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Misinformed Attacks on 'Stand Your Ground' Laws

Among the many sad results coming out of the Trayvon Martin shooting case in Florida, one of the latecomers to the party is the fresh and frequently jaundiced look being taken at the Sunshine State’s “stand your ground” law. As the Christian Science Monitor recently reported, nearly every state in the nation has either some form of rule along these lines or the more restrictive Castle Doctrine, and gun prohibitionist groups are using these headlines to gin up support for repealing them. (Only six states and the District of Columbia currently have no similar legislation in place at this time.)

Unfortunately for everyone involved, Trayvon Martin’s encounter with George Zimmerman is probably one of the least suitable examples you could choose to mount such an offensive. Personally, I have avoided writing about this case up until now for what seemed a rather obvious reason. At least for the present, none of us -- aside from Zimmerman himself and a few possible witnesses -- knows exactly what happened in Sanford, Florida, on February 26. The thought of jumping in with a media verdict absent the facts of the case led George Will to ask, during a recent political roundtable, if we learned nothing from the Duke lacrosse case.

But even without yet knowing the actual events of the day, boiling down the various accounts which have surfaced leads us to believe that one of two narratives will prove to be true. You may think of it as the tales of the two Samaritans. In one version, the “evil George Zimmerman” went out on patrol hunting for villains and believed he had found one in the person of Trayvon Martin. Following a brief encounter and exchange of words, he chased the youth down and shot him in cold blood.

The other telling of the tale begins in the same fashion, but after the “good Zimmerman” meets and seeks to question Martin about his activities, he is set upon by the interloper. Martin attacks him, pins him to the ground, punches him, and begins smashing George’s head into the turf. At that point, Zimmerman produces his gun and during the ensuing struggle he shoots Martin.

These stories don’t have a happy ending, but they do have one thing in common: neither has anything to do with Florida’s stand your ground law. The aspect of the legislation under debate has to do with whether or not a person should be allowed to use force -- even deadly force -- in the name of self-defense without first seeking to retreat. If this turns out to be the case of the “evil George,” then retreat was never even a consideration. He was chasing down his prey and committing an act of violence upon his victim. If it’s the “good George” we’re dealing with, then he was pinned down on the ground and retreat was not one of the options available to him.

The debate over violence in the name of self-defense has been going on since well before some of today’s “expert” media analysts grew out of short pants. Bernie Goetz became a household name all across America in 1984, when he opened fire on some gangsters attempting to rob him with a sharpened screwdriver. For the record, New York did not then -- and does not today -- have any sort of a stand your ground law. And yet, following a trial which was the biggest media spectacle of its time until O.J. Simpson, Goetz was convicted on only a charge of having an unlicensed firearm.

So have these laws helped or hurt society? On the whole, I still maintain that they act as a force for the greater good. Can they be abused by those with evil intent or incompetent, dishonest law enforcement officers? Yes, but then so can most laws which are passed with beneficial intent. And they are sometimes abused more by actual criminals than police officers or victims. Take, for example, the case of Carl England, whose son Jacob is in the news for another spree of violence in Oklahoma. When a robber entered his home, he came after the intruder with a stick. The thief responded by shooting him and was later let off on the charge based on a stand your ground type of defense, saying he felt “threatened” by England.

There will always be cases where clever people with savvy attorneys will find ways to abuse the law for their own benefit, but that doesn’t mean we should throw the handguns out with the bathwater. It’s far too cavalier to make simplistic claims about an armed society being a polite society when discussing tragic cases such as these, but a free, open society will always include some criminal elements. It’s just part of the nature of man, sadly. But free people also need to be assured of the right to defend themselves on an even playing field if they choose to do so. Our real responsibility is to ensure that law enforcement has the tools and the training to weed out the bad guys from the innocent citizens when cases such as these arise.