This article originally posted in The Gazette on March 17, 2017: http://www.thegazette.com/subject/opinion/guest-columnists/when-every-gun-owner-becomes-a-judge-20170317
As a person of color, there are only two words I think of when I hear the phrase “Stand Your Ground.”
As a person of color, I see legislation that allows gun owners to discharge their weapon into the body of someone viewed as a threat, as a direct attack on anyone that provokes fear. African Americans have a long history of provoking irrational fear among white people. Thanks to media-reinforced stereotypes, we are viewed as violent thugs capable of instantaneous nonsensical violence.
George Zimmerman was exonerated from all culpability when he shot Trayvon Martin because of Florida’s Stand Your Ground law. Even though he was directed by a 911 operator to cease following Trayvon, he continued to pursue him, ultimately shooting him at close range. Because of this law, the court was forced to declare Zimmerman “not guilty” because there was no evidence that contradicted his version of events leading up to the shooting.
I am the mother of five children. All are African American. I can’t help but think about the danger this law poses to my children. If found at the wrong place, at the wrong time, they could easily be perceived as a threat by someone unfamiliar with who they are or what their motivations were for being there. Knowing this, I have taught each of my children to be respectful and courteous to strangers. However, statistics show I have no advocate in our legal system. Even without “Stand Your Ground” legislation, minorities are incarcerated at a hugely disproportional rate in the state of Iowa. For every four people sent to prison in our state, one is African American, even though we make up only 3.5 percent of the population. This tells me that the system is already stacked against us, even without a law like Stand Your Ground. With this law, chances are my African American brothers and sisters won’t even get to prison. With every gun owner, there will be a judge, jury and prosecutor re ready to dispense their version of justice.
What’s worse, according to the 2012 National Bureau of Economic Research, Florida-type Stand Your Ground laws were associated with a 6.8 percent increase in homicide. Even worse, those accused of murder tend to make Stand Your Ground as their first line of defense. Nearly 60 percent of people using the Stand Your Ground defense have prior arrests or convictions for violent crimes. One-third of them carried their guns illegally or had threatened others with them.
This is evidence that Stand Your Ground makes our society more — not less — dangerous. Coupled with Right to Carry laws, Stand Your Ground will result in more guns in the hands of more people who feel justified shooting anyone they see as a threat. According to an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times by Robert J. Spitzer published in May 2015, the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys point to Stand Your Ground laws as “generating hamstrung investigations” where perpetrators of a crime are now afforded more legal protections than law enforcement officers.
Stand Your Ground is a solution looking for a problem, since Iowa law already affords individuals the right to self-defense. Common sense dictates we trust both law enforcement and the existing laws that have served us for decades to do what they have always done, protect the innocent from unlawful acts of violence and rightfully prosecute criminals for unjust acts of violence.
If we truly care about the defenseless, consider the opinion of minorities in this matter. It has been our minority population that has been historically victimized for the imagined crime of “not fitting in.”
In this regard, Stand Your Ground is nothing more than a fear-based license to kill.
-Jacqueline Watkins is a second year MSW student at the University of Iowa and is graduating in May 2017. She plans to become a LISW and open a private practice.