AKRON, Ohio – Ohio's Black leaders are sounding alarms over a change in the state's self-defense law, which would expand use of force to public settings and no longer require people to back away from confrontations in public before they can exert deadly force.
In 2008, lawmakers enacted the “Castle Doctrine,” which removed the requirement to retreat before using force only when the threatened person is in their home or car.
Senate Bill 175, which goes into effect Tuesday, removes the duty to retreat from the Ohio Revised Code and expands the use of force to public settings like streets, parking lots and grocery stores.
“This 'no duty to retreat' is a ‘shoot first’ piece of legislation that will permit the use of deadly force by individuals who believe that their lives are endangered anywhere they are. The bill goes entirely too far and it threatens Black lives and it makes Ohioans less safe overall,” state House Minority Leader Rep. Emilia Sykes said , describing an atmosphere of disregard in the state Legislature for the perspectives of lawmakers who represent constituents of color.
Proponents of the new law argue that it enacts a common-sense reform and aims to give Ohio victims the opportunity to defend themselves wherever danger lurks. Opponents say the law allows people to kill others with impunity.
Critics say removing the requirement to retreat leads to the devaluation of life. Too often, they add, those whose lives are being devalued are Black civilians.
“The 'stand your ground' bill, historically, nationwide, has not been a bill that has protected Black people from vigilantism or racism,” said the Rev. Ray Greene Jr., executive director of the Freedom BLOC, a political activism group advocating for Northeast Ohio's Black community and formerly incarcerated residents.
“It doesn’t provide safety for the community. It provides safety for white men and white men only,” Greene added.
In recent years, stand your ground laws have become associated with high-profile incidents of violence, particularly in Florida, which passed the country’s first measure in 2005.
It is the law Sanford, Florida, police cited when explaining why they did not arrest George Zimmerman after he fatally shot 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in 2012. At trial, Zimmerman said he shot Martin in self-defense. A jury later acquitted him.
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Proponents of Ohio's version of stand your ground legislation argue people should be able to defend themselves wherever they feel threatened.
Dean Rieck, executive director of Buckeye Firearms Association, a state gun rights advocacy group that lobbied for the passage of the bill, emphasized that S.B. 175 does not impact the standard for using lethal force in self-defense situations.
“It does not give anybody any extra rights. It does not change in any way when you can or can’t use lethal force. … You have to have an honest and reasonable fear of death and great bodily harm before you can use lethal force such as a firearm,” Rieck said.
Rieck said that Ohio’s duty to retreat imposed “an artificial extra burden” on people who attempted to defend themselves in violent situations.
Rieck suggested the measure could reduce crime and bring justice to victims of gun violence regardless of race.
“The prediction that this is going to cause a lot of mayhem really is not going to come to pass. … The duty to retreat has been removed from lots of other states. It’s never been a problem. … We don’t expect it to be a problem here either,” he said.
But data from other states where stand your ground laws have been implemented show evidence of both increases in gun violence and racial disparities in application.
Between 2005 and 2011, the number of homicides involving Black victims considered justifiable increased more than twofold in stand-your-ground states, according to a July 2020 report from the Southern Poverty Law Center and Giffords Law Center.
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Another study from the Urban Institute found that “a white shooter who kills a Black victim is 350% more likely to be found to be justified than if the same white shooter killed a white victim.”
A new study published in the American Journal of Public Health this year, which analyzed 32 studies on stand your ground laws found that “in at least some U.S. states, most notably Florida, stand your ground laws have been associated with increases in homicides and there has been racial bias in the application of legal protections.”
Alexa Yakubovich, one of the lead researchers of the study and a postdoctoral fellow at the MAP Centre for Urban Health Solutions at Unity Health Toronto and the University of Toronto, said there is no evidence to support the claim that stand your ground laws protect people against crime.
The race of victims is “one of the most important predictors regarding the outcomes of self-defense cases,” Yakubovich said, with cases involving white victims systematically more likely to end in convictions as opposed to victims who are nonwhite.
“Not only does it matter if the victim is white, but it also matters if the person claiming self-defense is a racial minority,” she added.
State Sens. Tim Shaffer and Terry Johnson, who sponsored the bill, along with a host of other Republican lawmakers, and Rep. Kyle Koehler – who drafted the language around removing the duty to retreat – did not respond to interview requests from the Akron Beacon Journal, part of the USA TODAY Network.
Lawmakers who opposed the bill expressed their disappointment in its passage, given the studies that point to its harms elsewhere.
“What other reason would you want this kind of legislation in Ohio than to have the same results in other states? There really is no other justifiable answer,” state House Minority Leader Rep. Emilia Sykes said.
Gov. Mike DeWine’s signing of the bill drew widespread criticism from civil rights groups, the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association, and Fraternal Order of Police of Ohio.
Darius Frierson, a firearms instructor and president of the Black Gun Owners Association of Ohio, said laws don’t exist in a vacuum and context matters.
“We do so much community work because we know what it’s like to be out here where you don’t know if a justice system is for you. We know what it’s like to be an African American man or woman and deal with a cop. You just don’t know. … especially when you’ve got a firearm in play,” Frierson said.
Follow Seyma Bayram on Twitter: @SeymaBayram0.
This article originally appeared on Akron Beacon Journal: Ohio's Black leaders sound alarms over new stand your ground law