Tuesday, January 16, 2018
Editorials

Law can't be a license to kill

It is an inconvenient truth for former Gov. Jeb Bush and the state lawmakers who brought Florida the "stand your ground" law in 2005 that it applies even when the person using deadly force pursues the victim or causes the confrontation. The law's supporters claim it was never intended to apply to cases like the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin by neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman. But it was obvious that the law — pushed by the National Rifle Association and opposed by law enforcement — would put public safety at risk by protecting people who were armed, dangerous and easily provoked. The Legislature should repeal this legal menace.

Since Martin's killing has focused attention on Florida's "stand your ground" law, public officials who supported it have been claiming it is being wrongly used to protect Zimmerman, who pursued the unarmed Martin in a gated community. Bush, who signed the bill into law, said it "doesn't mean chase after somebody who's turned their back." Durell Peaden, a former Republican senator from Crestview and one of the bill's sponsors, claimed that Zimmerman "lost his defense" under the law when he started following Martin. And Florida Democratic Party chairman Rod Smith, who co-sponsored the bill in the Senate, said when Zimmerman "moved the ground toward the confrontation," he took it outside the "stand your ground defense."

Nice try. A survey of the law's use by Tampa Bay Times staff writer Ben Montgomery exposed numerous examples where an aggressor or pursuer was given legal cover. In one case from Thonotosassa, Charles Podany grabbed a handgun and biked to the house where a truck was parked that had just sped past his home. This resulted in a confrontation with a drunken man who had been a passenger in the truck. Podany shot and killed the man after being assaulted by him.

Podany likely could have avoided a deadly encounter by not pursuing the truck and by not arming himself with a gun. But the defense was available to him, a judge found, as long as he had a legal right to be where he was and engaged in legal activity. The key is to evaluate the circumstances the minute before deadly force is used, not whether the shooter did something stupid or reckless to start the series of events toward the deadly encounter.

The law wouldn't be quite as dangerous if Florida didn't have such lax gun laws. Florida's 900,000 licensed concealed weapons carriers are more than any other state. This adds to the lethality of "stand your ground" since more people have ready access to a deadly weapon when they get into an emotional confrontation.

Gov. Rick Scott's task force, headed by Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll, is charged with re-evaluating the law. But with cases of justifiable homicide tripling in the last seven years thanks largely to "stand your ground," anything short of a recommendation to repeal would be difficult to defend. This inexcusable law is being used as a license to kill.

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