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‘Stand Your Ground Laws’: An Unfortunate Necessity

Laws removing the obligation to retreat when attacked are necessary to put some fear into would-be attackers.

by
Clayton E. Cramer

Bio

September 21, 2009 - 12:22 am

For many years, there has been a presumption in most states that if you are outside your home, you should retreat rather than use deadly force. I understand why most states have this requirement. The concern was that two hotheads might escalate what should have been harsh words into something far more tragic. It has happened before. It will happen again.

The NRA has been persuading states to pass what is popularly called a “stand your ground” law, which changes this presumption. You are not obligated to retreat rather than use deadly force if you are obeying the law, minding your own business, and attacked.

I confess that while I like the theory on this, I still cringe. In a reasonably civilized society (like America used to be, before it became sophisticated and liberated from its narrow-minded Christian roots), if you have to retreat once or twice in a lifetime from some obnoxious jerk, it’s not that big of a deal. The fabric of the society isn’t going to collapse because you had to put up with some harsh language or even some shoving.

Taking away the obligation to retreat in public when you have that option pretty well guarantees that someone is going to get shot and killed. Likely as not, it is going to be some testosterone-poisoned teenage or young adult male. There’s a chance that he will remain an obnoxious punk and get himself killed in a bar fight. There’s also a good chance that in a few more years this obnoxious punk will get married, settle down, raise a family, and turn into a responsible adult. As Clint Eastwood says in Unforgiven:It’s a helluva’ thing when you kill a man. You take away everything he’s got … and everything he’s ever gonna have.” If you have to kill someone in self-defense against death, great bodily injury, or the threat of either, that’s unfortunate, but your attacker made the decision that your life is worth less than your wallet or the joy of beating you to a pulp. The aggressor thus forfeits his own life by the standard that he applied to yours.

In a civilized society, it should not be a common event that you have to retreat in a public place to avoid using deadly force. In America today, that is not the situation. Once bullies and thugs become common, requiring peaceable people to retreat empowers the bullies — and most of them don’t need encouragement. There’s a social cost that regrettably makes it necessary to change the rules — and put some fear into the bullies. And sometimes, it means that someone who might grow up into a decent adult ends up dead.

There was just an incident in Florida where, under the old standard, the shooter might well have had to defend himself against manslaughter charges. But because Florida has adopted a “stand your ground” law, he won’t be going to trial. This seems to be almost exactly the set of facts that I would want to see in every “stand your ground” case.

A 49-year-old man named Charles Podany had been concerned about speeders in his residential neighborhood. He was out bicycling and asked a man in a pickup truck to slow down. The driver, Evin Aguayo, took the request well. Someone else did not:

The encounter turned deadly after the driver’s drunken friend began beating Podany, 49. As Casey Landes, 24, landed on top of Podany and readied his fist to strike again, Podany shot him in the head with a .40-caliber Glock.

Startlingly, Aguayo’s statement guaranteed that Podany would not be tried for the death of Landes, Aguayo’s best friend.

Aguayo, 21, told investigators that Landes was the aggressor in the confrontation and that Podany never hit back.

“You never saw (Mr. Podany) take a swing at him?” a sheriff’s detective asked Aguayo.

“Never,” Aguayo responded, adding, “Not one time. Not one single swing.”

There was a large discrepancy in size and strength. Landes was 24 years old, 6’1” and 192 pounds; Podany was 49, 5’8” and 180 pounds. Even better for Podany, Aguayo described Landes’ stated goal: “Aguayo told deputies his friend thought it was ‘cool to beat up an old man.’” Landes was also very drunk (0.28 percent blood alcohol level) and had a prior conviction for aggravated battery three years ago, as well as other arrests that had not led to convictions. (I wish that I could say that Podany has a little halo and angel wings, but the article reports that Podany pleaded no contest to an aggravated assault with a weapon charge in 1999.) Still, at least as this story is reported, Landes is the sort of bully who needs to be afraid, not just for the benefit of Podany, but for others who might cross a bully like this.

I’m not happy about situations like this. I wish that Podany had the halo and angel wings that I want every gun owner to have. I wish that bullies like Landes could get some sense knocked into them by the age of 24, so that they didn’t think it was “cool to beat up an old man.” But in a society that has largely abandoned any effort to encourage civilized behavior, “stand your ground” laws seem to be an ugly but unavoidable necessity.

Clayton E. Cramer teaches history at the College of Western Idaho. His most recent book is My Brother Ron: A Personal and Social History of the Deinstitutionalization of the Mentally Ill (2012). He is raising capital for a feature film about the Oberlin Rescue of 1858.
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