Friday, March 23, 2012

Florida Shooting and Stand your Ground Laws

Listening to John and Ken from KFI Los Angeles (3PM 03/22/2012 podcast, available here) I heard a great interview with David Honig, Special Counsel for Civil Rights for the Florida State Conference of Branches of the NAACP. Mr. Honig was very fair in most of his discussion of the shooting of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman. I suggest listening to it and forming your own impressions, but mine were mostly positive. I had two points I wanted to make about statements he made, and the second leads to a discussion on stand your ground laws.

If you're not interested in this case specifically but want to understand stand your ground self-defense laws, skip down a bit.

Mr. Honig was very fair on most points, often pointing out that we don't have enough information to draw a conclusion on an aspect of the case. He did do a lot of discussion of hate crimes, however. Any racially-motivated crime is an affront to all fair-minded citizens. Racism is an intolerable and insupportable ideology. The problem is that in this case, we don't know if that was the motivation. It's too early to begin to associate Trayvon Martin's death with hate crimes. It turns out that George Zimmerman is half Latino, and may well identify as Latino, but the media has made this into a white-on-black hate shooting, and Mr. Honig seemed to be willing to go along with that impression, though he was careful not to specifically assert this incident was a hate crime. He may have simply been using the interview as an opportunity to raise awareness about racially-motivated crime, which I understand and support.

During his comments, Mr. Honig asserted that most states have stand your ground laws and that they're bad laws, or at least Florida's is. He correctly pointed out that George Zimmerman is unlikely to be protected by stand your ground laws, since he pursued Trayvon Martin and seems to have instigated the confrontation.

The assertion that stand your ground laws are bad laws is incredibly wrong, and I'll move from this specific case to a more general discussion at this point.

Stand your ground laws in general mean that as opposed to earlier laws, a victim of a crime has no obligation to flee, but may instead defend herself or himself when confronted by an assailant. Earlier laws required the victim to seek any other way out of a confrontation through flight, even at great personal risk. That changed, even in California, because a fleeing victim is an easy target for a criminal. Lawful citizens don't shoot, stab or beat a fleeing person in the back as they run. Criminals do. So, victims were exposed to danger of greater harm and even death by the obligation to flee. Recognizing this, laws changed. If you're in your own home and a home invader breaks in with a lethal weapon, you don't have to try to run to your back door, fumble with the lock and try to run for help while he stabs or shoots you. In fear of your life or the life of your family, you can arm yourself and defend your life and the lives of your loved ones.

In short, stand your ground laws are a basic affirmation of the self-defense rights of lawful citizens which I believe are supported by the 2nd Amendment. Further, these laws are completely egalitarian, protecting any lawful citizen who is under attack regardless of race, gender or any other factor. If David Honig's position represents the position of the NAACP, it's time for them to rethink it.


tom said...

As I ate my sandwich yesterday, I heard on CNN that since Stand your Ground went into effect in Florida, "justifiable homicides" have doubled. I suspect that's just the murder rate going up under a different moniker.

From the point of view of authorities, the good thing about requirements to retreat is that when you get to the crime scene, you know who the bad guy is. That does little for dead victims, so I think it's reasonable to have the right to self defense as law, but it looks like Florida's version of that is much too loose with what it considers justifiable self defense, and that's why Zimmerman wasn't arrested right away. After all, if a prosecutor has to prove beyond reasonable doubt that a shooter didn't feel threatened when he shot someone down... well, except under very limited circumstances, you can't prove that. The threshold of evidence can't be "I thought he was a threat." It has to "s/he actually was a threat." Otherwise, guys like Zimmerman walk because, "hey, the kid looked suspicious and I thought that can of coke was a gun."

Furthermore, Stand your Ground puts authorities into the position of deciding who was right and who was wrong. In a lot of situations (drunks fighting at a bar, for instance) no side is really right or wrong. But if one side gets to claim self defense, because he punched me after I pushed him, then it's a license for bullies to start fights and then shoot - which is exactly what happened with Zimmerman. But apparently the last man standing was just defending himself, so he walks. That's b.s. A shooter should at least have to show that he tried to deescalate such situations.

Andrew said...

"Stand your Ground puts authorities into the position of deciding who was right and who was wrong."

Authorities always have to do that during the investigation. It's not always clear who the victim is in an altercation. It's through interviewing and examining evidence that they decide whether to file charges and who to file them against.

If a shooter happens to be a lawfully armed citizen who an assailant misjudged to be a helpless victim, I don't agree that they have to prove anything. Further, they have no obligation to deescalate (in fact, if the situation is so bad you have to present your firearm, you probably don't have the time or option to deescalate).

Note that none of this applies to Zimmerman. He pursued and instigated and thus was the assailant, not the victim.

That doesn't change the fact that lawful citizens should and do have the right to defend themselves and not expose themselves to further harm by being required to flee.

Mark said...

If someone is trying to kill me, I know who the bad guy is. You can feel free to lecture your orphans.

tom said...

"If someone is trying to kill me, I know who the bad guy is. You can feel free to lecture your orphans."

You mean after some vigilante shoots me because I looked suspicious and just might have a weapon?

"Authorities always have to do that during the investigation. It's not always clear who the victim is in an altercation."

Not true. Under the older style laws, anyone in an altercation who wasn't sitting there taking a beating could be arrested. That's not right, but that's the way it was (and in a pre-modern culture of blood feuds it's not an unreasonable way to keep the peace).

"Note that none of this applies to Zimmerman. He pursued and instigated and thus was the assailant, not the victim."

Can that be proved under Florida's version of the law? The law says that a person may use deadly force when "he or she reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another."

It sure looks like Zimmerman is the aggressor, but under Florida's standard can that be proved beyond reasonable doubt? I never said that people don't have the right to defend themselves, I just said that Florida's standards for letting shooters skate is too broad. If you want to defend Florida's law, you have to defend the "perceived threat" standard, not the general right to self defense.

Andrew said...

Actually, if you read the post, you'll see that I'm saying stand your ground laws in general are good, and they are.

The one of the co-sponsors of the law, who wrote it, says it doesn't apply in this case. I'll take the lawmaker's word for it since I'm not qualified to do law in Florida.

Mark said...

No Tom you dope. If someone is trying to kill me. I realize that logic isn't your strong point, but you could at least try to read a plain sentence.

tom said...

"you dope"
I always get a kick out of that.