A facetious gun control ad near Boston's Fenway Park. Photo by Jason Paris via flickr.com.
A facetious gun control ad near Boston’s Fenway Park. Photo by Jason Paris via flickr.com.

Ten years ago, the state of Florida beefed up its “stand your ground” law – a law allowing a person who harms or kills another, often with a gun, to escape prosecution by claiming that he or she felt threatened and acted in self-defense. In other words, Florida’s law – and many others like it – lets assailants go free merely by asserting their belief that the use of force was necessary to prevent serious harm or death to themselves or bystanders. Those who assert such beliefs become according to Florida law “immune from criminal prosecution and civil action.” Prosecutions are not entirely ruled out, but authorities must meet very difficult standards to pursue cases.

Since 2005, about half of all U.S. states have passed Florida-style laws, or very similar ones. The National Rifle Association has led the charge, arguing that stand your ground laws will improve public safety and protect honest citizens.

By now, however, there is clear and compelling evidence that such laws have failed to improve public safety – and have encouraged mayhem reminiscent of America’s old Wild West. Laws allowing claims of self-defense have existed for over a century, but Florida’s new law and its imitators dramatically alter the law enforcement equation. According to David LaBahn of the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, investigations of civilian killings are now often hamstrung by legal protections greater than those afforded police officers who use lethal force.

The Florida Experience

Florida’s 2005 law was invoked in nearly 200 shooting cases through 2012 – a majority of them involving fatalities. The cases were documented by the Tampa Bay Times:

  • The Florida law’s chief beneficiaries were “those with records of crime and violence.” Nearly 60 percent of those making self-defense claims after killing someone had been arrested at least once before; a third had been accused of violent crimes or drug offenses; and over one-third had illegally carried guns or had threatened others with guns.
  • In seven of every ten stand your ground cases, the person killed was unarmed – and in 79 percent of the cases, the assailant could have retreated to avoid the confrontation.
  • Shooters who invoked stand your ground claims under Florida’s 2005 law succeeded in escaping prosecution two-thirds of the time.

guns across americaSimilar Trends in All Stand Your Ground States

Moving beyond Florida alone, other studies have documented equally worrisome trends:

  • Reporters at the Wall Street Journal studied “justifiable homicides” nationwide from 2000 to 2010. They found that such killings increased by 85 percent in states with Florida-style laws (even though some states have more limited versions of stand your ground rules on the books). The increase occurred even though overall killings, adjusted for population growth, declined during this same period. According to the Journal investigation, more than 80 percent of the “justifiable” killings involved guns, compared with 65 percent of other killings where claims of justification were not made.
  • For the same period, researchers at Texas A&M University found no evidence in data from the Federal Bureau of Investigations that stand your ground laws deterred crimes, including burglary, robbery, or aggravated assault. Instead, in states with newly buttressed stand your ground laws on the books, the homicide rate increased by eight percent – which in human terms added up to about 600 additional homicides annually.
  • Drawing on different data, a 2012 National Bureau of Economic Research study found Florida-type laws associated with a 6.8 percent increase in homicides.
  • An Urban Institute study found significant racial disparities in “justified” killings between 2005 and 2010. In states without stand your ground laws, killings were ruled justified in 29 percent of instances where the shooter was white and the victim was black (with much lower rates of justification for white on white, black on white, and black on black killings). By contrast, in states with stand your ground laws on the books, white on black killings were accepted as justified 36 percent of the time (with more modest upticks in findings of justification for the other kinds of cases).

Time to Rethink Laws Undermining Public Safety

The evidence is clear: Expanded stand your ground laws combined with more gun-carrying increases unnecessary violent confrontations and deaths. With more than 11 million Americans now licensed to carry guns, we need policies to defuse or avert public confrontations – and police and prosecutors must be able to conduct full investigations when incidents occur. A February 2015 American Bar Association report urges states to scale back legal immunity and restore the “safe retreat” standard in public places – a standard that requires people who feel threatened to avoid confrontation if they can do so safely. Since the beginning of 2015, legislators in ten states, including Florida, have introduced such measures. But many reform proposals are stalled, and 13 states are actually deliberating bills that would fortify stand your ground practices.

