The debate over stand-your-ground laws, explained

With the death of Markeis McGlockton, the debate over stand your ground laws has reignited. Proponents believe they make us safe, while opponents claim they encourage vigilantism. While a consensus may be inconclusive, studies suggest such laws aren’t as effective as their drafters intended.

​Markeis McGlockton parks his car and heads into a convenience store with his five-year-old son.

A few minutes later, he notices a man screaming and cursing at his girlfriend, who is waiting in the vehicle with their younger children. McGlockton rushes out and pushes the man to the ground. The man draws a concealed handgun. McGlockton backs away, hands raised, but the man shoots him in the chest anyway. McGlockton retreats to the convenience store where he collapses in front of his son.

Or perhaps the story goes like this: Michael Drejka sees a man park illegally in a handicap-accessible spot. He confronts the woman sitting in the car about their uncourteous behavior, and the argument escalates. From nowhere, the man returns to the vehicle and violently slams Drejka to the ground. Fearing for his safety, Drejka draws his firearm and justifiably shoots the man once in the chest.

These two ways of understanding the death of Markeis McGlockton stand at the heart of the debate over stand-your-ground laws—self-defense laws that have been enacted in roughly half of all U.S. states—and his tragic death has reignited questions over the effectiveness of these laws and whether their enforcement is disproportionately affected by implicit biases.

Stand-your-ground laws, a history

Self-defense laws fall roughly into three categories: duty-to-retreat laws, castle doctrines, and stand-your-ground laws.

Speaking broadly, a duty-to-retreat law limits the use of deadly force to a last resort. As the name implies, if you can reasonably escape a threatening situation—say, by retreating into your home or driving away—then you have a duty to do so. In cases where deadly force is used in self-defense, such laws require a heavier burden of proof to support that such force was necessary.

Castle doctrines state that you may defend yourself as needed within the bounds of your personal property. If an intruder attacks you in your home, for example, you have no duty to retreat and may use force, even deadly force, to defend yourself. Castle doctrines encompass personal property such as offices and, in some states, even vehicles.

Finally, there are stand-your-ground laws. In 2005, Florida was the first state to pass such a law. The Florida statute states that people have "no duty to retreat" and have "the right to stand his or her ground," even going so far as to use deadly force if they reasonably believe it is necessary "to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm" to themselves or another. Critics sometimes refer to such laws as "shoot-first laws".

Many other states have enacted similar laws since, but it is difficult to say precisely how many. This is because some states have adopted stand your ground in practice through judicial precedent, rather than officially legislating such statues. As a result, the American Bar Association [pdf] claimed 33 states had stand-your-ground laws by 2014, while the National Conference of State Legislatures lists only 25.

The Giffords Law Center cites 28 states as employing stand your ground, but points out that California, Idaho, Illinois, New Mexico, Oregon, Virginia, and Washington permit deadly force in public without a duty to retreat. The difference, the law center notes, is that these states only allow shoot-first protections to be invoked during a criminal trial, whereas Florida-style laws can be used to protect shooters in pretrial hearings or prevent law enforcement from charging shooters altogether.

We can see this discrepancy in the Michael Drejka case. The Pinellas County Sheriff did not file charges against Drejka, claiming Florida's stand-your-ground law as justification. But after reviewing the case, state prosecutors ultimately filed charges for the crime of manslaughter.

There is no federal stand-your-ground law.

Arguments for and against stand-your-ground

Proponents of stand-your-ground laws argue that these laws keep law-abiding citizens safe. They also see duty-to-retreat polices as detrimental to victims, placing the burden of protection on them and unfairly making them liable for the outcome of altercations they did not initiate.

Former Illinois Representative Richard Morthland argued such a case: "[S]tates are turning to these measures to uphold the principle that our laws must protect the innocent over the criminal, the peace-loving over the violent, and the law-keeper over the law breaker. In a situation where a citizen is under attack, it cannot be incumbent upon that individual to take extraordinary measures to avoid conflict that he or she did not initiate."

Writing for the National Review, Ilya Shapiro, a senior fellow in constitutional studies at the Cato Institute, follows a similar argument, noting that citizens harmed by duty-to-retreat laws include victims of domestic violence.

"Feminists thus support SYG and point out that 'you could have run away' may not work when faced with a stalker," he writes. "It's bad enough for an innocent person to find herself threatened by a criminal, but to then have to worry about whether she can retreat, lest she face prosecution, is too much to ask."

Opponents of stand-your-ground laws, on the other hand, believe such policies encourage vigilantism and give malcontents legal protection to escalate altercations until they perceive bodily harm. Further, even those acting in good faith may lack the training or understanding to properly assess a situation should they enact stand your ground to prevent a perceived felony.

"We need policies that defuse confrontations in public places, especially since more than 11 million Americans now have licenses to carry," writes Robert Spitzer for The New York Times. "The police and prosecutors need to be able to conduct full, unencumbered investigations. And gun owners need to admit what most of them already know: that firearms' lethality and ease of use make fatal miscalculation more like."

