Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” Law: Not Guilty? (July 15, 2013)

Unless you’ve been hiding in a cave the last 48 hours (and given an increasingly depressing news cycle, who could blame you?), you’ve heard the news. Florida’s George Zimmerman was acquitted of the charge of second degree murder in the February 26, 2012 shooting death of 17 year-old high school student Trayvon Martin. A six-person, all-female jury found the prosecution unable to create reasonable doubt around the self-defense argument, and this was compelling enough to return a “not guilty” verdict.

If you spent any amount of time on Twitter over the last two days (full disclosure: I don’t tweet and never will), you might be tempted to confuse “not guilty” with “innocent,” but such is certainly not the case. No one, not even George Zimmerman, claims that Trayvon’s young life was brought to a premature end by another’s gun. No one disputes that the two men struggled during an altercation precipitated by the armed, hypervigilant chase of Zimmerman, even as 911 dispatchers cautioned him to relinquish pursuit. Not a soul contends that Martin was himself armed with more than a package of Skittles and a beverage on that fateful night.

A nation weary of gun violence, divergent police response in relation to ethnicity, and fearful of the implications of the verdict on the safety of young black men has come largely together to bemoan a miscarriage of justice. The problem, however, is that as current Florida law stands, the verdict was right on the money. And if we wish not to open a Pandora’s Box of similar tragedies, a growing gang of armed vigilantes deciding for themselves that any sort of perceived threat is license to open fire, we must focus our attention on repealing the law that begat this catastrophe.

In the interest of unedited disclosure, I am reprinting the terms of the Florida statute (“Stand Your Ground”) in full:

Home protection; use of deadly force; presumption of fear of death or great bodily harm.—
(1) A person is presumed to have held a reasonable fear of imminent peril of death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another when using defensive force that is intended or likely to cause death or great bodily harm to another if:
(a) The person against whom the defensive force was used was in the process of unlawfully and forcefully entering, or had unlawfully and forcibly entered, a dwelling, residence, or occupied vehicle, or if that person had removed or was attempting to remove another against that person’s will from the dwelling, residence, or occupied vehicle; and
(b) The person who uses defensive force knew or had reason to believe that an unlawful and forcible entry or unlawful and forcible act was occurring or had occurred.
(2) The presumption set forth in subsection (1) does not apply if:
(a) The person against whom the defensive force is used has the right to be in or is a lawful resident of the dwelling, residence, or vehicle, such as an owner, lessee, or titleholder, and there is not an injunction for protection from domestic violence or a written pretrial supervision order of no contact against that person; or
(b) The person or persons sought to be removed is a child or grandchild, or is otherwise in the lawful custody or under the lawful guardianship of, the person against whom the defensive force is used; or
(c) The person who uses defensive force is engaged in an unlawful activity or is using the dwelling, residence, or occupied vehicle to further an unlawful activity; or
(d) The person against whom the defensive force is used is a law enforcement officer, as defined in s. 943.10(14), who enters or attempts to enter a dwelling, residence, or vehicle in the performance of his or her official duties and the officer identified himself or herself in accordance with any applicable law or the person using force knew or reasonably should have known that the person entering or attempting to enter was a law enforcement officer.
(3) A person who is not engaged in an unlawful activity and who is attacked in any other place where he or she has a right to be has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.
(4) A person who unlawfully and by force enters or attempts to enter a person’s dwelling, residence, or occupied vehicle is presumed to be doing so with the intent to commit an unlawful act involving force or violence.
(5) As used in this section, the term:
(a) “Dwelling” means a building or conveyance of any kind, including any attached porch, whether the building or conveyance is temporary or permanent, mobile or immobile, which has a roof over it, including a tent, and is designed to be occupied by people lodging therein at night.
(b) “Residence” means a dwelling in which a person resides either temporarily or permanently or is visiting as an invited guest.
(c) “Vehicle” means a conveyance of any kind, whether or not motorized, which is designed to transport people or property.

If we cut through the legislative and legal jargon, what Florida’s law means in absolute practice is that an armed individual need only suspect possible illegal activity in relation to another’s personal property before drawing their weapon. And upon engaging the suspected perpetrator, if the investigating party feels at any time that their person or life is in jeopardy, they may proceed to open fire without the risk of prosecution.

In other words, any lay person with a gun in the Sunshine State is deputized and fully invested with the authority to check into malfeasance, and put an end to it with no training other than the guide of gut and emotions. The surprise then, is not that Zimmerman was found “not guilty” of second degree murder, but that he was even charged in the first place.

And indeed, local authorities initially declined to press charges before public furor erupted, rendering the possibility of doing nothing so much PR hari kari.