Long ago, Americans north and south acted to contain the dangers of open gun-toting and free-wheeling confrontations. As early as 1686, New Jersey enacted a law against wearing weapons because they induced “great Fear and Quarrels.” In the 1700s, three states passed no-carry laws. In the 1800s, as interpersonal violence and gun carrying spread, 37 states joined the list of those enacting restrictions. Alabama’s 1839 law was titled, “An Act to Suppress the Evil Practice of Carrying Weapons Secretly.” This history makes the current popularity of gun-carrying and stand your ground laws all the more mystifying. Apparently, twenty-first century Americans must now re-learn lessons their ancestors took to heart long ago.

This brief was prepared for the Scholars Strategy Network by Robert J. Spitzer, State University of New York at Cortland. Spitzer is the author of Guns across America: Reconciling Gun Rules and Rights (Oxford University Press, 2015).

usdeportations

In recent decades, the United States has seen a spectacular rise in deportations, with local police forces authorized by the federal government to identify undocumented immigrants for summary removal. More than 11 million undocumented people across the country – including up to one in ten adult workers in the state of California – faced this threat in their daily lives.

To assuage the human costs, President Barack Obama outlined a plan in November 2014 to provide temporary protection to many undocumented migrants. Building on his earlier efforts to set priorities, the President specified that officials would henceforth seek to deport “felons, not families,” “criminals, not children,” “gang members, not a mom who’s working hard to provide for her kids.” In short, under the new policy, various kinds of immigrants deemed good would be protected from deportation. Well-intentioned city leaders, bureaucrats, and police would need to sort out the good immigrants from those vilified as criminals.

These well-intended steps are meant to alleviate the trauma that the threat of deportation has imposed on millions of law-abiding migrants. But how do the binary divisions work out in practice? My research, based on a year of observations in southern California plus 75 in-depth interviews with undocumented Mexican migrants, suggests that efforts to divide good from bad people in migrant communities can have pernicious as well as helpful effects. more...

Photo by Francisco Osorio Flickr CC
Photo by Francisco Osorio Flickr CC

Latinos living in the United States comprise the largest number of immigrants of any racial or ethnic group – and for this reason, many Americans presume that immigration is the issue that matters most to Latino citizens and residents. But is that true? Do Latinos themselves view immigration as their top concern, and if not what other issues are high on their political agenda? My research tackles this question, which is important for understanding the potential political influence of the largest and fastest growing minority group in the United States. more...

Communities for a Better Environment leads environmental justice tours, such as this one in East Oakland, CA. Flickr CC photo by Brooke Anderson.
Communities for a Better Environment leads environmental justice tours, such as this one in East Oakland, CA. Flickr CC photo by Brooke Anderson.

Environmental problems create especially heavy burdens for poor and minority communities. As three decades of research have shown, these communities host a disproportionate number of landfills, contaminated properties, incinerators, and other polluting facilities, many of which can cause serious health problems. Epidemiological research on health risks reveals that low-income and minority groups have higher rates of asthma, impaired lung function and other respiratory ailments as well as cardiovascular disease. All of these adverse health conditions are caused or exacerbated by exposure to pollution. Underprivileged communities can also be at greater risk from severe weather developments, which are expected to increase with climate change.

The Pursuit of Environmental Justice

Environmental justice has been on the federal government’s agenda now for twenty years, in no small measure due to effective advocacy by grassroots organizations and scholar-activists who have pushed since the 1980s for fairness in environmental protection. The federal government responded with new policy mandates, administrative reorganization, research and data collection programs, enhanced outreach and efforts to build community capacity – and, most notably, with a presidential executive order on environmental justice. Signed by President Bill Clinton on February 11, 1994, Executive Order 12898 called on each federal agency to “make achieving environmental justice part of its mission by identifying and addressing as appropriate, disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects of its programs, policies, and activities on minority populations and low-income populations.” more...

A newly naturalized citizen displays her certificate. U.S. Navy photo.
A newly naturalized citizen displays her certificate. U.S. Navy photo.

Current debates about immigration reform focus on whether or not there will be a “path to citizenship” for the eleven million undocumented immigrants living and working in the United States – and, if so, how long the road will be. Citizenship brings new rights and opportunities for individuals and families, and the country as a whole also has a stake in drawing into full citizenship both legal and undocumented newcomers. Otherwise America may face growing gaps in life chances among groups with different immigration and citizenship statuses. Across many decades of U.S. history, grants of citizenship, or refusals, have been used to incorporate masses of newcomers from Europe and exclude others, such as those from many Asian countries. Today, citizenship status has again become an axis of inequality that exacerbates other disparities grounded in class and race. Denying undocumented immigrants, mostly from Mexico and Central America, opportunities to get on a path to citizenship is one obvious source of continuing inequality. In addition, my research shows that barriers to citizenship status also exist for many newcomers with legal permanent resident status – so-called “green card” holders. The difficulties these immigrants face magnify inequalities in American society as a whole.

