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Quinnipiac's recent poll claimed American voters back Stand Your Ground laws, but the poll really asked respondents about self-defense. (Credit: The Robbery by gfairchild via Flickr)

Quinnipiac University recently announced that a majority of American voters back “Stand Your Ground” laws, by a margin of 53% to 40%. The problem is the poll measured opinion on the right of self-defense, not on “Stand Your Ground” (SYG) laws.

There is a difference between the two concepts. The courts have long recognized the right of a person to self-defense, even to the point of using deadly force, if the person is threatened with serious bodily harm or death. The newly updated SYG laws, first adopted by Florida in 2005, go beyond what were the accepted norms of self-defense.

As Beth Kassab writes in the Orlando Sentinel:

“Self-defense has always been an acceptable reason for police and prosecutors to dismiss charges or not bring any in the first place. Nobody wants to see someone who was genuinely in fear for their life end up in jail because they took action to protect themselves or others.

“But there’s too much latitude when those who are the aggressors are able to shoot, kill and avoid arrest and prosecution.”

The Quinnipiac Poll question doesn’t recognize the difference between mere self-defense and SYG. The question is phrased as follows:

“Some states have a law that says a person is legally entitled to fight back with deadly force if they feel threatened, even if they could retreat instead. Do you support or oppose this law for your state?”

There are two key issues here – whether people should retreat if they could, and what it means to “feel threatened.”

The problem with the new phrasing of the SYG laws is that the standard for feeling threatened is simply how a person “feels” at the time of the incident. As the Orlando Sentinel argues, the SYG law in Florida “has a low bar” for self-defense:

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“‘Stand your ground’ is providing cover to all manner of wrongdoers, many of them documented in an exhaustive Tampa Bay Times report last year. People who went looking for a fight, killed unarmed people, even chased down their victims.”

The Tampa Bay Times report was published in June 2012, and included almost 200 cases where Stand Your Ground was invoked as a defense. Among other conclusions, the report noted:

“In nearly a third of the cases the Times analyzed, defendants initiated the fight, shot an unarmed person or pursued their victim – and still went free.”

Other examples from the report:

  • Two men fell into the water while fighting on a dock. When one started climbing out of the water, the other shot him in the back of the head, killing him. He was acquitted after arguing “stand your ground.”
  • A Seventh-day Adventist was acting erratically, doing cartwheels through an apartment complex parking lot, pounding on cars and apartment windows and setting off alarms. A tenant who felt threatened by the man’s behavior shot and killed him. He was not charged.
  • A Citrus County man in a longstanding dispute with a neighbor shot and killed the man one night in 2009. He was not charged even though a witness and the location of two bullet wounds showed the victim was turning to leave when he was shot.

Do Americans support SYG laws that lead to the above outcomes? Do Americans believe that someone’s simple “feelings” of being threatened are sufficient justification to kill someone? That not only do they not have to retreat from danger, they can aggressively go after someone? Or would Americans want some more specific guidelines as to what constitutes a “threat” and what it means not to retreat?

Those are some of the nuances in the issue that Quinnipiac doesn’t begin to address. To do so might have taken several questions.

Instead, Quinnipiac asked just the one simple and misleading question, from which it announced that most American voters support SYG laws.

But we can’t trust those findings.

The poll results got Quinnipiac public attention, which is what the university’s polling institute is designed to do – advertise for Quinnipiac University. But the results hardly provide us a meaningful insight into what the public is thinking.

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Quinnipiac Poll Asks Misleading Stand your Ground Questions

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