Street Corner Soapbox: Stand Your Ground

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Wednesday, July 11th, 2012 at 5:00 AM
Street Corner Soapbox: Stand Your Ground by Jay Stevens
A. Conaway

In the wake of the Trayvon Martin shooting, a number of people have taken a closer look at Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, which was used by Martin’s shooter, George Zimmerman, to initially evade prosecution.

You remember the Martin shooting. George Zimmerman, an overzealous neighborhood watch coordinator, stalked 17-year-old Trayvon Martin who was walking through Zimmerman’s Sanford, Fla., neighborhood on a trip to the convenience store. The two clashed, and Zimmerman shot and killed Martin. Zimmerman claimed he shot Martin in self-defense, and he evaded prosecution under the state’s self-defense law.

The law, of course, is an extension of the Castle Doctrine, which allows you to use deadly force in your home against perceived violent threats. The Stand Your Ground law extends that right to any place where you’re legally allowed to be. That is, in the public – whether it’s a park, the sidewalk, or your local neighborhood Dairy Queen. The problem with the law — as in the Martin shooting — is that in violent confrontations the last man standing can claim self-defense, essentially allowing people to get away with murder.

The Tampa Bay Times published an investigative report into how the Stand Your Ground law has been applied in Florida, profiling every case in which the law was evoked, and which seems to support that serious flaws in the law exist.

“[The law] is being used in ways never imagined,” found the Times, “to free gang members involved in shootouts, drug dealers beefing with clients, and people who shot their victims in the back.” While the Times found numerous cases that were true self-defense — a woman being choked by her tenant, for example — the newspaper also found very questionable outcomes. In a third of cases in which the defendant went free under Stand Your Ground, the defendant, “initiated the fight, shot an unarmed person, or pursued their victim.” The Times also found that the race of the victim seemed to influence the outcome of the case. “Seventy-three percent of those who killed a black person faced no penalty,” wrote the Times, “compared to 59 percent of those who killed a white.”

In the Martin case, for example, we don’t know exactly the events that took place that led to the boy’s death. Zimmerman claims Martin attacked him, and that may be true. But what’s inarguable – gleaned from Zimmerman’s own statements – is that the neighborhood watch coordinator provoked the incident.

The paper’s investigation essentially concluded that the law is being applied erratically and illogically and in ways (one hopes) that its original proponents never foresaw.

A National Bureau of Economics Report [http://www.nber.org/papers/w18134] came to an even grimmer conclusion: Florida’s law has led to more killings, by as much as 7 to 9 percent. “This could represent either increased use of lethal force in self-defense situations, or the escalation of violence in otherwise non-lethal situations,” wrote the authors Cheng Cheng and Mark Hoekstra. “Regardless, the results indicate that a primary consequence of strengthening self-defense law is increased homicide.”

Here’s the thing: these conclusions shouldn’t prod just Florida authorities into taking a closer look at the law. These are warning flags for any state with a Stand Your Ground law. Like, say, Pennsylvania, which passed its version of the law in June 2011.

Jay Stevens can be reached at Jay@ErieReader.com

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