In response to:
The Terror of Our Guns from the July 14, 2016 issue
To the Editors:
I am grateful for David Cole’s thoughtful review of my book Guns Across America [NYR, July 14], but I would take issue with his assertion regarding “stand your ground” (or SYG) laws that “there is little evidence that they have resulted in vigilantism.” On the contrary, there is abundant evidence that they have resulted in civilians assuming for themselves the life-and-death power otherwise belonging to the government—the very power that such laws yield to civilians (a fair working definition of vigilantism).
This has unfolded in the form of measurable increases in deaths in states that have adopted expanded, Florida-style SYG laws beginning in 2006. For example, a Texas A&M University study examined state homicide rates from 2000 to 2010 and found a homicide rate increase of 8 percent (about six hundred additional homicides annually) in states with newly buttressed SYG laws.
They also found no evidence that such laws deterred crime, including burglary, robbery, or aggravated assault. A National Bureau of Economic Research study also found Florida-type laws associated with a 6.8 percent increase in homicides. An Urban Institute study found jaw-dropping racial disparities: cases of whites killing blacks were many times more likely to be ruled justifiable than when blacks killed whites in SYG states.
The whole point about states that have adopted enhanced SYG laws is that they have substantially passed life-and-death power over to civilians who need only claim to feel threatened in any public place where they have a right to be. When married with enhanced concealed gun–carrying laws, the results are depressingly predictable.
Robert J. Spitzer
Distinguished Service Professor of Political Science
Cortland, New York
David Cole replies:
Recent events make all too clear the tragic costs of gun violence. But my point in discussing “stand your ground” laws was that there is little evidence such laws have increased vigilantism in particular. The studies Robert Spitzer cites address homicide and other forms of crime, but not vigilantism. Spitzer is correct that some studies have found that stand your ground laws are correlated with an increase in homicide and are not correlated with a decrease in other violent crimes. These studies suggest that such laws do not make us safer, and may actually increase the likelihood of violence, by lowering the cost of resorting to violence in self-defense situations. None of the studies, however, addresses vigilantism itself, and thus there is no evidence of an increase in that phenomenon.
Even concerning the incidence of homicides, the studies are limited. They show only correlation, not causation; they cannot rule out many other possible explanations for crime statistics, which are notoriously affected by multiple factors. Nor do the studies link the increased homicides in particular states to increased invocations of stand your ground laws. The Texas A&M study that Spitzer cites found an increase in homicides of white males, but no changes in homicides of black males. A Harvard study cited in Spitzer’s book found an increase of only one to 1.5 homicides a year in Florida after enactment of the stand your ground law, a rather small effect (and again, only a correlation). These studies warrant concern, and certainly undermine proponents’ arguments that such laws reduce crime. But they offer no evidence of vigilantism per se.