Published April 18th, 2023 at 6:00 AM
On Monday, Clay County prosecutors announced charges against 84-year-old Andrew Lester, a white man accused in the shooting of 16-year-old Ralph Yarl. The teenager, who is Black, had knocked on Lester’s door Thursday night after he went to the wrong house to pick up his siblings.
Zachary Thompson, the prosecuting attorney, was asked if Missouri’s controversial “Stand Your Ground” gun law, which gives broad latitude for someone to use deadly force in self-defense, could apply as the case against Lester proceeds.
“I don’t want to comment on the specifics of the case in order to protect the integrity of the process,” Thompson said during a press conference Monday.
But on Sunday, before charges were filed, Kansas City Police Chief Stacey Graves said the department was at the time investigating whether the state’s “Stand Your Ground” law may be a factor in the case.
Amid questions and criticisms over why Lester was questioned and released by police immediately after the shooting, Clay County prosecutors charged the homeowner with assault in the first degree and armed criminal action. Yarl was released from a hospital Monday and is recovering at home from a reported skull fracture and other injuries. According to documents in the case, Lester responded to Yarl’s knock by shooting through a glass door, hitting the teenager in the head. After Yarl fell, Lester shot him again and hit his arm.
The shooting in Kansas City’s Northland has commanded national attention. Yarl’s family has retained high-profile lawyers Benjamin Crump and Lee Merritt.
As the case progresses, one factor that may come into play is Missouri’s Stand Your Ground law, which allows the use of deadly force as long as the shooter believes that firing a gun is a necessary act to protect oneself or someone else. Shooting suspects must prove their claim of self-defense to prosecutors.
Stand Your Ground was enacted in Missouri in 2017, after Republican supermajorities in the Missouri General Assembly voted to override then-Gov. Jay Nixon’s veto of a sweeping gun bill.
By one measure, Missouri is ranked 38th for its gun safety policies. In 2020, it was ranked fourth nationwide for its gun deaths, according to Centers for Disease Control data.
Chapter 563, Section 031 in Missouri’s statute says that under Stand Your Ground, a person may use deadly force on public or private property or “any other location such person has the right to be,” if they believe it is necessary to protect themselves or another against death, serious physical injury or a forcible felony. The law was enacted as part of the omnibus gun bill that also allowed Missourians to carry concealed weapons without a permit and eliminated training requirements for concealed carry.
In a major change to previous law, the 2016 legislation eliminates the “duty to retreat,” meaning a person is no longer expected to try to leave a potentially dangerous situation before resorting to lethal force.
Missouri’s Stand Your Ground law was opposed by the state Police Chiefs Association and Missouri Fraternal Order of Police. Sly James, then the mayor of Kansas City, joined the mayors of St. Louis and other larger cities in voicing concerns. Catholic bishops in Missouri opposed the expansion of gun rights, as did gun safety groups.
The National Rifle Association made the law a priority, sending lobbyists to Jefferson City to help persuade Republican legislators to override Nixon’s veto. The Missouri Sheriffs’ Association also supported the expanded gun provisions, including Stand Your Ground.
Homicide rates have increased in Missouri since 2016, but it is difficult to isolate the Stand Your Ground law from other measures encouraging firearm ownership and use, and from other factors. The Rand Corp. concluded in a study this year that “evidence that stand-your-ground laws may increase total homicide rates is moderate, and evidence that such laws may increase firearm homicide rates is supportive.”
“Stand your ground” laws, however, lead to heightened concerns about the role of race in public safety and criminal justice.
A paper from the Urban Institute, a nonprofit think tank dedicated to social equity, analyzed FBI data and found that in states with “stand your ground” laws, the use of defense by white people in the shooting of a Black person is found to be justifiable 17% of the time, compared to a 1% justifiable rate if the roles were reversed.
St. Louis Rep. Peter Merideth, who has tried for years to pass tougher gun control legislation, pointed to the data that Black people are far more likely to be impacted by “stand your ground” statutes than others.
“It’s hard to ignore the racial element of it, which we talk about all the time when it comes to gun laws and this whole ‘shoot first’ mentality,” Merideth said. “It seems to constantly victimize Black folks more than anyone else, because of this subjective idea of being afraid for your life and being entitled to shoot first.”
Before Missouri passed Stand Your Ground, it had in place a common law principle called castle doctrine, which says that individuals have the right to use deadly force to protect themselves against intruders in their homes.
In recent years, states have expanded the castle doctrine principle with laws that include “stand your ground” language. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 28 states, including Missouri, now specify that gun holders have no duty to retreat from an attacker.
This article first appeared on The Beacon and is republished here under a Creative Commons license. The story has been updated to reflect the charges issued by Clay County prosecutors on Monday evening. Meg Cunningham is the Missouri Statehouse reporter for The Beacon, which is a member of the KC Media Collective.