Faith vs. Reason: Stand Your Ground/Violent Crime Edition
Last night the PBS News Hour program held a roundtable on the Trayvon Martin murder. Ta-Nehisi Coates was on, as were Reihan Salem and Donna Britt. So was Dennis Baxley, the Florida state representative who co-authored the Stand Your Ground law under whose cloak George Zimmerman stalked and gunned down the 17 year old Martin.
Baxley said — and appeared to mean — the right things about Martin’s death, that it was a tragedy, and that nothing in the law he helped enact should be interpreted to authorize someone to pursue, confront and shoot another. But Baxley rejected the notion that the law itself might have contributed to the catastrophe, arguing instead that it is a force for good, a way, in his words, a law intended “to empower law abiding citizens to stop violent things from happening.”
What’s more, said Baxley, the law has done just that:
Since ’05 to 2012 we have seen a reduction in violent crime in Florida. And what I’ve learned from it is that if you empower to stop bad things from happening they will and they do and they have.
Except, of course, those bad things that happen because people are able to claim that a “feeling” of danger constitutes authorization to use deadly force more or less at will.
But snark aside, what of the claim about crime rates in Florida.
Here, I’ll take a cue from Rachel Maddow, and say that Dennis Baxler is lying.
Check out Florida’s crime statistics. Two things stand out.
The first is that the number of violent crimes has not dropped from 2005 through 2010 (where the data series ends); rather it has jostled about in the noise. From 2005-2008, violent crime totals exceeded the 2004 tally of just over 124,000; in 2009 and 2010 the totals dropped below that figure. If there’s a clear case for correlation with the Stand Your Ground law, it must exist at some much finer grained level that the invoked violent crime catch-all
So what about murder? That is, after all, the crime of crimes, and the one for which I think most of us would be most comfortable in giving deference to claims of self defense. Those numbers make Baxley’s story worse: the murder total in Florida dropped from 946 to 881 from 2004-2005, and have exceeded the 2004 total for each year reported since, peaking at 1,202 in 2007 — or about a 26% hike from the 2004 number.
The shorter: violent crime numbers do not support a claim that the SYG law has consistently reduced violent crime incidence since 2005.
The other key fact to leaps out from this chart:
The slope of the rate/100,000 (blue) line has been pretty consistent for twenty years. It gets a little steeper from 2008-2010, to be sure, though not as much as it did from 1997 to 1999 or 2000. But this picture is consistent with the story in the rest of the country: violent crime is a much less severe problem now than it was decades ago. Any explanation for this ongoing process cannot have anything to do with a law enacted in 2005. That longer history alone makes a mockery any sudden 9mm ex machina explanation for Florida’s recent and welcome continued reduction in rates of violent crime. And, of course, any monocausal explanation is almost certain to be wrong.
Hell, I’ll go further and say that a priori, such accounts are always wrong.
Consider instead another story. Sometime in a leisure-filled future, (hah!–ed) I do plan to blog this really smart Adam Gopnik piece in the New Yorker examining research into what drove crime rates down in New York City over the last several decades. But for now in this context, take this home:
Crime ends as a result of “cyclical forces operating on situational and contingent things rather than from finding deeply motivated essential linkages.” [Wrote Franklin E. Zimring]…Curbing crime does not depend on reversing social pathologies or alleviating social grievances; it depends on erecting small, annoying barriers to entry.
Which is why this from Baxley is a type specimen of moral cowardice:
This kind of very unfortunate situation I think is a misapplication of this statute.
If you enact a law that carries with it a predictable budget of unintended, undesired consequences that result from the application of that law in daily life, then you’re not talking about “unfortunate” events, nor “misapplications.” You’re talking about a murder that was a probabilistically predictable result of enacting a crap law.
I’m sorry Mr. Baxley.
I’m sure you mean well.
I have no doubt that you did not wish the particular child, Trayvon Martin any harm — how could you? You never knew him.
But what you feel in your heart, that regret that someone didn’t behave under your law as you think they should? Not an excuse. No absolution. Trayvon Martin is dead because someone empowered in his own mind by the terms of your law stalked down a street, confronted him, and shot that 17 year old kid down.
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