And exactly who do we have to thank for the increasing prevalence of “Stand Your Ground” type laws, which now exist in some form in 24 U.S. States? The gun lobby of course, more specifically the NRA, which occupies its usual place at the intersection of Second Amendment overreach and the compromise of public safety. Permit me to quote from a March 31, 2012 ABC News story: “Do a quick search for ‘Stand Your Ground’ on the National Rifle Association’s website and the first video result features the story of a Florida man exonerated of murder charges in January 2012 under the State’s ‘Stand Your Ground’ law.”

Writer Michael Ono goes on to observe: “The pro-gun group championed the passage of the original law in Florida back in 2004 and lobbied to pass similar legislation in other states, according to the Center for Public Integrity. In light of the recent controversy, the NRA has stalled its lobbying efforts in to pass the law in Alaska, according to Bloomberg News.”

The NRA has long been aware of the emotion of fear as a great motivator, and in most cases, the motivation is increased gun sales. When will we as a nation get wise to the truth? Though the NRA membership includes thousands of sane, law-abiding citizens who are safely in observance of their Constitutional rights, the Association’s bureaucratic and lobbying arms are not reflective of these ideals. Were I a gun owner myself, I might consider it high time to withhold my annual dues until Wayne LaPierre and his ilk get out of the business of state sanctioned death as a method of increasing sales.

George Zimmerman: “not guilty,” according to strict tenets of the law maybe, but by no means innocent. The NRA and “Stand Your Ground” laws: Zimmerman’s accomplices with Trayvon Martin’s blood all over their hands.

Stand Your Ground Is Unsound: The Data Speaks (May 14, 2015)

Stand Your Ground

Earlier this month, Robert J. Spitzer, a political scientist at SUNY Cortland, and author of the new book Guns Across America: Reconciling Gun Rules and Rights, wrote a guest Op-Ed for The New York Times. Entitled “Stand Your Ground Makes No Sense,” Spitzer leverages a variety of hard data to put forth what is to most sensible people, a fairly logical conclusion: “Not only have these laws failed to increase public safety, they have also turned the clock back to the mythologized mayhem of the Wild West.”

National Rifle Association CEO Wayne LaPierre famously said at aDecember 2012 press conference, “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun, is a good guy with a gun.” No matter how many times I hearken back to the statement’s context – the aftermath of the tragic Newtown, Connecticut school shooting – it remains as cynical and jarring as ever. Using the death of small children as an opportunity to advance the NRA’s mission to militarize every corner of the country, LaPierre called for an initiative to “put armed police officers in every single school in this nation.”

But what happens when overly permissive gun laws benefit the bad guys? What do we do when presented with solid proof that our regulations codify murder, racial profiling and render all of us less safe? What if instead of “thwart[ing] these monsters,” as LaPierre insists is the result of laxer laws, we are instead empowering them?

Well that’s precisely the argument Spitzer offers, using metrics and research put forth by such disparate entities as The Tampa Bay Times, The Wall Street Journal, Texas A&M University, the National Bureau of Economic Research and the Urban Institute. In specifically evaluating the various state Stand Your Ground laws that achieved cultural ubiquity with the February 2012 killing of the young, black and unarmed Trayvon Martin by self-styled vigilante George Zimmerman, the conclusion is clear as daylight. Per Spitzer, “Nearly 60 percent of those making self-defense claims when a person was killed had been arrested at least once before; a third of those had been accused of violent crimes in the past; over a third had illegally carried guns in the past or had threatened others with them.”

In short, the guys and girls amped up on NRA propaganda, armed to the teeth and ready to shoot, are themselves most often the danger. Spitzer writes, “In 79 percent of the [Stand Your Ground] cases, the assailant could have retreated to avoid the confrontation. In 68 percent, the person killed was unarmed.”

And what’s more, though we need to do little more than turn on the cable news to confirm the trend, “In Stand Your Ground states, justifiable shooting results ranged from 3 to 15 percent…When the shooter was white and the victim black, 36 percent were ruled justified.” Legal rulings notwithstanding, the numbers are clear. In Stand Your Ground territory, the victim is more likely to be a person of color when the shooter is white.

The mass slaughter of private citizens, including children. The legitimacy of race-based hunting. The genocide of unarmed men and women. Say ye what you like Second Amendment zealots, but this IS NOT what the Bill of Rights intended. Once more with pure academic spirit, let’s revisit the literal wording of the Constitutional revision:
“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

There’s nothing “well regulated” about an angry white mob of uncoordinated, often untrained, sometimes criminally convicted civilians off firing away at the “other.” What Second Amendment fanatics often forget (by choice) is that Stand Your Ground laws deprive others of the unalienable rights asserted in theDeclaration of Independence. Remember “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness?” And before you even start right wing trolls, I am not advocating for a complete suppression of gun culture. Whether or not I’m a fan (not), I respect our differences. But Stand Your Ground Laws are a proven cover for unjustified murder. The data is there. These laws need to go. Now.