Thursday, March 29, 2012

More on "Stand Your Ground" and Self-Defense

This is another of those tenacious things that just won't go away. I've seen part of the Trayvon Martin argument split off into a discussion about Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law. Some want to blame the law, at least in part, for Martin's death. Some of these people are my friends, so I have to take that view seriously. But I'm not sure I'm comfortable with the conclusion.

I'm the first to admit - I didn't know what the law actually says (and I suspect that most of us haven't read it). For those of you policy wonks, you can find the full text here; the relevant passage is this:
(3) A person who is not engaged in an unlawful activity and who is attacked in any other place where he or she has a right to be has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony. (emphasis added)
As this is written, I don't think I have a lot of problems with it. If someone attacks me with a club or a knife, I'm going to defend myself forcefully if that's what's necessary. I might even break an arm or dislocate an elbow if that's what's needed to get the person to stop. If the attacker is unarmed, I probably wouldn't even have to go that far (unless the person is extremely persistent).

What I don't see here is a license to kill someone for punching me. Even if they are punching me repeatedly, deadly force is not necessary - the word in the law - in order to prevent my death or great bodily harm. I have LOTS of other options; using a gun, especially against an unarmed assailant, should be the absolute last of those options, and indeed it's difficult to imagine a scenario where that level of force becomes "necessary".

Laws, of course, are only as good as their enforcement. Stories have emerged of a man who survived being shot in Florida by someone who claimed the protection of this law - even though he was 10 feet away and had his hands up. It also appears that at least one Florida judge has taken a rather liberaI interpretation of "necessary" that law enforcement isn't comfortable with. If that's the case - and if, as appears to be the case in the immediate instance, George Zimmerman didn't provide much proof that shooting Martin was absolutely necessary - then the law itself is not the issue.

The problem, as usual, is culture - in this case, a culture of law enforcement which (for whatever reason) fails to apply the law as written, and a culture that is quick to jump to lethal force as the "only" option of self-defense (see my earlier post). A claim that lethal force was necessary to stop a teenager armed only with skittles and iced tea is ridiculous on its face - getting that recognized is not a matter of changing laws, but of changing hearts.

1 comment:

  1. Yes, and it is pretty hard to "reasonably believe" that force is necessary when the other guy is running away from you. So the law doesn't apply to the Trayvon case. That isn't what happened here.