Access to Citizenship for Legal Residents

Citizenship can, in principle, be obtained by immigrants who already have “green cards,” or documents that demonstrate their legal permanent status in the United States and meet a range of criteria. Access to permanent legal residency itself is restricted. Most commonly, immigrants obtain green cards through close relatives who are already citizens or permanent residents. Many others do so through employment or by claiming refugee status. Residents of countries that are relatively underrepresented in the United States may be able to win green cards in a lottery. Once they gain permanent legal resident status, most immigrants must wait five years to apply for citizenship – and they then must pay hefty fees, fill out detailed applications, and undergo interviews and testing by immigration officials, all before, finally, attending a swearing-in ceremony that makes their newly gained citizenship official. Some legal residents have a slightly easier path. Those married to U.S. citizens wait three years instead of five, and members of the military may currently apply when they enlist. In response to anti-immigrant measures at national, state, and local levels, applications for citizen status have increased in recent years. Nevertheless, fewer than half of immigrants in the U.S. have become citizens, and the U.S. take-up rate is much lower than rates in sister immigration destinations such as Canada and Australia.

Who Gains Citizenship?

Commentators noting the low uptake of U.S. citizenship have raised concerns about the loyalty of new immigrants and difficulties in the naturalization process. In addition, uneven citizenship intersects with and exacerbates other dimensions of inequality in American society. In a study of data from the U.S. Census, I found that immigrants with less than high school education are increasingly less likely to be citizens compared to more educated immigrants. In 1970, the level of education did not make much difference for whether immigrants had become citizens, but by 2000 a large education gap had appeared. Immigrants with higher levels of income are also more likely to gain citizenship. In short, during an era when inequality has grown overall in the United States, citizenship status is being attained much more unequally by more and less privileged legal residents.

Racial disparities are also growing. Hispanic immigrants, whether black or white, have the lowest levels of citizenship, while non-Hispanic blacks and whites, as well as Asians, all gain citizenship at about average rates. This finding cannot be explained away by the higher representation of Hispanic immigrants among the undocumented, who are not eligible for citizenship; even among legal Hispanic permanent residents, the uptake of citizenship for the largest group, Mexicans, is low. By countries of origin, the lowest proportions gaining citizenship are found among Guatemalan, Mexican, and Salvadoran immigrants, and the highest proportions occur among immigrants from Vietnam and the Philippines.

Why Uneven Access to Citizenship Matters

It is unfortunate that access to citizenship is increasingly paralleling other disparities in U.S. society, because citizenship status promises access to the full civil liberties and rights, making immigrants almost equal to native-born Americans. The right to vote and to run for most political offices is reserved for citizens. For individual immigrants, citizenship expands job opportunities across the economic spectrum – opening posts ranging from state-licensed cosmetician to police officer and making it possible to compete for government fellowships, grants, and contracts. Citizenship also allows newcomers to bring other family members through reunification rules, and eases connections between the United States and immigrant countries of origin. For the immigrants who may fall on hard times, citizenship status improves access to welfare benefits. Perhaps most important, citizenship provides a sense of security and permanency by fully protecting immigrants from threats of deportation.

Citizenship benefits not only newcomers and their families, but also communities and the nation as a whole. For example, because Hispanics are often not citizens, this minority group, now the largest in the United States, has much less political clout than its sheer numbers might suggest. Although legal resident noncitizens can and do engage in political activity, their inability to vote and run for office reduces their political efficacy; and along with undocumented immigrants, they are at risk for deportation. The estimated twenty-two million noncitizen immigrants add up to a troubling indicator for the health of American democracy, because these people live, work, raise families, and contribute to their communities, but are excluded from the innermost circle of membership in the nation. Hundreds of thousands of legal resident immigrants become eligible to apply for citizenship every year. And comprehensive immigration reform, if Congress acts, it could put many currently undocumented on the path to citizenship in the future. Everyone who cares about reducing socioeconomic and racial inequalities in the United States should want to address inequalities in citizenship acquisition by legal residents and support full access to citizenship for the undocumented.

Sofya Aptekar is in the sociology department at UMass–Boston. She is the author of The Road to Citizenship: What Naturalization Means for Immigrants and the United States.

