Is It Ever OK to Shoot First?

The last few days have seen a tragedy in Florida that could change the way self defense laws are written and used nationwide.

Trayvon Martin, a 17 year old walking to the home of his father’s girlfriend, was shot and killed last month by a volunteer citizen on patrol. Police and prosecutors, having grown accustomed to the difficulty of prosecuting a crime when the accused invokes the “Stand Your Ground” law, have been hesitant to press charges.

Stand Your Ground, also referred to as Shoot First by opponents, refers to the laws allowing a person to use deadly force when they feel that they are in danger of death or severe bodily injury (think paralysis, not nosebleed). Many states, including Florida and North Carolina, have some form of this law. Stand Your Ground can be considered an extension of the Castle Doctrine, which says that a person may use deadly force when his or her home is invaded. These are the only two exceptions to the common-law theory that, when threatened, a person must retreat as much as possible before using force against their attacker.

While these laws were created to be an affirmative defense- meaning a person can claim that he was justified for the act he is on trial for- the situation in Florida shows that they have become a tool for dismissal in too many cases. Justice departments facing budget cuts and budget drains may be hesitant to pursue charges against someone that they think is likely to be found not guilty or charges dismissed because of Stand Your Ground.

George Zimmerman should have a hard time proving that Stand Your Ground applies to him. The law is clearly written to be self defense. Self defense does not include stalking a walking teenager, following him with your car until you decide to get out and chase him down with a gun. Self defense also does not mean that after you’ve tackled someone, if they fight back, you can defend yourself with deadly force.

Again we have a law that started out with a good purpose, but has quickly been twisted. A law aimed at giving domestic violence victims the right to protect themselves without having to retreat first, a law designed to allow people who are physically threatened to respond with force, has been twisted into an excuse for a brutal shooting of an innocent teenager.

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One Response to Is It Ever OK to Shoot First?

  1. Casey says:

    I think it’s a bit premature to conclude that the law has been twisted in this case because the facts are still coming in and the justice department could and may well still decide to press charges. Also, just as a side note (and I think you made this point as well), characterizing this law as a “shoot first” policy mischaracterizes what the law actually says. The law doesn’t allow people to use lethal force in self defense in all circumstances, or even expand the circumstances in which lethal force can be used, but simply removes the legal duty to retreat in those circumstances.

    From that perspective, a “stand your ground” policy shouldn’t have any effect on a prosecutor’s decision on whether to bring a case against Zimmerman, if the prosecutor believes Zimmerman did not have the right to use lethal force in these circumstances. It only means that Zimmerman doesn’t have to prove he attempted to retreat or that retreat wasn’t possible before he used lethal force. I’m no expert in Florida’s self defense law, but I suspect that Zimmerman can’t claim defense if he initiated the conflict, tackled the victim, and so on, as some people are spinning this story. If the facts indeed indicate that this was a “brutal shooting of an innocent teenager”, rather than an act of self defense, I’m still optimistic that Zimmerman will be prosecuted for his actions. If those are the facts and he isn’t prosecuted, the fault rests with the prosecutor, not the statute.

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