The tragic death of 17 year-old Trayvon Martin at the hands of self-appointed “neighborhood watchman” George Zimmerman has reignited the debate over Florida’s so-called “Stand Your Ground” law. The law, passed with a bi-partisan vote and signed by then Gov. Jeb Bush in 2005 at the behest of the National Rifle Association, is described by its proponents as allowing people to defend themselves when attacked.
The sponsor of the bill in the Florida House, Rep. Dennis Baxley (R-Ocala) has defended his law using this line of reasoning. From his article defending the law in today’s New York Times:
The Stand Your Ground law, as passed, clarified that individuals are lawfully able to defend themselves when attacked and there is no duty to retreat when an individual is attacked on his property. Since its enactment, 20 other states have implemented similar statues. Additionally, the American Legislative Exchange Council used the Florida law as model legislation for other states. Quite simply it is a good law that now protects individuals in most states.
But media reports about Trayvon Martin’s death indicate that Zimmerman’s unnecessary pursuit and confrontation of Martin elevated the prospect of a violent episode, and does not seem to be an act of self defense as defined by the law.
This has been and continues to be the argument of those who continue to support the so-called “Stand Your Ground law” – that it can’t possibly apply to George Zimmerman’s actions and that public anger is misplaced. Those who are making this argument – including Rep. Baxley – seem not to have read the actual law. Thankfully, Adam Winkler, a professor of law at UCLA, actually took the time to read the law and as he points out in today’s New York Times(emphasis mine):
Florida legislators, however, insist the Stand Your Ground law does not provide a defense for people like Zimmerman, who pursue and confront someone. Florida Senator Durrell Peadon, who sponsored the law, said that Zimmerman “has no protection under my law.” According to state Representative Dennis Baxley, “There’s nothing in this statute that authorizes you to pursue and confront people.” The law, Baxley notes, was designed only “to prevent you from being attacked by other people.”
The problem is that nothing in Peadon and Baxley’s law says this. It provides that any person may use deadly force when “he or she reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another.” So long as someone reasonably thinks he or someone else is in danger, he can shoot to kill, regardless of whether the shooter is the one who initiated the hostile confrontation.
Indeed, given the law’s authorization of the use of deadly force to protect other people and, as the law also provides, “to prevent the imminent commission of a forcible felony,” Florida’s law unambiguously authorizes people to pursue and confront others. Whatever the merits of standing your ground when personally threatened, Florida’s law goes much further and encourages vigilantism. It tells people, who today are increasingly likely to be carrying concealed weapons, that they can pretend to be police officers and use their guns to protect and serve the broader public.
Unsurprisingly, like most legislation we see from the extreme right, the name of this law is poll tested and marketed for maximum persuasive effect. A lot of people, including well-intentioned progressives, are falling for this branding trap hook, line, and sinker. I admit I did as well at first. But in truth, “Stand Your Ground” has nothing to do with standing your ground and everything to do with allowing citizens to appoint themselves arms of the law. It’s “Shoot First” vigilantism, not self defense, and until this law is changed it’s only a matter of time before the next tragedy.
Furthermore, the dispute over Florida’s “Shoot First” law extends beyond the tragic death of Trayvon Martin at the hands of George Zimmerman. Since this law was enacted in 2005, the number of “justifiable homicides” has skyrocketed an estimated 300%.
(Source: Data issued by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement)
We must look beyond this statistic however, and understand some of the ramifications this law has had on everyday Floridians. From Susan Clary’s column in today’s Florida Voices:
- Two men argue whether a teenager should be allowed to skateboard in a Tampa park. The fight ends with one man shooting the other dead in front of his 8-year-old daughter.
- A 15-year-old died after two gangs brawled in Tallahassee, leaving no one accountable for his death.
- A man shot and killed two people during an altercation aboard a 35-foot sailboat anchored near Riviera Beach.
- A driver attacked and killed another with an ice pick during a road rage incident.
- The owner of a towing company killed a man he claimed tried to run him over while retrieving his car from an impound lot.
- A car salesman shot another man in a barroom argument over cigarettes.
- A decorated Army veteran and father of two was killed outside his elderly mother’s Cape Coral home after a neighbor mistook him for a thief.
- A drunken Land ‘O Lakes man was shot, but not killed, after he mistakenly tried the door at the wrong house in his neighborhood.
- A man chased and killed a burglar in Miami and successfully claimed self-defense, though he shot the man in the back.
The stories go on. How many are needed to admit this law is a grave mistake?
We can only hope that the massive public outcry for justice in the wake of Trayvon Martin’s unnecessary and tragic death will lead to the end of Florida’s “Shoot First” law. It’s long past time to reign in the legal vigilantism this law allows, save lives, and allow our democratic system of justice to work.