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Stand Your Ground Laws

(See also this Issue Backgrounder for bibliographic references.)

I had not heard the term “stand your ground” since I was a youngster. The phase sounds like something my parents would have said to me as a child when I felt another child was giving me a hard time. But as the past few weeks have demonstrated, stand your ground is not child’s play. In the form of  state law, it can have random and deadly consequences.

For weeks now, television hosts, religious and civil rights leaders, students, and other concerned citizens have protested the absence of an arrest in the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case. Florida’s stand your ground law (Florida Statute 776.013(3)) is the reason given to explain the police handling of the shooting and the crime scene. The statute went into effect in 2005 and reports of  justifiable homicides nearly tripled, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. A 2010 article on Tampabay.com summarized the changes from the former law:

“The old law gave you the right to protect yourself with deadly force inside your home. The 2005 law gives you the right to protect yourself in a part, outside a Chili’s, on a highway — just about anywhere. . . You need only to ‘reasonably believe’ that pulling the trigger or plunging the knife or swinging the bat is necessary to stop the other person from hurting you.”

Florida was the first of more than 20 states to adopt such laws. A University of Miami Law Review (63 U. Miami L. Rev. 395 (2008-09) [Hein Online] article by Zachary L. Weaver, discusses how the law was developed and implemented. Weaver’s article, “Florida’s ‘Stand Your Ground’ Law: The Actual Effect and the Need for Clarification,” lists the states that had by then passed similar legislation: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, and Texas.

Within weeks of Florida’s deadly event, Tulsa, Oklahoma was terrorized by two men allegedly motivated by the killing of the father of one of the men in a stand your ground confrontation.

These shootings also turn out to have a link to “stand your ground” self-defense laws. Two years ago, Carl England, the father of now 19-year-old Jake England, was killed after attacking another man he accused of breaking into his daughter’s apartment. His killer was not charged for the shooting. Jake England witnessed the fight and shooting death of his father. On Friday, April 6, Jake England and another man began a shooting spree that would end two days later with three men dead and two wounded. The shootings may have been racially-motivated (England’s father was shot by a black man, and the victims of his spree were black), but the individual victims are believed to have been targeted randomly within a predominantly-black neighborhood. Jake England and his friend have confessed to the shootings and murders.