Stand Your Ground self-defense laws are finally getting the intense scrutiny they deserve. It’s unfortunate it took the tragic death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin for that to happen.
On Friday, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin announced he will hold Senate judiciary hearings this fall on the controversial laws. His announcement came just days after U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder’s call for a review, and amid clamor from Florida residents and elsewhere to repeal or make changes in such laws, which at least two dozen states – including North Carolina – have implemented since 2005.
George Zimmerman’s lawyers did not use Stand Your Ground in his defense, but the law’s influence was evident in the case.
It was the reason police initially did not arrest Zimmerman. In accepting Zimmerman’s assertion of self defense, Sanford police noted state statutes that allow civilians the use of deadly force. It’s permitted as self defense only under Florida’s Stand Your Ground provisions.
It was also explicit in the judge’s instructions to the jury before deliberations. The judge said: “If George Zimmerman was not engaged in an unlawful activity and was attacked in any place where he had a right to be, he had no duty to retreat and had the right to stand his ground and meet force with force, including deadly force.” Before the Stand Your Ground law, Florida jury instructions in self defense cases disallowed “force likely to cause death or great bodily harm if by retreating a person could have avoided the need to use that force.”
Removing that duty to retreat when it’s possible is the big flaw in many states’ Stand Your Ground laws. It encourages reckless behavior that unnecessarily results in harm and death. In Florida, a Tampa Bay Times analysis last year showed that in a third of the cases analyzed, defendants initiated the fight, shot an unarmed person or pursued their victim, and went free. In some cases, people went free after shooting people in the back; one man shot another, then after he was disabled, shot him several more times execution style and got off even drug dealers have successfully used the statute though they were in the middle of drug deals.
These abuses highlight why the laws deserve review and change.
Some N.C. lawmakers are already reassessing North Carolina’s Stand Your Ground law, which was instituted in 2011. The law is similar to Florida’s but a claim of self defense does require that the perpetrator not be the aggressor, not use unreasonable force, and not continue to pursue a person after the person has retreated. Those are important caveats. But lawmakers are right to recognize the core problem with Stand Your Ground. By eliminating the duty to retreat when possible and allowing a person’s simple belief about harm to be the standard for deadly force, the law still provides a recipe for unintended tragedy.
House Bill 976 is buried in committee and won’t get anywhere. But it should. It keeps in place the Castle Doctrine, the common law which allows reasonable force, even deadly force, for people to protect themselves and their families in their homes. But it reverts to self defense laws that require retreat when possible before using force.
Tragedies like the death of Trayvon Martin don’t have to happen. But when laws embolden people to do reckless things, they can and do. One unarmed teen innocently walking home from a store left senselessly in a pool of blood is enough. It’s time to rethink these laws.
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