Florida Self-Defense Law Leads to More Homicides

Posted March 26, 2012 in Criminal Law by Richard Dahl

A protester holds a picture of Trayvon Martin, 17, who was shot and killed after he went to the store for candy and a soft drink.

Reports of justifiable homicide in Florida have tripled since the state’s “stand your ground” self defense law was enacted.

This is according to an Oct. 15, 2010 investigative article in the Tampa Bay Tribune and Daniel Vice, senior attorney at the Brady Center’s Legal Action Project in Washington, D.C.

The recent killing of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed teenager by a neighborhood watch captain armed with a legal firearm in Sanford, Fla., has sparked outrage across the nation.

It’s also drawn attention to the widespread existence of the so-called “stand your ground” laws that the police in Sanford are citing as a reason for not arresting or charging the shooter.

Gun Lobby Behind the “Shoot First” Law

According to the Legal Community Against Violence, Florida was the first state to enact such a law in 2005 and since then, 23 more have done so. Strongly pushed by the National Rifle Association, “stand your ground” laws have done away with the long-standing “duty to retreat” principle that was part of the common-law rule regarding self-defense.

“That meant that you could defend yourself it attacked,” Vice says,  “but if you’re in a situation where you can safely avoid a confrontation, then you had an obligation to do that.”

The NRA argues that rather than retreating, people who feel threatened should have the right to deal with the problem with deadly force, if they deem it appropriate, wherever they may be.

This logic means that the key person who can dispute a self-defense claim is dead, as in the case of Trayvon Martin.

Daniel Vice

 The problem with the “shoot-first” laws, as the Brady Center calls them, is they result in incidents like the one in Florida, Vice says.

“Under the ‘shoot first’ law, if you think someone will harm you, you can either act with deadly force in response to an attack or even to ‘prevent’ an attack,” he says. “So if you reasonably think somebody will harm you, you can kill them; and you don’t need to try to avoid a confrontation if you can safely do that. If you see someone two blocks away, they’re drunk, you can walk up to them, draw your gun, and then, if you’re fearful, kill them. So this law has been used to justify shootings that started as an argument among neighbors, as well as gang shootings.


Justifiable homicides in Florida have tripled

“Frequently, because of these laws, people aren’t even charged,” he says. “And if they are charged, they’ve repeatedly been cleared of charges.”

Meanwhile, the gun lobby and its friends in Congress remain undeterred in their quest to reduce legal restrictions on gun ownership everywhere. On March 20, Sens. John Thune (R-S.D.) and David Vitter (R-La.) introduced a bill, S. 2213, that would create universal national reciprocity for gun owners who can legally carry concealed firearms in their home states.

“We’re calling it the ‘George Zimmerman Armed Vigilante’ Act,’ Vice says. “If this law passes, Zimmerman could take his pistol to New York City and patrol Times Square—and there would be nothing the New York police could do about it.”

He points out that the measure already passed the House two years ago and came within two votes of passing the Senate. The makeup of the Senate has changed since the 2010 mid-term elections, making it tougher for the gun lobby now. And the mostly negative public reaction to the Florida shooting may make it even more politically unpalatable.

“There’s incredible outrage around the country about these laws that promote the carrying of loaded guns in public and using them to kill,” Vice says. “We’re hoping that this shooting is yet another example of the dangers of nationalizing Florida’s policies of allowing loaded guns in public.”

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