Thursday, December 14, 2017
Public safety

Sue Carlton: The worst of 'stand your ground'

Seems inevitable, since this is Florida, that we find ourselves in the thick of the deadly result of our homegrown "stand your ground'' law. The shooting in Sanford has gone global for how outrageously unjust it appears to be, but it may also have been perfectly legal, given the sorry state of our state law.

A neighborhood watch captain follows and shoots a black teenager who turns out to be armed with nothing but a bag of Skittles and a can of tea and is not charged. But even with the growing demand for answers, the man with the weapon could well be protected from state prosecution under the kind of bad gun law we like to pass around here.

It's practically a tradition: Guns locked in your car at work? A pistol on your hip at the local 7-Eleven? A law that says you can shoot if you feel threatened? Sure, Florida legislators who cater to the gun lobby can come up with a bill for that!

About this law: Stand your ground says you can shoot (or otherwise use deadly force with a bat, a knife, a fist) if you feel threatened with death or great bodily harm. You have no obligation to back off or retreat to safety, even if you can. Call us a Shoot-First-And-Ask-Questions-Later state.

For the record, this has nothing to do with your right to use deadly force on someone about to shoot you. And for the record, before this we did not have a spate of goodly citizens unjustly jailed for protecting themselves. It just didn't happen.

Stand your ground has been cited as why police did not charge George Zimmerman with shooting Trayvon Martin, who was walking back after buying a snack at the local convenience store. It's exactly the kind of worst-case scenario contemplated by those who opposed the law in the first place.

That Zimmerman apparently followed Martin even after a 911 dispatcher said he shouldn't, that allegations surfaced that he may have used a racial slur, that Martin had no gun — none of this may matter under the law.

Often in these cases, the survivor is the lone witness and so the last word on what happened. If he says he was threatened, if he thought a canned drink was a weapon, he could be covered, even if the story reads wrong to the rest of us.

Some legal analysis: The law does require that the shooter be acting lawfully at the time. If investigators determine that Zimmerman was committing, for instance, the crime of assault by threatening Martin or pointing a gun at him, the protection of stand your ground may not apply. Investigators fresh on the case will also no doubt look at whether it was "reasonable," as the law says, for Zimmerman to believe he was endangered.

So does this law embolden people? Think road rages that escalate to tragedy and bar brawls that could have ended in no more than bruises. A Tampa Bay Times investigation identified 130 stand-your-ground cases since this became law in 2005, with 74 people cleared of wrongdoing. Reports of "justifiable homicides" have tripled. Also troubling: The law is applied differently depending on where in Florida you are.

The good news is a special state prosecutor is on the case and federal authorities are looking at the possibility of a civil rights violation or a hate crime.

But those who support stand your ground will use words like "reasonably" and "lawfully" to ignore its fatal flaws and say: See? Not such a bad law after all.

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