As ‘Stand Your Ground’ laws spread, Black people fear for their lives — Andscape
COLUMBUS, Ohio – The Wedgewood Village Apartments on the west side of this city have a sad history of drugs, shootings and homicides. But when 13-year-old Sinzae Reed was shot here last fall, his death was an example of a frightening trend in homicides that has been working its way across the country and finally arrived in Ohio.
Sinzae, who was Black, died in the early evening of Oct. 12, 2022, minutes after leaving the family’s apartment to chill in the neighborhood. Witnesses identified the man who shot him as Krieg Butler, 36, a white neighbor.
Butler, who is a father of two young children, fled in his pickup truck but was arrested a day later. He spent a week in jail, charged with murder and unable to post a $1 million bond. Then he made a claim that surprised Sinzae’s family but that police in Ohio and around the country are hearing from more suspects in shooting cases: Butler said he shot Sinzae in self-defense because he feared for his own life.
Prosecutors in Ohio said self-defense claims have increased since the spring of 2021, when Ohio became one of the latest states to adopt a “stand your ground” law, which removes the duty for someone to retreat before using deadly force if they fear for their life.
The first stand your ground law was adopted in 1994 in Utah, but the idea really took off after it was passed by the Florida legislature in 2005 in Florida. The next year, it was adopted in 12 more states. By 2011, Stand Your Ground was the law in 23 states. But over the next eight years, the rate slowed considerably with only four more states passing new legislation, according to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
|States that have passed Stand Your Ground laws|
|2006||Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, South Dakota, South Carolina, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Oklahoma||14|
|2007||Missouri, Tennessee, Texas||17|
|2011||Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Pennsylvania||23|
|2021||Ohio, Arkansas, North Dakota||30|
**Utah removed the duty to retreat in 1994. In 2019, Utah expanded its law to clarify a more-affirmative right to stand your ground.
But then came the polarizing year of 2020 – with heated disagreements over how to handle the coronavirus pandemic and a racial reckoning following videotape of Minneapolis police officers murdering a Black man, George Floyd. All of a sudden, three more states – Ohio, North Dakota and Arkansas – signed on, bringing the national total to 30. (Another eight states have court decisions that recognize variations of stand your ground.)
Experts say stand your ground’s spread across America – as well as other measures that make it easier for gun users to claim they acted in self-defense – is driven in part by white fear of Black folks.
“How many times do you hear, ‘Security, safety, security, safety,’ and ‘You’ve just gotta protect your homes,’ ” said Carol Anderson, the chair of African American Studies at Emory University. “ ‘You’ve gotta protect your wife and your children.’ You keep hearing this and the threat is Black.
“And how many times do we hear about all of this Black-on-Black crime? And it’s true. Over 80% of African Americans are killed by African Americans. Over 80% of white folks are killed by white folk. But you don’t hear about white crime as this inherent pathology of violence. These are a part of the tectonic plates moving the stand your ground laws.”
Besides the stand your ground law that went into effect in 2021, Ohio lawmakers approved a “constitutional carry” law last year that allows people to carry a gun, either openly or concealed, without a license, background check or training. Ohio also shifted the burden of proof in self-defense cases from the defendant to the state in 2019, infuriating prosecutors.
“Now, if an individual is somewhere lawfully, they have no duty to retreat at all,” said Janet Grubb, a prosecutor for Franklin County, which includes Columbus. “And that, combined with the new instructions on self-defense and with other societal factors, have made it very difficult at times to convince a jury to convict an individual who has used deadly force.”
So once Butler said he shot a 13-year-old boy in self-defense, prosecutors decided to release him until they could complete a more exhaustive investigation. Two activists representing Sinzae’s mother, Megan Reed, have demanded the removal of Gary Tyack, Franklin County’s elected prosecutor, and for Butler’s immediate rearrest. They note that Butler was on probation for a misdemeanor domestic violence case from 2019 and said prosecutors could have held him for violating probation.
“If it was the other way around – and Sinzae had shot Krieg – you think they were going to let him go because he said self-defense?” Reed asked me rhetorically. “No. He’d be in there to this day.
“Or if Krieg was a Black man and Sinzae was white and he would have said self-defense, they wouldn’t let him out. But Krieg is white. He’s out. Because if you’re white, they can get the benefit of the doubt.”
Gun-control supporters say that stand your ground laws weren’t needed legally. Each state already had self-defense laws that allowed people to protect themselves, they said, and the duty to retreat is just common sense to respect the sanctity of life.
The Ohio State Conference of the NAACP and three other plaintiffs are suing the state to overturn the stand your ground law, saying it was improperly approved as part of a bill on a different subject.
