, covertly or overtly, so the “force equalizer” and even the “protected because the criminals are not sure who’s packing heat and have to avoid everyone” thing (which is a main justification of making concealed carry more common) just don’t work out well in reality.

    Not enough people want guns at all, so guns just end up being dangerous, because now the most paranoid carry far more often than people just looking for force equalizers in self defense. Hell, even the police fail to use their guns properly all the time.

    I’m not even sure a 100% non-lethal stunning weapon would be really safe to give to everyone or even just law enforcement; you can still rob, kill, and rape a stunned person while they’re unable to fight back, so the potential for misuse is almost as high as a gun, and police have already killed and assaulted people who weren’t resisting.

    So yeah, even idealized weapons don’t ultimately solve much, unless we can magically restrict their use to “good guys”. We’re going to have to solve violence in other ways, like reducing poverty and wage gaps, or other root causes.

    America can’t even really take guns out of the equation; we’ve got tons already so stopping manufacturing doesn’t work, making guns is really not so difficult so people can make more even if they’re illegal, people who have them will probably literally fight to the death for them (gun forums suggest some really think this, with comparisons to Nazis removing weapons and requiring weapon registration and promises they’ll hide their guns and fight back if the government ever tries), and they age extremely well so most won’t break for decades and can be smuggled and hidden.

    The whole “if guns are illegal, only criminals will have guns” thing would be pretty tough to get around at this point. It’s like a horrible self-reinforcing cycle: criminals have guns, so law-abiding citizens want guns to protect themselves, so there are more guns for criminals to steal or acquire illegally and use for more gun crimes…gah.

  16. Illuminata, Genie in the Beer Bottle says

    it is getting harder and harder to come up with a legitimate reason for staying in the US. Apart from other countries’ “we don’t want you” immigration laws, anyway.

    Marissa Alexander’s story just guts me. The fact that she didn’t kill him is being used an evidence SHE’S guilty. The fact that her husband has a well-documented history of abuse is being ignored.

    Between this and the story of the kid murdered for taking out his garbage while being black I don’t know how to have hope for our species anymore.

  17. says

    See, I’m starting to feel the opposite way, and especially as a Texan: how bad it is makes me incapable of rationalizing leaving, because, if all of the progressives leave, we will be leaving it to rot. There have to be some people here who make safe spaces, and who fight the status quo. The profound awfulness of it all makes me want to leave, but then I am ashamed of myself because it will do nothing more than make it worse.

  18. carlie says

    To put this in context, I am a former Marine

    How is it every time you say something you get more awesome?

  19. John Horstman says

    Now I know a lot of readers are here from the United States, so I don’t know if y’all find this nearly as batshit insane as I do.

    It’s exactly as batshit crazy as you find it.

  20. Joolz says

    “When Trayvon Martin was killed, the whole world was suddenly confronted with the terrifying reality of the “Stand Your Ground” laws…”

    I was surprised to see this from you. The “whole world” is rarely informed or bothered about what goes on in the US. I wouldn’t have been surprised to read a US blogger assuming that the “whole world” knew what they were talking about – but it really surprised me that a Canadian blogger assumed the same. I asked my DH if he had heard of Trayvon Martin and he admitted that he had heard the name but couldn’t remember where or why. When I explained the whole situation to him – he remembered where he had heard about it – from me and I only knew about it because I read it online.

    I am 100% sure that I could go out tomorrow and ask 1000 people if they have heard of the “Stand Your Ground” laws and 998 to 1000 of them would say no. I could probably even do the same in the US and get the same response.

    I nearly forgot to say that I’m in the UK.

  21. Infophile says

    Now I know a lot of readers are here from the United States, so I don’t know if y’all find this nearly as batshit insane as I do.

    I’ve lived in various places in the US and Canada, and I find that it’s hard to generalize across either country. A few states in the US tend to be nuts about guns – Florida is a good example, but I have more personal experience with Texas – while others only have gun problems in particular areas, or almost no problems at all. Ask someone in the northern or northwest suburbs of Chicago about guns, and they’ll give you a confused look about why they’d even consider getting one. Drive for an hour into Chicago, and many people consider it insane not to have a gun.

    The fact that most laws in the US are decided at the state level seems to lead to a sharp divide. Conservative states attract conservatives, liberal states attract liberals, and the difference gets sharper over time. Occasionally, things get bad enough in certain areas for the federal government to put their foot down, but lately this has been happening just as often for the wrong reasons (like the war on drugs).

  22. Pen says

    Yes, I know. I needed one of those facicons for ‘I’m being sarcastic’. Or else, I should refrain from being sarcastic, of course.

  23. Pen says

    Unfortunately, Joe, my system of self-defense is a bit like vaccinations. It’s completely dependent on the vast majority of people doing the same thing. How will anyone assume I’m unarmed in a society where being armed is a real probability? Fortunately for me, I live in Europe where guns are highly illegal.

  24. Pen says

    It was in our papers, but admittedly not everyone bothers with the international news.

  25. Pteryxx says

    I wonder about that. If I get forced out of the US, it’ll likely be because lack of health care and/or violent bigotry make it a matter of survival; but as long as I’m in Texas, I have to try to be enough of an activist to outweigh supporting this horrendous government by the sales tax I pay here.

  26. says

    On that comment I made earlier about shooters being prepped on how to avoid arrest/indictment/conviction while murdering people, there’s a video online of a retired firefighter confronting and killing a neighbor over loud music. While I’m completely sympathetic to the guy over being angry about loud music, you generally don’t get to shoot people for that.

    What’s interesting though is that he seems to be actively following a script similar to that of Zimmerman. He’s on the phone with a police dispatcher AND is filming the encounter. As soon as the obviously drunk guys start getting hostile towards him, he seems to plant his feet, then draws his gun and starts saying over and over again that he’s in fear for his life and he thinks the other guy has a weapon. And then he declares “I’m not losing to these people anymore” and refuses to go inside even after they have walked away from him… and then it seems like he gets shoved by a laughing drunk, so he shoots three people.

    He’s using the “Stand Your Ground” script verbatim, because he PLANNED to shoot someone when he left his house.

  27. says

    I live in the Midwest, a small conservative town for most of my life where about half the population regularly hunted and participated in outdoor sportsmanship, etc… I currently live in a rather liberal part Indiana. It’s always been batshit crazy to carry around a gun on a regular basis especially in one’s own neighborhood.

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