Shoot First Stand Your Ground Laws

Promote Lawlessness & Impunity for Gun Owners

“It’s time to question laws that senselessly expand the concept of self-defense and sow dangerous conflict in our neighborhoods.” — Attorney General Eric Holder addressing the annual NAACP convention, condemning Stand-Your-Ground laws Orlando Florida, July 2013.”

“Shoot-first laws like those in Florida can inspire dangerous vigilantism and protect those who act recklessly with guns. Such laws — drafted by gun lobby extremists in Washington – encourage deadly confrontations by enabling people to shoot first and argue ‘justifiable homicide’ later.” — New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a national advocate of gun safety, added his voice to the now national call for a repeal of Stand-Your-Ground laws.

Stand-Your-Ground laws in general state: there is no duty to retreat from an attacker in any place where the individual is lawfully present; and that a person may justifiably use force in self-defense when there is reasonable belief of an unlawful threat, without an obligation to retreat first. The law is rooted in the centuries-old English common law concept known as the “Castle Doctrine,” which holds that the right of self-defense is accepted in one’s home. But the Florida law and others like it expand that established right to venues beyond the home. The Second Amendment as reviewed by the Roberts Court (Heller 2008) allows possession of a firearm in the home for self-defense. The NRA and some states wish to expand the carrying of firearms anywhere and anytime by nearly everyone. Thirty states currently have some version of stand-your-ground laws. Nine of those states have laws similar to Florida’s. 

Stand-Your-Ground legislation was first promoted in 2005 in Florida by NRA lobbyist and former NRA president, Marion Hammer, the driving force behind the bill, eventually becoming law there. At that time the NRA was serving as “corporate co-chair” of ALEC’s (American Legislative Exchange Council) Public Safety and Elections task force that pushed Stand-Your-Ground and other gun laws. ALEC, a secretive lobbying group represents some of the most influential corporatists in America. It provides a forum for corporations and legislators to collaborate on “model bills” and draft legislation which members push to become law. The NRA has aggressively pursued adoption of Stand-Your-Ground laws throughout the country as part of a broader agenda to increase gun-carrying rights while rewarding state politicians financially who push their agenda.

Civil rights advocacy groups including the NAACP, Urban League, Color of Change, Common Cause, People for the American Way, and MoveOn.org are among the groups that put pressure on ALEC members to withdraw from the group over this law. At least 49 corporations and six non-profits have publicly announced they were leaving ALEC. Among them are a number of corporations with headquarters in the South, including Coca-Cola, Pepsi, MacDonald’s, Wendy’s, Kraft and Mars, Blue Cross, Wal-Mart, Bank of America, ConocoPhillips and Bill Gates. But scores of other corporations continue their association with the group, including South-based Duke Energy, ExxonMobil, Georgia-Pacific, International Paper, Marathon Oil and Norfolk Southern Railway.

In the Zimmerman case, the defense wisely chose to waive the Stand-Your-Ground law because such a defense would have permitted a plaintiff or the state to seek civil damages in a subsequent trial, which now cannot occur. However, the court’s instructions to the jury reinserted the law into the jury’s deliberations. “Even though it’s popular wisdom to say ‘Stand-Your-Ground’ was not an issue in this case, in fact it was. The exact instruction to the jury was that Zimmerman had no duty to retreat and had a right to stand his ground and meet force with force — including deadly force. Those jury instructions incorporate the Stand-Your-Ground law,” explained Lisa Graves, Executive Director for Media and Democracy recently on Amy Goodman’s DemocracyNow!.org.

A study led by Mark Hoekstra, an economist with Texas A&M University, found states with such laws have more homicides than states without them.. “One possibility for the increase in homicide is that perhaps [in cases where] there would have been a fistfight … now, because of stand your ground laws, it’s possible that those escalate into something much more violent and lethal.”

Stanford law professor John Donohue praised the study done by Texas A&M’s Hoekstra explaining, “The imperfect but growing evidence seems to suggest that the consequences of adopting stand-your-ground laws are pernicious, in that they may lead to a greater number of homicides – thus going against the notion that they are serving some sort of protective function for society. In murder cases, the laws might end up being a refuge for some defendants who can say, ‘Well, I shot the guy, but I felt threatened and had a reasonable basis for fearing injury to myself.’”

As a society, we need to look closely at the actual impact of our legal system – not just its stated intentions – if we are to create a system where the words “liberty and justice for all” are a reality for all people. We also have to reign in the power that organizations like ALEC wield as they continue to forge legislation that erodes our fundamental rights as a democracy – particularly on crucial issues such as reducing corporate regulation and

environmental protections, and promoting gun rights. If there is a silver lining to the Trayvon Martin tragedy, it has been to shine a light on the relationships between ALEC, the NRA, large corporations and legislators across the country and to encourage a dialogue that is meaningful, and hopefully one that represents the majority of Americans who do not agree with the gun lobby’s “guns-everywhere” vision. Our representatives need to be held accountable to their constituencies not to the NRA agenda or to the corporations who have a $tranglehold on Congress.

Toni Wellen is the chair of the Santa Barbara Coalition Against Gun Violence. She lives in Carpinteria.

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