President Obama has called upon the country to double the number of Americans with college credentials by 2020, but reaching that goal will be impossible without raising the educational attainment of Hispanics, the youngest and fastest growing U.S. ethnic group. People of Hispanic background are pursing college degrees at higher rates and now surpass African Americans as the largest share of non-white students enrolled in U.S. institutions of higher education. But Hispanics still lag behind other groups in actually completing college work to attain their degrees. The reforms America must undertake to boost Hispanic graduation rates include enhancing resources for what the U.S. federal government labels “Hispanic-Serving Institutions” – that is, non-profit, degree-granting colleges and universities whose undergraduate enrollments include at least 25% full-time students of Hispanic descent. My work looks at the special challenges these institutions face and suggests useful steps forward. more...

In January 2015, Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin sported a new beard as he announced he would not seek the GOP presidential nomination for 2016. Commentators rightly connected the announcement to the new beard, because it has been more than a century since the presidency of William Howard Taft, the last White House incumbent with facial hair. In fact, ever since the mustachioed Taft completed his term in 1913, just a few years before American women won the right to vote, few U.S. politicians with facial hair have run for or served in national elected offices. Currently, fewer than five percent of the members of the U.S. Congress have beards or mustaches, according to recent estimates.

Although there has been little research about politicians’ facial hair, analysts have learned that voters make inferences about candidates based on appearance. Skin color, facial structure, and smiles all matter, because voters are ever on the lookout for short cuts, for easy clues to candidates’ issue positions and personal traits. Assessments of appearance are one way voters make guesses about candidates, so it is reasonable to assume that beards and mustaches could influence voter perceptions. Along with two colleagues, Jeanette Morehouse Mendez and Ben Pryor, I have done experiments showing that facial hair does indeed matter for politicians. more...

Location, location, location is the mantra we often hear about the value of real estate – and the same principle applies to the rights and protections enjoyed by gays, lesbians, and bisexuals across the United States. Those who live in New England, along the West coast and in the Great Lakes states can marry whom they wish and are legally protected against hate crimes and discrimination in public accommodations and employment. In the rest of the country, however, such legal rights and protections are rarely found. Drawing on my own research and that of other scholars, this brief explores why this variation exists. Regional imitation, the presence of gay and lesbian legislators, public opinion, and institutional rules all turn out to matter.

Neighboring States Acting Together

Regional differences in public policies supporting gays and lesbians suggest that the importance of what scholars call “policy diffusion,” where policies adopted in one state spread to its neighbors as their citizens and officials see positive effects and move to imitate. In New England, for example, the process started when Massachusetts legislated against employment discrimination in 1988 and recognized same-sex marriages in 2004, and Vermont became the first state to formally recognize same-sex relationships by instituting civil unions in 2000. Similarly, California and Minnesota were early adopters, setting the stage for diffusion along the West coast and among Great Lakes states. California legislated against employment discrimination in 1992 and against hate crimes in 1999, and Minnesota took action in 1993. more...

Half a century after the start of the modern feminist movement, American women make up only 19% of the U.S. Congress and just 24% of all state legislators. Many factors help to explain such severe underrepresentation – and one of the key issues is that political careers are particularly lacking in job flexibility. Elected officials work long hours, travel extensively, and cannot easily interrupt work obligations to care for children. Because women still do most of the housework and child care, challenges in balancing their obligations dissuade many from running for public offices, in the same way that women often avoid other inflexible careers like business leadership.

When women forego legislative careers, it matters not only for the individuals involved, but for states and the nation, because female politicians are more likely to raise issues and vote for policies that matter to women. With women underrepresented in the halls of government, our democracy not only misses out on vital talent; it cannot fully address everyone’s concerns. more...

Media stories about measles outbreaks in California and Arizona have featured prominent politicians weighing in with conflicting messages. Should vaccination be required for all children with few exceptions? Are vaccines safe? Should parents have a choice – when refusing vaccines can put their own and other people’s children at grave risk? The stories are dramatic, but scholars and public officials warn that it is dangerous to turn vaccination into a political football. Other widely publicized controversies reveal that the insertion of politics into media coverage can be hard to reverse, as it may undermine public trust in doctors and public health officials.

Political Controversy Sticks

Our research examines two recent politically charged health controversies – the 2009 dust-up over mammography screening guidelines and the 2006-2007 debate over whether middle schools should require girls to get vaccinated against infections by the human papillomavirus (“HPV” for short). Specifically, we found that local and national media coverage did not start with a focus on political controversy. But once news stories started to highlight partisan arguments among political leaders, political controversies became the focus of subsequent coverage. more...