An overhaul of Iowa’s gun laws earlier this year included a controversial "stand your ground" provision. It means an individual who feels threatened has no duty to retreat before using deadly force for self-defense.
Gun rights groups consider the change a victory for gun owners, but the ripple effects of similar laws in other states have raised concerns among black Iowans. Some African-American residents of Waterloo are still grappling with what the "stand your ground" law could mean for themselves, their families and young people of color.
Rep. Ras Smith says when the "stand your ground" law passed, he saw fear among some black residents of Waterloo.
"What we found is people would say ‘why.’", he said. "Why did we need that, why did we need to expand this? And then there was concern about my son walks the streets, my son wears hoodies, my son looks like this, my son dresses like that. Or my daughter goes to this school. Maybe we should move. Or maybe I need to have a gun because I’m afraid."
Smith—a gun owner and hunter—wore a hoodie when he argued against the "stand your ground" provision in the Iowa Legislature. Now that it is law, he says he is focusing on bringing the level of fear down and educating people in his community about what the law means.
"I don’t think this is going to become the Wild Wild West. I don’t believe that," Smith says. "But I do believe we’ll have situations in which innocent people may lose their lives because of somebody’s estimation of a threat."
Under Iowa’s "stand your ground" law, a person with a licensed gun can use deadly force if they believe they’re facing imminent death, serious injury, rape, kidnapping or robbery—even if there’s a safe way to escape the situation. And a homicide can be found justified in cases when the shooter turns out to be wrong about the level of threat.
"It is open-ended, right? Each individual decides when they get to stand their ground based on their own individual premise, their own individual experiences—maybe bias, good or bad—even the way they think about certain individuals," Smith says.
And Smith says implicit bias and the idea that black and Latino men and boys are threatening is ingrained in American society. He is also worried the "stand your ground" law might lead to more violence in general, regardless of the race of the people involved.
Research on "stand your ground" laws in other states backs up those concerns. A study by the American Bar Association in 2015 found "stand your ground" states experienced an increase in homicides and that the application of the laws results in racial disparities.
Belinda Creighton-Smith is a pastor in Waterloo, and she organized a town hall meeting after a mother came to her with concerns about the new "stand your ground" law.
Creighton-Smith says historically, people of color have had to tell their sons to never act in a way that might be misinterpreted as threatening. That can include playing loud music and slouching down in a car. Iowa’s adoption of a "stand your ground" law makes that even more urgent.
"What I’m telling young people now is if you’re at Wal-Mart and you’re in the parking lot, make sure that you’re in the parking lot alone," Creighton-Smith says. "Don’t be too close behind someone who’s walking to their car and their car just happens to be near your car, because they may feel that you’re a threat and that you’re following them."
Creighton-Smith says it’s not fair, but it is a reality people of color live with.
"And I’d rather be overly cautious than have to bury a son, or a friend of a son, or relative, or church member, or community member, anybody, because they were mistaken for being somebody who they were not, simply because of the color of their skin," Creighton-Smith says.
The left-leaning thinktank Urban Institute analyzed FBI data and found "stand your ground" homicides were ruled justified in 35 percent of white-on-black shootings. Only about 3 percent of black-on-white shootings were ruled justified.
Michael Robinson, a family advocate at Four Oaks in Waterloo and Dubuque, has a lot of questions about how that gets decided. He wonders how a person who has experienced trauma may perceive a threat, and how they might be treated in court.
"If they choose to stand their ground, is it justified? And who determines the justification of it all?" Robinson asks. "Who determines his fear, his trauma, does that weigh into the effect of the actual danger that someone perceives themselves to be in? Who determines that?"
Those are questions that will ultimately be answered in Iowa courts.
In the meantime, Rep. Smith and others in Waterloo are teaching young people what their rights are, and are not, under the new "stand your ground" law.