Nearly three months after 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery was gunned down while jogging in Georgia, the men alleged to have ended his life now face murder charges. As the case sparks outrage and protests, a cadre of gun violence prevention activists are gearing up to take on what they call an overlooked culprit: the “stand your ground” laws that critics have decried as a “low-cost license to kill.”
The original prosecutor on Arbery’s case, George Barnhill, pointed to Georgia’s “stand your ground” law as one of the reasons he refused to pursue charges against Gregory McMichael, 64, and Travis McMichael, 32. Seeing Arbery, a frequent runner, jogging through their neighborhood and suspecting him of recent robberies, the father and son reportedly followed the younger black man, confronted him, and fatally shot him after a brief struggle. Another man, Bryan William, recorded the incident on video. Under “stand your ground,” a person facing a perceived threat has no duty to retreat, and may claim legal protections if they employ deadly force.
“This is not something that was written in the Constitution. The founding fathers didn’t include ‘stand your ground,’” said Amber Goodwin, founding director of the Community Justice Action Fund (CJAF). “Someone sat in a room and made these laws up. We need to get in a room and out in the streets and demand that the law be changed.”
On May 12, CJAF worked with Amnesty International and Cities United to organize a virtual meeting during which the groups detailed their strategy for making that happen. Through an email push, the group is asking people in the 25 states with “stand your ground” laws to write to their local lawmakers, urging them to support repeals. By June, the group will identify the places where they have the best chance for success. Nevada is the only state with a “stand your ground” law, a Democratic governor, and at least one Democratic-led legislative chamber.
Goodwin founded CJAF in 2016 to create a gun violence prevention organization led by people of color and focused on the everyday shootings that disproportionately kill and injure young black men. So far, much of the group’s work has concentrated on securing financial support for community gun violence intervention programs. Arbery’s death prompted the group to pivot to a sweeping fight for legislative reform.
“In a time where being safe in your neighborhood is such an emphasis,” said Greg Jackson, national advocacy director at CJAF, “[Arbery’s death] amplifies the danger of just jogging a few steps from your own home.”
Jackson argues that “stand your ground” led to Arbery’s fatal encounter with his accused killers. Gregory McMichael, who watched as his son allegedly shot Arbery, was a former police officer. “You had someone who seemed very versed in the law that was part of law enforcement,” Jackson said. “It’s hard for me to believe they didn’t know how these laws work and how this would play out.” The local authorities did not make an arrest in Arbery’s death until May 7, two days after footage of the incident was made public.
“Stand your ground” provides the McMichaels with an option for contesting the charges against them.
“It appears Travis McMichael, Greg McMichael, and Bryan William were following, in ‘hot pursuit,’ a burglary suspect, with solid first hand probable cause, in their neighborhood, and asking/telling him to stop,” Barnhill wrote in a letter explaining his decision to not bring charges. Citing the state’s “stand your ground” law, he wrote that Travis McMichael had no duty to retreat once he engaged Arbery.
“Stand your ground” laws are relatively new, with Florida enacting the nation’s first in 2005. The statutes apply a novel interpretation of the centuries-old “Castle Doctrine” — which holds that a person may use lethal force to protect their “castle,” or home — to public spaces. The spread of the laws has had deadly consequences. According to research summarized by the RAND Corporation, Florida saw a 32 percent increase in firearm homicides after “stand your ground” laws were enacted there.
“It’s a slippery slope, because these laws broaden the scope of ‘Castle Doctrine’ and extend it to any confrontation anywhere,” said Tishara Jones, treasurer of the city of St. Louis and a supporter of CJAF. Her home state of Missouri adopted its own “stand your ground” law in 2016.
“In [Arbery’s] case, they hunted this man down and shot him in broad daylight,” Jones said.
Arbery’s death has echoes of the killing of Trayvon Martin, which first brought “stand your ground” laws to wider attention. Martin, 17, was pursued by George Zimmerman, an armed man who suspected him of being a criminal. A jury decided that Zimmerman was justified in shooting Martin during the ensuing confrontation, an acquittal that helped birth the Black Lives Matter movement.
State lawmakers are scrambling to respond to COVID-19 and overhaul their budgets in the face of crashing tax revenues, which could hamper any immediate legislative push. Of the states with “stand your ground” laws, only Pennsylvania, Michigan, New Hampshire, and South Carolina have full time legislatures that meet throughout the year.
The push to repeal “stand your ground” laws will also have to contend with the support they continue to enjoy among many Republican lawmakers. A proposal in Ohio would create the country’s newest “stand your ground” law, but it’s been stuck in committee. After the laws’ momentum stalled in the years following the Trayvon Martin case, they were passed in Missouri, Utah, Idaho, and Iowa, where a young black legislator donned a hoodie on the floor of the State Capitol in an unsuccessful plea to block the bill.