You’re at a community council meeting in the gymnasium of your kids’ school.
As one of your neighbors drones on about easements for new curb construction, a gawky-looking 20-something man in a black trench coat with an unsettling look of demented purposefulness on his face walks into the meeting. He walks to the front of the room and draws an AK47 from under his trench coat, and shoots the leader of the group, who slumps against the cinder-block wall, leaving a slick of blood streaked down to the floor.
“Hey!” says the guy in the seat next to you, a fortyish man with an impeccable gray beard and John Lennon glasses who works for a social-service non-profit, “he can’t do that! This is a gun-free zone!”
The killer turns his gun on the crowd, and fires a shot into the mass of panicking people in their folding seats. Pandemonium erupts as a geyser of blood and tissue sprays over the crowd from what used to be an obese fiftysomething woman’s head.
The man sitting next to you dials 911 on his cell phone as the crowd frantically gets up and tries to get out one of the three available doors. As the man patiently answers the dispatcher’s questions, the young fellow fires again, blasting a hole in the chest of an elderly man who had been there to ask about putting a “Yield” sign on his corner. He slumps to the ground.
Your brain activates your body’s “fight or flight” reflex pumping adrenaline into your system. As the hormone takes over your brain, you focus with tunnel vision on the shooter; the cacaphony of the screaming crowd dies away – you are unaware of any noise at all, in fact.
You have, however, drilled a bit in the basics of how to respond to a lethal-force threat; you’re dimly but practically aware that you are not a willing participant in this episode, that you have a very real chance of sharing the fate of the speaker, the old man and the obese woman (death or maiming), and – since you live in a “stand your ground” state – you don’t need to futz with trying to retreat under fire.
You stand up and move to the side, stand clear of a small group of panicky women who are trying to extricate themselves from the mass of folding chairs and scrambling people, and draw your legally-permitted SIG-Sauer P250 9mm Compact (with a 13 round magazine) from the inside-the-belt holster at your back. And you shoot.
You fire several times – because of the adrenaline, you lose count at 1. But your training guides you; of the five rounds you do fire, two dig into the cinder-block wall behind the shooter. The next catches him in the right shoulder. Your fourth shot drills through the top center of his chest, severing his trachea. The fifth hits him in the lower-right abdomen, drilling through a mass of soft tissue and ricocheting out into the tile floor.
The second hit interrupts the shooter’s air flow and dazes him. The shooter drops the rifle (and its 27 remaining rounds), and slumps to the floor, lying in a rapidy-expanding pool of blood. He bleeds out, and is non-responsive when the paramedics arrive. He’s pronounced dead at the emergency room. In his trench coat was a bag with nine more magazines – 270 rounds – and a pistol.
Question: The original speaker, the obese woman, the old man and the shooter are dead. Are there three homicides, or are there four?
Well, that’s easy enough. There are four people dead. Four homicides.
Question 2: Are those four homicides the same? Or was one – that of the shooter – in balance, a net moral good, if not an unalloyed, morally unambiguous one?
How you answer that tells us a lot about how you perceive this next story.
Some of the regional anti-gun left have been skipping about in glee over a recent study purporting to show that “Stand Your Ground” laws increase homicides.
The article about the study – from NPR – starts out by reinforcing the fact that the media really knows very, very little about firearms, self-defense, or the laws about either:
If a stranger attacks you inside your own home, the law has always permitted you to defend yourself. On the other hand, if an altercation breaks out in public, the law requires you to try to retreat. At least, that’s what it used to do.
Both true and overly simple, as it happens. Self-defense is a complex bit of law that varies in language by state and, sometimes, city and county – and varies in enforcement by the county attorney involved, and by the attitudes and agendas of their elected bosses. In some states – as in Minnesota, up until the early nineties – the law required you to retreat as far as you reasonably could even if you were in your home.
In 2005, Florida became the first of nearly two-dozen states to pass a “stand your ground” law that removed the requirement to retreat. If you felt at risk of harm in a park or on the street, you could use lethal force to defend yourself. The shooting of unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla., drew national attention to these laws.
By “national attention”, I’m sure NPR didn’t mean “a mass of uninformed and inflammatory agenda-mongering from a mainstream media, including NPR, that wanted to use the incident to further a political and social outcome”, although that is the case.
