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How ‘Stand Your Ground’ and Similar Laws Factor Into the Shooting of Unarmed Black Teen Ralph Yarl

7 minute read

As protesters took to the streets of Kansas City, Mo., to demand charges against the white homeowner who shot Black teenager Ralph Yarl after he accidentally stopped at the wrong house, the city’s police chief said that investigators were considering whether Missouri’s “Stand Your Ground” law could factor into the case.

Ralph, 16, was shot twice by 84-year-old Andrew Lester and sustained life-threatening injuries. Ralph’s family said he mixed up addresses when he went to pick up his twin brothers on the night of April 16. Lester told police that he opened fire because he was “scared to death” after he saw a Black male, whom he described at 6 feet tall, trying to open his front door.

After Lester was initially detained and released, prosecutors charged him with first-degree assault on Monday. He could face upto life in prison if convicted.

Ralph, who was later released from the hospital after being treated for gunshot wounds to his head and arm, is only the latest victim to be shot by someone who claimed self defense. On Saturday night, a 65-year-old man who lived in an upstate New York town fatally shot 20-year-old Kaylin Gills, who had mistakenly driven into his driveway. The shooter was charged with second-degree murder. On Tuesday, just after midnight, a 25-year-old man shot two teenage cheerleaders in a supermarket parking lot near Austin; one of the girls had accidentally opened the door to the man’s car, incorrectly thinking that it was hers. They survived, and the gunman in that case was arrested.

“Stand Your Ground” laws are in place in at least 28 states. Those laws, and the related “Castle Doctrine” statutes, seek to enshrine people’s rights to defend themselves, including using deadly force, according to proponents. However, studies have shown they are associated with higher homicide rates and they have frequently come to the forefront in high-profile trials, perhaps most notably the 2012 fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin.

Ralph Yarl, the teenager who was shot in the head and arm by a white homeowner on April 13, 2022.Gofundme

Scholars who have studied these laws also point out that these laws have been applied differently depending on the race of the shooter and the person being shot. Authorities have said there was a “racial component” to Lester’s decision to open fire on Ralph.

“What we’re seeing is legislatures saying: It’s okay to shoot first and ask questions later,” Kami Chavis, director of the Center of Criminal Justice Policy and Reform at William & Mary Law School, says.

Lester pleaded not guilty in court on Wednesday after turning himself in and posting $200,000 bond. It’s not known whether he will seek to use “stand your ground” or similar self-defense laws as a defense in the charges against him—but legal experts say he will have a difficult time clearing even the lower legal hurdle proving that he was acting in self-defense.

How do ‘Stand Your Ground’ laws work?

Stand Your Ground laws are an expansion of the common law principle of Castle Doctrine, which allows individuals to use “reasonable force,” including firearms, to protect themselves from an intruder in their home. There is no duty to retreat in one’s home under the Castle Doctrine.

Stand Your Ground laws take this notion, and push its geographical boundaries to apply in public spaces. While many legal experts note that the Castle Doctrine and not Stand Your Ground laws are more relevant in the Yarl case, these terms have sometimes been used interchangeably in public discourse when talking about self-defense and whether use of force is justified.

Some experts say the legal expansion is dangerous because self defense is supposed to be a last resort and “Stand Your Ground” laws can make individuals less likely to think twice before using violence. “When you expand this and say you don’t have a duty to retreat you are unnecessarily going to have more confrontations and loss of human life,” says Chavis.

Studies bear this out. A 2022 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that stand-your ground laws are associated with an 11% increase in monthly firearm homicide rates. A review of 16 studies by RAND researchers also found a significant link between these laws and an increase in deaths and gun fatalities.

Florida was the first state to enact a stand-your-ground law in 2005. It allows the use of deadly force in any public place if a person feels their life is threatened. The NRA has put its weight behind stand your ground laws as part of its broader agenda to increase gun rights. Supporters of the law say it will deter crimes, although some studies have called that into question.

How stand your ground applies to Ralph Yarl’s case

Missouri’s self-defense law specifies that a person may use deadly force if they reasonably believe that such deadly force is necessary “to protect himself, or herself or her unborn child, or another against death, serious physical injury, or any forcible felony.” This includes threats to property. “Under Missouri law you can use deadly force to repel burglary and unlawful entry into your house,” says Eugene Volokh, a law professor at UCLA.

Legal experts tell TIME that the key question is understanding what justifies reasonable fear and use of deadly force. “To have self-defense at all you have to be met with a reasonable threat,” Chavis says. Ringing a doorbell doesn’t justify using deadly force, she and other legal experts say. (Lester told police that Ralph also attempted to open his door, though prosecutors say he did not cross into the home and that shots were fired through a glass door.)

A justification of self defense requires that a reasonable person would feel it’s necessary to avoid an imminent threat of death or bodily harm, says Donald Jones, a law professor at the University of Miami who teaches criminal law.. “You have to have all of those things. He has none of them,” Jones says, based on his understanding of the facts that have been made public so far.

Inconsistent applications of the law

The relatively recent history of “Stand Your Ground” laws also carries concerns that it is applied unequally depending on the race of the shooter and the person shot. The 2012 killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, who was fatally shot by George Zimmerman while he was walking home from a convenience store, was perhaps the first Stand Your Ground case to gain national attention.

“Historically, prosecutors value Black lives less than white lives—and so if a Black person was killed, it didn’t register the same level of concern,” Jones says.

The likelihood of a white person killing a Black person and it being considered justified is 281% greater than a white person killing another white person, according to a 2013 study from the Urban Institute, which analyzed the percentage of homicides ruled justified in cases that occurred between 2005-2010. A 2017 analysis of 400,000 homicides committed by civilians between 1980 and 2014 from the Marshall Project and The New York Times found that when a white person kills a Black man in the U.S., one in six of the killings involve no criminal repercussions.

Laws around justifiable use of force are often not used consistently not only in the context of race but also gender. Stand Your Ground laws were initially touted by its supporters as protecting women, says Caroline Light, a Harvard University professor who teaches gender and ethnic studies and author of Stand Your Ground: A History of America’s Love Affair with Lethal Self-Defense. “But when a woman uses lethal violence to protect herself from her largest statistical threat, who is her boyfriend, husband or ex-partner, she goes to jail, so there’s a big lie at the heart of this idea of protecting women,” Light says. She gives the example of Marissa Alexander, a Black woman who fired a warning shot to get away from her abusive estranged spouse in 2010 and went to prison for three years.

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Write to Sanya Mansoor at sanya.mansoor@time.com