“Parents of Black children and teenagers and Black youth themselves in Ohio … understand, from news media coverage of justified homicide verdicts in cases involving the killing of young Black people, that they face a heightened and substantial risk of being perceived as dangerous and of having their own deaths found to be justified because others see them as a threat,” the lawsuit claims. “The Ohio NAACP … has had to develop and teach strategies for de-escalation of conflict in normal daily activities, including trips to the grocery store, traffic stops, and any place in public that a young Black child or teenager fears that he or she will be killed in an alleged act of self-defense.”
Several studies have shown that homicides rise significantly in states where stand your ground is enacted.
This 2022 study concluded that there is an 8% to 11% national increase in monthly homicide rates and firearm homicides as a result of stand your ground. In Southern states such as Florida, Alabama, Georgia and Louisiana, the increases ranged from 16.2% to 33.5%. A 2017 study analyzing data from 1999 to 2014 in Florida found that after the law took effect there was an “abrupt and sustained increase in the monthly homicide rate of 24.4 percent” and in the rate of homicide caused by firearms of 31.6%.
Further, researchers have found that stand your ground laws exacerbate racial inequities in both who dies of homicide and who is prosecuted for it. For Black people in particular, said University of Chicago professor John K. Roman, “stand your ground” means “more victims and less justice.”
Prosecutors in Ohio say they’ve seen the effects of stand your ground not even two years after it became law. In Cuyahoga County, home to Cleveland, justified homicides rose from 12 in 2021 to 19 in 2022, the first full year the measure was in effect. Prosecutors in Montgomery County, where Dayton is located, say juries found defendants in two separate murder trials not guilty in November and December based on stand your ground.
Most Americans had little familiarity with the concept until after Feb. 26, 2012, when a Black teenager, Trayvon Martin, was shot and killed by George Zimmerman, a 28-year-old white man, in Sanford, Florida. Zimmerman ignored a 911 dispatcher’s directions and followed Martin after claiming the teen looked “suspicious.” Martin was killed after the two became embroiled in an altercation.
Zimmerman, who was a neighborhood-watch coordinator in the townhouse community where he shot Martin, was charged with second-degree murder and claimed self-defense. One member of the jury that acquitted him said that because of stand your ground, Zimmerman “had a right to defend himself” in a fight with Martin.
Martin’s death prompted Roman, who was studying issues of economic justice at the time, to start looking into racial disparities in the criminal justice system.
“Like everybody else, I was watching the coverage of the Trayvon Martin-George Zimmerman case,” Roman said. “And it struck me as incredibly unusual that you would see an older white man shoot and kill a younger black man.”
In an influential 2013 study of stand your ground laws, Roman found what he calls “a profound racial disparity.”
“The race of the shooter and the race of the victim predict in large measure whether the shooting will be found to be justified,” Roman said. “The likelihood that a shooting is found to be justified is 11 times higher if the shooter is white and the victim is Black than if the shooter is Black and the victim is white.”
Another study found that before stand your ground, Black teens between the ages of 15 and 19 in Florida were twice as likely as their white counterparts to be fatally shot. After the law was adopted, Blacks teens were three times as likely to be shot and killed.
The death of 17-year-old Jordan Davis in Florida is an example of what critics of the law feared would become more commonplace.
Michael Dunn, a 45-year-old white man, was arrested on Nov. 23, 2012, after fatally shooting Davis at a Jacksonville gas station. Dunn was bothered by the “heavy bass” coming from the SUV carrying Davis and three of Davis’s friends. Dunn asked the teens to turn down their music, which they did before then turning it back up. Dunn later said that he thought he saw one of the boys with the barrel of a gun and feared for his life. Dunn pulled a pistol from his glove compartment and fired at least eight shots at the boys, who were on their way to a mall to see if they could find some girls to talk to. One shot hit Davis.
Dunn and his fianceé left the scene, ordered pizza, had drinks and fell asleep for the night. After he was arrested a day later, Dunn claimed he shot in self-defense. But he was convicted of first-degree murder and three counts of attempted murder and sentenced to life in prison.
What’s behind the groundswell of stand your ground laws?
Emory’s Anderson, author of The Second: Race and Guns in a Fatally Unequal America, published in 2021, said that stand your ground is the latest in a series of anti-Black American gun laws dating to the 1600s.
“What I saw was a number of laws banning not only the enslaved but free Blacks from having guns and language about that became very clear – that Black people were seen as inherently dangerous and inherently criminal,” she said, “and that the white community had to be protected from these Black folk.
“This Black threat is so deeply embedded in the psyche, in the operating code of American society, that when you have a stand your ground law based on a perceived threat, what you are saying is that Black people are a threat that can be gunned down legally.”
Anderson and other critics say stand your ground laws give too much power to people to make split-second, life-and-death decisions that they aren’t qualified to make.
“And when perception is so racialized, when threat is so racialized, then you have a law that by its very being allows the killing of Black people without consequences,” she said.