But I digress.
Now, researchers who’ve studied the effect of the laws have found that states with a stand your ground law have more homicides than states without such laws.
“These laws lower the cost of using lethal force,” says Mark Hoekstra, an economist with Texas A&M University who examined stand your ground laws. “Our study finds that, as a result, you get more of it.”
Now, go back to the fictional example above (which reflects a number of not-at-all fictional episodes). Leaving aside all the people the fictional (but plausible) killer didn’t kill with his extra ammunition, there was one “more” homicide than there might have been; the shooter himself. Of course, had you held your fire to attempt to retreat, more would have died, but that’s outside the scope of our experiment here…
Question 3: In the case of the shooter above – or the hundreds of annual examples of robbers, rapists, burglars, gang-bangers, stalkers and other attackers justifiably shot by law-abiding citizens every year – is having “more” homicides, provided they’re legally justified killings of people who must, by legal standard, be committing violent crimes in which the legal standard alternative is the death or maiming of an innocent victim, an entirely bad thing?
Here’s another example, and this one is from real life. In 1994, Guy Harvey Baker – a USMC veteran of Desert Storm who’d developed a mental condition – shot St. Paul officer Ron Ryan Jr. in a parking lot near 6th and Mounds Boulevard, on the East Side of St. Paul, as Ryan investigated a report of a man sleeping in his car. As Baker drove away from the scene, he noticed a woman standing in the door of a neighboring apartment building, and drove toward her, gun drawn, apparently intending to kill a witness.
In a nearby building, a man – a citizen – was eating breakfast when he heard the shots; he saw the officer on the ground, and saw Baker driving toward the woman. He had a handgun handy (but loaded with only four rounds); he was an expert marksman. He drew a bead on Baker…
…and worried that the County Attorney would prosecute him for killing Baker, even to defend another citizen, when he could have “retreated” by doing nothing but call the police. The citizen opted to fire three rounds through the back window of Baker’s car, to “mark” it for the cops, using the car’s glove box as his backstop. Baker, alarmed, drove away, aborting the attack on the woman. The citizen ran down to the street and tried to administer CPR to Ryan until the paramedics arrived, to no avail. A massive manhunt found Baker nearby later that morning – the police tracked him from his car, with the broken back window – but not before he killed officer Tim Jones and Jones’ dog Laser.
The citizen was right, by the way; the county attorney DID try to prosecute. In part because he didn’t exercise a “duty to retreat”. The Saint Paul Police made it clear they wouldn’t cooperate – because he’d tried to save one cop, likely saved the woman, and would have saved Jones and the dog (and they were in no doubt the citizen could have done the job; the police lab found the bullets exactly where the citizen said they’d be).
Question 4: Would it have been a bad thing if Baker had been killed – a “homicide victim” – rather than Officer Jones?
At any rate, U of Texas professor Mark Hoekstra has done a study in which he’s found that the number of homicides rises – ever so slightly – in states with “Stand Your Ground” laws.
Read the whole study, complete with graphs, if you’d like. I’ll save the space and just give you the links.
NPR’s writer notes:
Because murder is a rare phenomenon, the numbers in any given state can be hard to analyze. It can be difficult, for example, to disentangle the effects of stand your ground statutes from other trends, such as natural fluctuations in the crime rate. Until now, there has been little attempt to rigorously study these laws at a national level.
But then they go on to call the study – by Texas A&M professor Mark Hoeksta – “rigorous”. And in terms of statistical controls for the various variables possible – I’ll let you math majors in the audience divine that from the report linked above – the study diligently covers most of the bases.
But it left out an absolutely vital variable – and stressed, several times, that the variable had been left unaddressed.
We’ll return to that. Hoekstra:
“Our study finds that, that homicides go up by 7 to 9 percent in states that pass the laws, relative to states that didn’t pass the laws over the same time period,” he says…”We find that there are 500 to 700 more homicides per year across the 23 states as a result of the laws,” he said. There are about 14,000 homicides annually in the United States as a whole.
