Opinion: Stand Your Ground? More like Shoot First, Think Later

by Shelby Powers

In 2005, Florida enacted Statute776.013, better known as the “Stand Your Ground Law,” allowing “Home protection; use of deadly force; presumption of fear of death or great bodily harm (Florida). This partnered with Statute776.032, which provides to those who use the aforementioned deadly force:Immunity from criminal prosecution and civil action for justifiable use of force,” has created quite the controversy (Florida). Twenty five other states soon followed suit, but Florida has received the most publicity in regard to the results of the law.  The sunshine state is home to the cases of neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman shooting and killing seventeen year old Trayvon Martin last year and in a different incident, Michael Dunn shooting into a car full of teenagers, killing seventeen year old Jordan Davis, after a dispute about the teenagers playing loud music.  What these cases have in common is that both Zimmerman and Dunn were not convicted of murder under the protection of the Stand Your Ground Law. Supporters laud the legislation as a second amendment victory, protecting the innocent and scaring off criminals with the knowledge that their victims have the legal right to shoot them without consequence. However, the negatives of such laws outweigh the positives, and these laws encourage the use of deadly force and create a culture of unwarranted vigilantism and paranoia. 

One of the groups that played a large role in the initial passage of Florida’s stand your ground statute, and continues to influence the expansion of similar laws around the United States, is the National Rifle Association, or the NRA. This organization and its supporters see self-defense as a basic human right, “…founded in common sense, natural law, and [sic] well enshrined in American jurisprudence” (Cox).  The NRA emphasizes the distinction between previous self-defense laws and the current stand your ground law as “recognizing that a person who is attacked in any place where that person has the right to be, may use defensive force without first being required to retreat” (Cox).

Stand your ground laws create difficulty for judges and juries, leading to inconsistent court outcomes. This inconsistency is evident in the Tampa Bay Times documentation of nearly 200 cases in which stand your ground claims were asserted; 70% of the time the claims were dismissed, but according to the Times, “defendants initiated the fight, shot an unarmed person, pursued their victim – and still went free” (Cook).   All power is given to the gun holder; he or she decides whether they have “reasonable fear” of being in harm’s way in order to warrant his or her right to shoot as opposed to retreating from the dangerous situation. This affirmation of “reasonable fear” allows the gun holder to be the judge, jury, and witness of a situation all in one.  The Editorial Board of the Washington Post explains this shift from traditional legal practices: “Before Stand Your Ground laws, police and law enforcement officials assessed whether a ‘reasonable person’ would have resorted to the level of violence used to thwart an attack; the new law turns that standard on its head and immunizes an individual from criminal charges if he asserts that he had a ‘reasonable’ fear of grave harm” (Editorial Board). Since law enforcement previously assessed situations for the right for self-defense, the Stand Your Ground laws are unnecessary. Along with being unnecessary, the law does not deter, but appears to foster crime: Texas A&M economists Cheng Cheng and Mark Hoestra found in a study that the laws “lead to a statistically significant 8 percent increase in the number of reported murders and non negligent manslaughters” (Cheng and Hoestra).

This law’s dependence on self determined “reasonable fear,” unfortunately plays into racially charged stereotypes. “Even if unintended when enacted, “stand your ground” suffers from enormous misunderstanding and consequently, mistrust,” and this mistrust tends to be aimed at a specific demographic (O’Mara). A startling similarity between the Zimmerman and Dunn cases is that both of their victims were young, black males. According to a Tampa Bay Times study of nearly 200 cases where Stand Your Ground claims were made, “Defendants claiming “stand your ground” are more likely to prevail if the victim is black. Seventy-three percent of those who killed a black person faced no penalty compared to 59 percent of those who killed a white” (Hundley, Martin, and Humberg). Such difference cannot be ignored in a law that is intended to provide equal protection to all.

