Texas State Representative Garnet Coleman (D-Houston) is having another go at overturning the state’s “Stand Your Ground” law. On February 19th, Rep. Coleman introduced HB1627 in the state legislature, a bill that, if passed, would amend the Texas penal code’s self-defense provisions.
Currently, Texas law permits the use of force in self-defense “when and to the degree the actor reasonably believes the force is immediately necessary to protect the actor against the other’s use or attempted use of unlawful force.” Furthermore, the penal code does not require that an individual attempt to retreat before resorting to the use of force. In Texas, as long as a person “reasonably believes” that he needs to use force to protect himself or his property, and as long as he has the right to be present at the site of the incident in question, has not provoked the confrontation and is not engaged in a criminal activity at the time, he is justified in using force against another person. He has no obligation to first attempt to flee the scene.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 22 states have enacted “Stand Your Ground” laws: Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah and West Virginia. Since the NCSL published its list in 2013, a 23 state, Alaska, has passed this type of legislation.
Rep. Coleman’s HB1627 declares that a person is justified in using deadly force against another only if he is “unable to safely retreat” or is “in [his] own habitation.” His bill thus aims to amend the Texas penal code by requiring that individuals try to retreat before using force, unless they are inside their own homes. The bill would therefore restore Texas law to so-called “Castle Doctrine,” which was abandoned with the passage of the Texas “Stand Your Ground” law in 2007. Castle Doctrine allows individuals to use force to protect their homes and properties with some immunity. Rep. Coleman stated in a February news conference, as reported by The Texas Tribune, “This bill reaffirms the right to defend yourself in your home. But it would change the law back to where if you are somewhere else, and you can avoid the circumstances… [you] cannot use deadly force towards someone [you] perceive to be dangerous.”
Rep. Coleman cites the disproportionate impact of “Stand Your Ground” laws on people of color as the impetus for his efforts. He says, “We have seen an uptick in shootings based on the passage of these bills across the country. The perception that people have of young men of color is that they are dangerous by default. It puts a target on their back.” Trayvon Martin is perhaps the most well known of these victims. 17-year-old Martin was tragically killed by neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman in Florida in 2012, igniting national outcry. Zimmerman was later acquitted of murder under the Florida “Stand Your Ground” law.
Rep. Coleman’s concerns – and those of other racial justice activists and criminal justice reformers – are substantiated by a great deal of research. A report published in August 2014 by the American Bar Association’s National Task Force on Stand Your Ground Laws finds that states with Stand Your Ground laws have experienced an increase in homicides; that the application of these laws has been “unpredictable, uneven and result[ed] in racial disparities”; that the right to self-defense was “sufficiently protected” prior to these laws’ enactment; and that victims’ rights have been “undermined” in Stand Your Ground states. The report recommended that states not continue to enact Stand Your Ground laws, due to their ineffectiveness at decreasing crime, their implicit racial biases and their adverse effects on victims seeking justice. The report also recommended the creation of a national database to track Stand Your Ground incidents and the special instruction of juries regarding the applicability and limitations of Stand Your Ground legal defense.
Further supporting claims of racial bias, PBS cites research by John Roman of the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center that finds widening racial disparities in justifiable homicides in Stand Your Ground states. In states without Stand Your Ground laws, a white person who kills a black person is 250 percent more likely to be found justified in doing so than is a white person who kills another white person; in states with Stand Your Ground laws, meanwhile, that figure rises to 354 percent.
Tellingly, and rather unsurprisingly, a 2013 poll by Quinnipiac University found that black voters oppose Stand Your Ground laws 57 percent to 37 percent, while white voters support the laws by the same margins. The survey also found a gender split: Men overwhelmingly support Stand Your Ground laws, while women are more ambivalent.
Importantly, Rep. Coleman’s bill would not result in any significant financial costs or any significant changes to the programs of state correctional agencies. It is thus not on financial grounds but on ideological ones that his opponents object. Opponents of HB1627 believe that they have the right to defend themselves – and that this right should not be confined to the home, as dangerous situations may arise anywhere. Proponents of Stand Your Ground laws – usually Second Amendment supporters –see bills such as HB1627 as curbing their liberties and jeopardizing their safety. These concerns, however, fail to trump the arguments of Stand Your Ground’s opponents, who say that such laws enact troubling racial disparities and fail to reduce – and may even increase – crime.
A similar legislative effort by Rep. Coleman failed two years ago, due to lack of support in the state legislature. It is unlikely that his bill will pass this time, either. Texas is a red state, after all: There are about twice as many Republicans as Democrats in both the Texas House and the Texas Senate, and only 13 state representatives voted against the Stand Your Ground legislation when it was first passed. Still, it is a noble effort, one that will draw media attention and raise awareness. Hopefully, the cumulative effects of such efforts will eventually turn the tide against Stand Your Ground legislation.