The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Stand your ground’ laws spread — and grow ‘more extreme’ — 10 years after Trayvon Martin’s death

Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin, wipes her eyes during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on “Stand Your Ground” laws on October 29, 2013, in D.C. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

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.

Trayvon Martin’s death set off a movement that shaped a decade’s defining moments

“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.

Anderman says a new crop of state-level bills is especially worrying. One would allow defendants to sue prosecutors if they successfully prove self-defense. Another would allow someone to shoot a person defacing their property if they have a “dangerous instrument,” regardless of whether they fear physical harm.

“I think the next iteration of these laws is the expansion of the right to use deadly force, even when your life is not threatened or your personal safety is not threatened,” Anderman said.

He shot a man over tossed popcorn, prosecutors say. His defense: Stand-your-ground.

Opponents of stand-your-ground policies emphasize that standard self-defense laws allow people to protect themselves with force, even deadly force. Stand-your-ground laws specifically remove the “duty to retreat” from a threat when possible, telling people they can stay and fight in any place they have a right to be.

The laws have often passed over objections from police and prosecutors who worry about violence. In Ohio, some of the most vocal opposition to stand-your-ground expansion came from the state Fraternal Order of Police.

Michael Weinman, the group’s director of governmental affairs, said the policy is particularly alarming in combination with another measure working its way through the Ohio Statehouse — a bill that would remove the requirement to get training and a permit before carrying a concealed handgun.

“We have a lot of friends in the legislature. … We lose a lot of our friends when it comes to these gun bills,” he said.

On Thursday, with the 10th anniversary of Martin’s death approaching, the advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety announced a nationwide task force with state legislators to denounce, prevent and repeal “Shoot First” laws — shorthand for “shoot first, ask questions later.”

Researchers say it is not clear that repealing such laws would reverse increases in homicide, even if it were politically feasible.

“Depending on how long those laws are in place, they might have a permanent change on how people choose to conduct themselves,” said David Humphreys, an associate professor at the University of Oxford. He and his colleagues just published a study that linked stand-your-ground laws to 700 additional killings each year in the United States and an 11 percent increase in the nation’s firearm homicides.

The findings echoed other studies: In 2017, Humphreys and his colleagues found that Florida reported an “abrupt and sustained” nearly 32 percent spike in firearm homicide after passing its pioneering stand-your-ground law. They also found that most of those added homicides were unlawful rather than justifiable uses of force.

“We thought when we published the previous paper in Florida … that this would have to be taken seriously,” Humphreys said.

“I was a bit naive,” he concluded.

How George Zimmerman stretched 15 minutes of infamy into a decade of disgust

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.

State Rep. Matthew LoPresti (D) said in an interview that Hawaii’s “robust” gun restrictions differentiate it from other states that have adopted stand-your-ground laws.

“This an issue about civilians being able to defend themselves — not being required to cower away from violence when it is brought to them,” LoPresti said, adding later: “I think pandemic politics has shifted the need, or at least the feeling that people need to feel more secure.”

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.

Others argue that stand-your-ground laws are ripe for abuse — deployed in ways that legislators say they never intended. In Kansas, Lofton’s death last fall has stirred new debate.

Police arrested Lofton last September after responding to a call from his foster father, who had expressed concerns in recent days about the teen’s mental health, according to a report from the Sedgwick County District Attorney’s office. Lofton was arrested after a struggle and taken to a juvenile intake center.

How Trayvon Martin’s killing inspired a generation of Black journalists and activists

County staff at the intake center said they were forced to restrain the 135 pound, 5-foot-10 teen after he struck one of them in the face. Just before 4:30 a.m., they put Lofton in leg shackles, the district attorney’s office said. Soon they had him face down on the floor as they tried to put on handcuffs.

After a long struggle, Lofton went limp, authorities said. Workers at the intake center said he started to “snore.” But minutes later, they could not find a pulse.

In December, a coroner ruled Lofton’s death a homicide caused by “complications of cardiopulmonary arrest sustained after physical struggle while restrained in the prone position.” Armed with the autopsy, Lofton's family called on prosecutors to file criminal charges.

But Bennett, the district attorney, said in January that “a judge would be duty bound to dismiss the case.”

“This should not have happened … But these folks are protected by Kansas law,” he said.

Lofton’s family is not convinced that Bennett’s hands are actually tied. “The spirit of stand your ground was not based on an unarmed 17-year-old Black teenager who was killed in the care and custody of the juvenile intake center in Wichita,” said Andrew Stroth, the family’s attorney.

Asked about the criticisms over email, Bennett reiterated details of Kansas’s stand-your-ground policy.

Lofton’s case has raised questions even for state leaders who helped pass the law more than a decade ago. “I don’t know how you apply stand your ground to that scenario,” state Senate President Ty Masterson (R), told the Associated Press in January. “It’s meant to be for self-defense, to allow you to protect yourself.”

Masterson did not respond to inquiries from The Post, nor did Kansas House Speaker Ron Ryckman, who has said the case sparked discussion among GOP lawmakers. But state Rep. Jo Ella Hoye (D), who took office last year, said it was time for lawmakers to “work together to fix our mistake.”