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DA says lawyers should push for change in stand-your-ground laws

Posted Apr 1, 2013 1:29 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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Photo of Craig Watkins by ©Kathy Anderson 2012.

Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins thinks lawyers have a responsibility to work to revise certain laws related to gun violence.

More often than not, Watkins said, it is minorities who “find themselves on the wrong end of a bullet” when shooters cite stand-your-ground laws to justify their actions. If you don’t understand the unfairness, he said, “maybe you need to give up your bar card.”

Watkins spoke at a public hearing during the midyear meeting. The sponsor, the ABA’s National Task Force on Stand Your Ground Laws, is planning three more regional hearings examining the impact of such statutes.

Stand-your-ground statutes are an expansion of the castle doctrine that holds there is no duty to retreat when threatened inside the home. Under the laws, shooters facing danger at locations outside their homes also have no duty to retreat.

Texas passed a law in 2007 that gives private citizens the right to use deadly force in the face of imminent danger to their homes, vehicles and workplaces. Watkins said the Texas law has a laudable purpose—giving people the right to protect their homes and families. But some people in control of the system, he said, don’t understand it is not justifiable to take someone’s life because they fear someone based on the color of their skin.

About 30 states have some version of stand-your-ground laws, according to the task force reporter, St. Thomas University law professor Tamara Lawson. Florida is among four or five states at one extreme that provide immunity from arrest, detention, prosecution and civil suits to shooters with a valid stand-your-ground defense. Florida courts have interpreted the law to require judges to rule on pretrial motions to dismiss charges by defendants who assert they were standing their ground. Texas, on the other hand, makes standing your ground an affirmative defense in a criminal prosecution.

A Texas A&M University professor studying the impact of such laws found that they have not reduced the homicide rate. Quite the contrary, said Mark Hoekstra, who submitted written testimony to the task force.

Hoekstra and a PhD candidate studied 21 states that passed stand-your-ground laws between 2000 and 2010. They found that homicide rates increased by about 8 percent in adopting states, relative to other states over the same period. At the same time, the rates of robbery, burglary and aggravated assault did not decline relative to other states.

“To put it bluntly,” Hoekstra said in his written testimony, “when you make it easier for people to use deadly force, you get more of it. In contrast, there is not a broader benefit in the form of deterrence.”

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