Anderson said that research by Stanford psychologist Jennifer Eberhardt shows how dangerous this bias can be. Eberhardt had students look at a screen filled with a flurry of either Black or white faces and asked them to identify blurry images as they came into focus frame by frame. Students who had seen Black faces needed far fewer frames to identify a gun or knife than those who had been shown white faces.
“I see somebody Black and then I see a gun threat,” Anderson said. “I see somebody white, and it’s taken me a little bit longer to figure out that that’s a gun, because white is not the default threat in American society. It doesn’t have the same kind of triggers that put people on high alert.
“And when the perception of threat is Blackness, it basically puts a bull’s-eye on Black people. And all you have to say is, ‘I was afraid.’ ”
Jonathan M. Metzl, a professor of sociology and psychiatry at Vanderbilt University, called stand your ground “a horrible idea” because it relies on people’s implicit biases.
“Once you shoot somebody, there’s no saying, ‘Oh, gosh. I misinterpreted this situation,’ ” said Metzl, author of the 2019 book Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment Is Killing America’s Heartland. “Adding a gun to a situation really ups the ante on those perceptions of threat, which may or may not be real.”
Dean Rieck, executive director of the Buckeye Firearms Association, Ohio’s most influential gun rights group, was dismissive of studies showing an increase in homicides.
“You can find a study to prove anything that you want,” he said. “Very often these studies do not use good sampling or they’re using years where there might be a spike in certain kinds of crime. I just don’t believe those studies.”
As for the disparate impact on Black victims, he said stand your ground shouldn’t be blamed for wider problems. “If there’s bias built into the system, it’s this system,” Rieck said. “It’s not in this particular law.”
Philip Smith, who founded the National African American Gun Association in 2015, said that his group supports on stand your ground even as he acknowledged bias in its impact. “The concern to me is that, if African Americans use stand your ground, will we be treated equally in the legal system,” he said.
The death of Sinzae Reed hasn’t created the same type of national furor as the 2012 killings of Martin or Davis. But activists in Columbus are trying to bring attention to the case.
“I feel like it’s really similar to Travon Martin-George Zimmerman,” civil rights attorney Sean Walton was telling me as we stood outside GRND, a co-working and social space he helped start. “We have a county prosecutor who hasn’t even given us a statement on what his position is, right? Like, why the charges were dropped and what’s gonna happen. So it takes activists and organizers raising awareness, and then outside journalists coming in and covering it to actually make sure stuff happens.”
Sinzae was shot on a warm evening in mid-October. In the months since, police and prosecutors have made no substantive statements about their investigation and it’s not clear what witnesses have told them. But one witness told local journalist Edie Driskill that Sinzae was unarmed. That woman, who isn’t named in a video posted to the Driskell Digest, said that after Butler fired on Sinzae without provocation, he returned to his pickup truck and drove off.
During a protest by the New Black Panther Party at Wedgewood Village last month, a different person said that Butler “returned fire.” That person, who I haven’t been able to identify, said during the Panthers’ event that Sinzae shot indiscriminately at some point before Butler got out of his truck.
Police didn’t find a gun on Sinzae and haven’t said if tests revealed whether he fired a weapon. An autopsy showed that Sinzae was shot once in the chest and once in the right hand.
Wedgewood Village is made up of about 50 three-story, red brick buildings. Calls for police service there have shot up from 1,381 in 2019 before the pandemic to 2,289 in 2022, a 66% increase, said Columbus police spokesman Sgt. David Scarpitti. The Columbus Dispatch reported Wedgewood Village recorded eight homicides in the past two years. In the last quarter of 2022, police crime data show that the area where Sinzae lived was the most violent part of the city.
I tried to piece together what happened between Sinzae and Butler, who works at a local auto body shop. Neither Butler nor any of his family members could be reached for comment. Here’s what I learned:
Around 5 p.m., Megan Reed was cooking dinner. Sinzae told her that he had a cold and she admonished him about sleeping with an open window and the fan on. Shortly afterward, he left the family’s apartment to go outside.
Several people told me that there had been friction in the neighborhood between Butler and some other grown men regarding a bike. Sinzae had been seen with at least two of the men before the shooting.
One witness told Reed that Butler drove by Sinzae and the men in front of the building where he lived in the 800 block of Wedgewood Drive. He then parked his pickup truck in a space near the side of the building. At about 5:45 p.m., Butler stepped out of his truck. The area was teeming with people, including kids returning home from after-school programs and parents arriving to pick them up.
Butler came around the building, saw Sinzae and started firing, according to what one witness told the local journalist. Sinzae fell to the ground, and Butler got back in his truck and drove off.