They point to George Zimmerman, who was instructed by law enforcement not to get out of his SUV or approach Treyvon Martin, as an example of what can happen when citizens take the law into their own hands. Similarly, officials have alleged that Michael Drejka has a history of starting altercations with other drivers and brandishing his weapon during bouts of road rage.

"In short, Stand Your Ground laws encourage the use of deadly force," says Philip J. Cook, ITT/Terry Sanford Professor Emeritus of Public Policy Studies. "These laws open the door to a more dangerous world where everyone feels pressure to carry a gun — and if they feel threatened, to shoot first and tell their stories later."

​Have stand-your-ground laws made us safer?​

(Source: David K. Humphreys et. al.)

Figure 1. Effect of "Stand Your Ground" Law on Homicide and Homicide by Firearm. Data points represent monthly rates of homicide and homicide by firearm in Florida and comparison states (New York, New Jersey, Ohio, and Virginia) between 1999 and 2014. Florida is represented by orange data points and regression lines and the comparison states by blue data points and regression lines. Gray-shaded areas depict the onset of Florida's stand your ground law. Straight-hatched lines represent fitted estimates using a linear step change model. The curved lines represent fitted values for seasonally adjusted models.

Each side can rally data to support its argument. Consider Florida. Supporters can point out that the state's violent crime rate has dropped since 2005. However, opponents can counter that violent crime rates have decreased nationwide, not just in states with shoot-first laws.

Who's right? While conclusive answers may be premature at this stage, current data suggest that these statutes aren't having their intended effects.

A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that Florida suffered an abrupt and sustained increase in monthly homicides after passing its stand-your-ground law. As a control, the study looked at rates of suicide and suicide by firearm but found no observable changes.

The RAND Corporation's comprehensive report on gun policy in America, 'The Science of Gun Policy', dedicates an entire chapter to stand-your-ground laws and surveys several studies for its findings. The RAND Corporation found that there was moderate evidence to suggest that stand-your-ground laws increased total homicides, limited evidence to suggest that they increased firearm homicides, and inconclusive evidence to suggest that these laws affect other violent crimes.

Finally, a study out of Texas A&M University [pdf] found "no evidence of deterrence" and that "burglary, robbery, and aggravated assault are unaffected by the laws." Like the other two studies, this one also suggests that the "primary consequence of strengthened self-defense law is a net increase in homicide."

Is there a racial disparity for standing one's ground?

After the shooting of Trayvon Martin, the Tampa Bay Times analyzed 200 stand-your-ground cases in Florida. The data set showed that nearly 70 percent of those claiming stand your ground avoided punishment successfully. However, the success rate varied depending on the race of the victim. If the victim was white, 59 percent of those claiming stand your ground succeeded; if the victim was black, 73 percent did.

In a study for the Urban Institute, John Roman analyzed FBI supplementary homicide data from 2005-2010 to see if there was racial disparity in the enforcement of stand-your-ground laws. He found that black-on-black and white-on-white homicides had the same odds of being ruled justifiable.

However, these odds changed dramatically when the victim and defender were of differing races. Roman's analysis found that "white-on-black homicides have justifiable findings 33 percentage points more often than black-on-white homicides" and that "the odds a white-on-black homicide is found justified is 281 percent greater than the odds [of a] white-on-white homicide."

Based on these studies, the American Bar Association's National Task Force on Stand Your Ground Laws concluded that the application of stand-your-ground laws was racially uneven and recommended legislators amend or repeal such laws because of implicit racial bias.

What's the future for stand-your-ground laws?

Popular opinion over stand-your-ground laws is currently deadlocked. A 2013 poll conducted by Quinnipiac shows that 53 percent of Americans support such laws, while 40 percent opposed them. Broken down by race, white voters support stand-your-ground laws (57 to 37 percent), black voters oppose them (57 to 37 percent), and Hispanic voters are split (44 to 43 percent). By gender, men tend to favor them while women do not.

With opinion split, state legislators have looked to modify such laws to garner favor from their constituency. Some aim strengthen them—such Sen. Rob Bradley of Florida, whose bill shifted the burden of proof in self-defense cases to prosecutors—while others have sought to weaken them, such as Rep. Garnet Coleman of Texas, whose bill would reinstate duty-to-retreat where applicable in public places. Outright repeal for any state seems unlikely.

Moving forward, proponents will need to show that these laws really do protect law-abiding citizens. However, given the popularity of these laws, opponents will probably be unable to revoke them entirely and will need to rely on data to enact meaningful, measurable changes to existing laws to prevent further tragedy.

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In truth, so much of what happens to us in life is random – we are pawns at the mercy of Lady Luck. To take ownership of our experiences and exert a feeling of control over our future, we tell stories about ourselves that weave meaning and continuity into our personal identity.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

Ashes of cat named Pikachu to be launched into space

A space memorial company plans to launch the ashes of "Pikachu," a well-loved Tabby, into space.

GoFundMe/Steve Munt
Culture & Religion
  • Steve Munt, Pikachu's owner, created a GoFundMe page to raise money for the mission.
  • If all goes according to plan, Pikachu will be the second cat to enter space, the first being a French feline named Felicette.
  • It might seem frivolous, but the cat-lovers commenting on Munt's GoFundMe page would likely disagree.
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