Now, here comes the gap in the study – and to Hoekstra’s credit, he (unlike many of the lefty chanting-point-bots who are cackling about the study today), he sort of admits it:
The fact that more people are being killed doesn’t automatically mean the law isn’t working. Hoekstra says there are at least three possible explanations.
“It could be that these are self-defense killings,” he said. “On the other hand, the increase could be driven by an escalation of violence by criminals. Or it could be an escalation of violence in otherwise nonviolent situations.”
And there’s the variable that Hoekstra (as he notes two or three times in the text of the study) addressed only very obliquely.
I’ll summarize heavily but accurately: Hoekstra notes in his report (not in the NPR report) that armed self-defense is under reported, both by citizens and the police. He notes the research of University of Florida criminologist Gary Kleck back in the eighties (still the most authoritative empirical study of armed self-defense ever done), and allows that Kleck’s estimated rate of underreporting would, in fact, account for the increase.
In other words, according to Hoekstra, the increase in homicides could, according to previous empirical research, be entirely explained by justifiable homicides, but it’s someone else’s job to figure that out.
Of course, there is a way to bring some order to the numbers: look at convictions. That’d be a lot more work, of course, and devolve from a statistics project to a sociology or criminology thesis. But it’d give data to answer some of Hoekstra’s questions.
“One possibility for the increase in homicide is that perhaps [in cases where] there would have been a fistfight … now, because of stand your ground laws, it’s possible that those escalate into something much more violent and lethal,” says Hoekstra.
But in most states (as in “every state that I’m aware of”) shooting someone as part of an incident in which one was a willing participant invalidates any claim to self-defense, would have nothing necessarily to do with “Stand your Ground” laws; someone claiming self-defense under a “Stand your Ground” statute would have their claim rejected because they were a willing participant in a non-lethal fight.
And there’s the fudge factor you get from a system with 57 sets of laws:
It’s important to remember that the data Hoekstra is analyzing depend on how police classify shootings. Police guidelines likely vary from state to state, and police in different places may be interpreting shootings differently in light of stand your ground laws.
And, for that matter, laws having nothing to do with “stand your ground”.
But that doesn’t stop NPR from jumping to an unsupportable conclusion:
Still, based on the available data, it appears that crafters of these laws sought to give good guys more latitude to defend themselves against bad guys. But what Hoekstra’s data suggest is that in real-life conflicts, both sides think of the other guy as the bad guy. Both believe the law gives them the right to shoot.
Question 5: When you factor in the fact that Kleck’s research may well explain the entire increase, and the fact that the “increase” Hoekstra detected occurred in a context of generally-diminishing gun crime rates nationwide, and the fact that Hoekstra’s data was entirely quantitative and made not the faintest attempt to analyze qualitative details like motivations or real-life outcomes, tell us, NPR – precisely how is any such “suggestion” made?
My theory? Because NPR knows the conclusion it wants.
Reinforcing my theory? Two things.
First: this little twinge of crippling bias, buried far from the lede:
The NRA, which has backed these laws, referred a request for comment to Howard Nemerov, a gun-rights activist who often represents the NRA viewpoint on television. Nemerov offered a technical analysis, which has not been reviewed by academic experts, in which he said concerns about the law were flawed.
Flawed how? What analysis? What academic experts would NPR prefer? Would “acadmic” peer review be any more valid than, say, everyone else?
Second: Complete ignorance of how “Stand your Ground” laws work:
And in murder cases, [Stanford law school professor John] Donohue says, the laws might end up being a refuge for some defendants.
“I’ve been hearing from defense lawyers around the country that if they happen to have a criminal defendant in a stand your ground jurisdiction, pretty much no matter what happens, you can say, ‘Well, I shot the guy, but I felt threatened and had a reasonable basis for fearing injury to myself,’ ” he said.
Of course they can!
And if the police, or the county attorney, show that the “Stand your Ground” or self-defense claims are invalid, the attempt fails! “Stand your ground” is not a get out of jail free card; it merely puts one less legal pitfall in the way of an otherwise law-abiding citizen.
Put briefly; any shooting that is a bad shooting without “stand your ground” will still be a bad shooting with it, provided your cops and prosecutors are modestly competent.
The “study” doesn’t answer any of those questions. And the report doesn’t pretend that it does.
But NPR certainly does.