“I was still in the kitchen, and they were knocking on the door, banging on the door, saying Sinzae got shot,” Reed told me. “I ran out the door and I went over there and some girl – she ran up to me and she was like, ‘Sinzae is still breathing. Sinzae is still breathing.’
“As soon as I got over there, the police asked for Sinzae’s name and mine and everybody was coming up to me saying, ‘We know who did it. We know who did it,’ ” she said. “And [they] told me Krieg’s name and last name.”
Sinzae was taken by ambulance to the OhioHealth Doctors Hospital.
“When we got there, they took us to a little room and as soon as they took us back there, I already knew it was bad news,” Reed recalled. “The doctor came in. She told me that he got shot once in the chest and it wasn’t looking good. So I told her that I just wanted to go to talk to him.
“It was me, my mom, both my sisters. She said we could go in there, that it looked bad in there. As soon as we got in there, they called the time of death.”
Sinzae, Reed’s second son, was born on Aug. 17, 2009. Her first child, Sincere, was 4 at the time. Two years after Sinzae’s birth, Megan had a daughter, who she named Sinmeiauna.
“Sincere’s dad named him and I just went off of that,” Reed said when asked about the inspiration for her kids’ names. “And then I made Sinzae’s name up. And then I made her name up.”
The three children were close. Sinzae, also known as “Zay,” and Sincere would sit on the steps of their apartment building for hours and rap, family members said. Sinzae especially felt the need protect his sister. Once, he learned that four classmates tried to bully her. “He said, ‘I’ll fight all four of them,’ ” Sinmeiauna, 11, told me, beaming with pride over how her brother offered to stand up for her.
At 5-feet-10 and 128 pounds, Sinzae was a good athlete although he didn’t participate on any organized sports teams. Sinzae, who was being homeschooled, was thinking of taking up boxing but Reed had reservations. “I was scared to get him into that because of how small he was,” she said. “And he said he wanted to play football, too, but I was scared because he was so small.”
What Sinzae’s family and friends remember most was his sense of humor. His mom’s wiener dog was one of his favorite targets for jokes.
“He said I needed to get a real dog,” Reed recalled with a laugh.
Two local activists, Dejuan Sharp and Ramon Obey II, have organized protests, spoken at a city council meeting and started a petition asking for the removal of the county prosecutors, the arrest of Butler, an apology from the city and a Department of Justice investigation.
“From what we currently know, Sinzae was not the aggressor,” Obey told me. “Krieg Butler had the opportunity to leave because he was in his truck.”
“If Sinzae had a gun, they would’ve said that in the beginning,” Sharp said. “They would’ve said that on the first police report. But they charged him with murder and gave Krieg a $1 million bond and sent the people hunters out to get him. Not the regular police, the people hunters, the SWAT team.”
Social media has been the main way the activists have spread information on the case. Rap artist Cardi B mentioned the case in an Instagram story. Sharp appeared on an ABC News segment with Reed.
Not all attention has been embraced.
On the afternoon of Feb. 11, two dozen people from the New Black Panther Party and a militia called the Not F—ing Around Coalition showed up on Wedgewood Drive, dressed in black and carrying long guns. Reed hadn’t invited them and some residents asked them to take their swagger and their rifles and leave.
“We got kids out here,” Wedgwood Village resident Ashley Walker said with emotion. “My daughter is 3 years old. How are y’all protesting when y’all got big a– guns? Y’all not stopping s—.”
Another woman who identified herself to me as Shae, 26, also confronted the Panthers.
“Y’all got our kids scared,” Shae said. “We know it ain’t safe, and we live here.”
But not everyone felt that way. One young man, wearing a red hoodie and yellow skully hat, supported the Panthers. “We need them here,” he said. “They’re here to help us.”
Mmoja Ajabu, who identified himself as the Panthers’ elder and national spokesperson, apologized to the crowd of about 50 residents for showing up four months after Sinzae was killed. He said his group has been going all over the country to confront injustices against Black folks.
“Understand that it’s better to be late than to be never,” said Ajabu, who was the only Panther not strapped with a gun. “This is not the only place that things are happening. We just left Memphis, where they beat a brother down.”
The protest lasted almost two hours. Toward the end, Reed emerged on a sidewalk not far from the Panthers. She and her sisters observed what was going on for about 15 minutes before walking to a car parked in the same lot where Butler was parked before Sinzae was shot.
Reed started a GoFundMe page that raised a few thousand dollars, part of which she’s used to move out of Wedgewood Village. She hopes to raise enough money to hire a lawyer to do her own investigation of what happened to Sinzae.
“People say that I’m strong,” she said when we talked in Sharp’s apartment the day before the protest. “But I think I just don’t have an option because I have other kids and I got to take care of them.”
She wiped away a tear that had come rushing down her face.
“Like I tell everybody, Sinzae is not here – so I’m his voice now.”