Why did Obama forget Trayvon? New Gun Control measures fail to address Stand Your Ground.

In Gun Control Debate, Little Talk of Stand Your Ground


Allison Joyce/Getty Images

Penn Bullock

January 21, 2013 | 12:00 am

If not for the massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, the National Rifle Association might have considered 2012 a banner year. Not only did the nation move past the Aurora, Colorado, shooting with little conversation about gun control, but it also quickly gave up scrutiny of one of the NRA’s most cherished legislative priorities in recent years: Stand Your Ground laws. And on that front, at least, their victory is intact.

Stand Your Ground laws, which allow people to meet perceived threats with lethal force, attracted little notice until neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman nearly escaped charges in the killing of an unarmed Floridian teenager, Trayvon Martin, by invoking the law to police. Suddenly, the country learned how Stand Your Ground laws were hamstringing law enforcement, and how their hazy definition of a “reasonable threat” was confusing judges and letting murder suspects walk free. Uproar ensued: public protests, angry editorials, investigative pieces and demands for repeal. Mayor Michael Bloomberg launched a national initiative to roll back the law’s iterations in two-dozen states. Then, almost as quickly as it erupted, the outrage fizzled. In Florida, where the furor began and Stand Your Ground originated, the law was left on the books, completely unaltered.

Stand Your Ground is often said to have brought back the vigilantism of the old frontier. But Florida’s law is less Wild West than it is Mad Max; gun-slinging frontiersmen would have blanched at some of its worst outcomes. In one terrifying case dug up in an investigation by the Tampa Bay Times,  a judge exonerated two gang members for mowing down a 15-year-old participant in a shootout. “The judge,” the Times reported, “said he had no choice but to grant immunity to two men who fired the AK-47 responsible for the death even though they fired 25 to 30 times outside an apartment complex.” Sounding shocked by his own ruling, which the law necessistated, the judge wrote that Stand Your Ground “could conceivably result in all persons who exchanged gunfire on a public street being immune from prosecution.”

Since Martin’s death, the Stand Your Ground defense has appeared in several bizarre Florida cases. In December, a customer at a Little Caesars, angry that his thin-crust vegetable pie was taking longer than the promised 10 minutes, got into a tussle with a fellow customer, who whipped out a concealed weapon and fired two shots. The shooter claimed he was standing his ground. Meanwhile, in an argument over the placement of a suburban fence, a man took a crack at his neighbor’s head with a shovel. He, too, immediately cited Stand Your Ground. 

And a month earlier, a white man at a convenience store fired eight times at a group of black teenagers in a parked car, killing 17-year-old Jordan Davis. The shooter claims he was standing his ground. The teens were playing loud music, he says, and when he approached their car to tell them to turn it down, he insists they brandished a shotgun. No shotgun was ever found. But perhaps the teens disposed of it, his defense lawyer has suggested, putting the prosecution in the awkward position of proving a negative – of demonstrating that the shotgun didn’t exist, and that there was no “reasonable threat” to the man.

In all three cases, the Stand Your Ground defense has failed in preliminary hearings. But the violence is a clear illustration of how the law – besides granting bizarro sanction to gangland killings – turns trivial disputes into potentially deadly shoot-‘em-ups by empowering people to immediately reach for their guns, with the confidence that they’ll be exonerated later.

In the wake of the Trayvon case, Republicans looked ready to reassess Stand Your Ground. Florida’s governor, Rick Scott, went through all the motions of a politician deeply concerned about the integrity of his state’s justice system, forming a task force to review the law. Then he stacked the task force with gun advocates, including the state’s Stand Your Ground author, and a Republican legislator who wrote the state’s so-called “docs and glocks” law, which makes it illegal for doctors to ask the parents of a mentally unstable child whether they keep guns in their home. The task force’s verdict: no major changes necessary. Even testimony from the relatives of dead people whose killers had been acquitted under Stand Your Ground left this law-and-order crowd unmoved.

But, last month, a proposal to reform Stand Your Ground finally arrived in the state legislature. Written by the state Senate’s Democratic minority leader, Chris Smith, it makes a few critical, painfully obvious tweaks while preserving the law’s expansion of self-defense rights. The plan has gained scant publicity, and Republicans are barely acknowledging its existence.

In its current form, Stand Your Ground can work as a kind of incantation: Simply by invoking the law, an assailant gains immunity from arrest at the scene, unless police find probable cause to believe he or she acted unlawfully. (This is the reason Zimmerman was not arrested the night he shot Martin.) Smith’s bill strips that immunity and allows police to go ahead and arrest suspects, the better to conduct investigations.

The bill also denies Stand Your Ground’s protection to suspects who provoke a confrontation, or pursue and attack a fleeing person (they could still invoke traditional self-defense)—a clarification that is, remarkably, necessary. As the Times reported, the law’s nebulousness has led judges to issue contradictory decisions on whether or not it applies in such circumstances. And, even so, the paper’s review found that a large number of the 200-plus “stand your ground” cases in Florida involved a suspect acquitted after starting violence or shooting someone who was retreating.

Smith is optimistic about the bill. The changes are nothing if not reasonable, and he believes Republicans are sure to come around. But the conservative chairman of the state senate’s criminal justice committee doubts whether he’ll even bring it up for hearings. He told a local newspaper that he’s “comfortable with the law” and that it “doesn’t need to be fixed.” Add to Republican intransigence the indifference of a media that has largely lost interest in Stand Your Ground, and it would be astounding if the bill passes.

While Florida’s legislature dithers, a study released this month by researchers at Texas A&M presented evidence that Stand Your Ground laws have become a rolling disaster. The researchers found homicide rates spiking by 8 percent after the passage of Stand Your Ground laws in 26 states.

“Lowering the expected cost of lethal force,” they concluded, “causes there to be more of it.”