While laws are intended to provide equal protection, the stand your ground laws have successfully protected people other than the innocent victims for whom it is intended; in cases of drug deals gone awry, gang fights fought with AK-47 assault rifles, and even a car chase, shooters have received immunity. One surprisingly successful defendant fell into the water while fighting a man on a dock, and shot the other man as he exited the water. Another man in Citrus County, Florida shot his neighbor, with whom he had a longstanding dispute, in the back and was still granted immunity, despite the evidence on the body and a witness claim. In the aforementioned gang fight, two men fired an AK-47 assault rifle 25-30 times at a fifteen year old boy, but were still granted immunity because their attorneys claimed that they had the right to be there and it could not be proved that they fired first (Hundley, Martin, and Humberg).

One of the reasons that stand your ground laws have been received with support from many is because they manipulate and speak to the basic human emotion of fear. People fear that they will be harmed by others, so they seek out methods through which to prevent this harm. People fear that law enforcement cannot protect them, so they take matters into their own hands. People fear people with guns, so they buy their own guns. This last fear is amped up by stand your ground laws, and “provides a perverse incentive for everyone to be armed” (Dionne). With everyone armed, the country is at risk of becoming a ‘Wild West’ vigilante society. Coincidently, The NRA, who so adamantly lobbied for stand your ground laws, will be swelling with new gun-owning members to fund even more extreme campaigns. Journalist E.J Dionne suggests that perhaps the next NRA backed statute could be “to arm 10 year olds to make our schools safer…” (Dionne).

Stand your ground laws should not be completely repealed because people should have a right to defend themselves, although if possible they should retreat instead of shooting immediately. However, the laws need to be amended in order to eliminate situations like the ones currently in Florida. For example, a statute could prevent claims of self-defense immunity in cases where the defendants are involved in illegal activity while “standing his or her ground”, using an automatic assault rifle, or even perhaps if the provoker of reasonable fear/victim has bullet holes or stab wounds in their back that indicate an attempt to flee the scene. While a third of stand your ground defendants use weapons other than guns, tighter gun legislation would balance the law as well (Hundley, Martin, and Humberg.). Conceal carry permits should be more difficult to obtain; available only with testing similar to that necessary to get a driver’s license. More time should be allotted for background checks to ensure their thoroughness and to prevent potentially dangerous people like George Zimmerman, who had “…previously been arrested for police assault and had a history of domestic violence,” from receiving permits (Cook).

The greatest issue with stand your ground laws is that they infringe upon the rights of one person in order to defend the rights of another, creating an ambiguous “he said she said” situation impossible for courts to accurately and consistently assess. Any law that provides immunity for action that would otherwise be considered homicide has no place in the American justice system. The old nineteenth century legal adage “Your right to swing your arms ends just where the other man’s nose begins,” is still relevant today in regard to the stand your ground law debate. Americans undoubtedly have the right to self-defense and the right to bear arms, but when the enjoyment of these rights lead to the extremes of killing another in the name of paranoia, racism or manipulating the law to avoid incarceration, they have gone much too far past “the nose” of another citizen.

Sources:

Cheng, Cheng and Mark  Hoestra. “Does Strengthening Self-Defense Law Deter Crime or  Escalate Violence?” Journal of Human Resources. 2013, 48 (3): 821-854. Texas A&M University, 2013. Web. 5 March 2014.

Cook, Philip J. “Why Stand Your Ground Laws Are Dangerous.” Scholars Strategy Network.Scholars Strategy Network, August 2013. Web. 3 March 2014.

Cox, Chris. “Self Defense is a Human Right.” US News.  US News, 9 Aug. 2012. Web. 4 March  2014.

Dionne, E.J. Jr., “Why the NRA pushes ‘Stand Your Ground’.” The Washington Post. TheWashington Post Company, 15 April 2012. Web. 2 March 2014.

Florida. The Florida Legislature. Justifiable Uses of Force, The. 776-.013-.032 (2013). Web. 5 March 2014.

Editorial Board. “A rise in homicides after ‘Stand Your Ground’.” Washington Post. 29 March 2012. Web. 2 Mar. 2014.

Hundley, Kris, Susan Taylor Martin, and Connie Humberg. “Florida ‘stand your ground’ law yields some shocking outcomes depending on how law is applied.” Tampa Bay Times.  1 June 2012. Web. 5 Mar. 2014.

O’Mara, Mark. “It’s Not About Stand Your Ground, It’s About Race.”  cnn.com. CNN, 19 Feb.2014. Web. 4 Mar. 2014.

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