Psychologists Weigh In On ‘Stand Your Ground’ Laws

“Stand your ground” laws have “little justification and demonstrably negative effects,” according to James M. Jones, PhD, a University of Delaware psychology professor and a member of an American Bar Association task force that is looking into the laws.

At the APA convention symposium “Stand Your Ground Law — Psychology’s Contribution to the National Conversation,” Jones and fellow speaker Jennifer Eberhardt, PhD, of Stanford University discussed the critical ways that psychological research can inform the fairness of these laws.

“The practical consequence is that these laws shift the presumption of innocence to the perpetrators and impose on the victim the burden of proving innocence,” said Jones.

465253133Twenty-five states now have “stand your ground laws,” which allow people who feel threatened to defend themselves without having to retreat, even if they are not in their own homes. The controversy around the laws escalated in 2012 when George Zimmerman shot and killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, who was unarmed and walking in their Florida neighborhood at night. Zimmerman was acquitted of second-degree murder.

“The Trayvon Martin case was such a profound jolt to our sensibilities, our sense of fairness and our trust in the judicial system,” said Jones. “We are fortunate that APA and psychologists can contribute to understand how it can occur.”

Jones reported that the ABA is now looking at the task force report, which explored such factors as how these laws may encourage violence and how they may create an imbalance between public and personal safety. ABA has authorized the task group to continue for another year and APA will continue its involvement with Jones as a member of the group.

Eberhardt discussed some of the research that has implications for “stand your ground” laws. For example, although research finds that most white people think that they treat other groups fairly and that discrimination is a thing of the past, her research tells a dramatically different story. In a series of studies, she has found that “race influences what we see, where we look and how we respond.”

Understanding the psychological consequences of these laws is critical, she said. “People of color are finding themselves in a vulnerable position in public spaces,” said Eberhardt. “Children of color are growing up situations where they feel  that the state is not protecting them, that the state does not recognize their pain. As children, they are already feeling invisible.”

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