Few people would argue against a person's right to defend themselves in their own homes if an intruder burst through the door.
But does a law like Florida's controversial 2005 statute "Stand Your Ground" -- which removes a person's duty to retreat from an assailant and allows the use of deadly force in any place the person has a right to be -- go so far as to authorize vigilante justice?
That's the position of many people who'd like to see the so-called "license to kill" repealed in the wake of the Trayvon Martin shooting and other instances in which law's ambiguity prompted confusion and debatable judgements in court.
Supporters of the law, however, have argued that "Stand Your Ground" doesn't apply in Zimmerman's case, a position taken by former Florida governor Jeb Bush who signed the law in 2005.
Should such laws -- now in 20 other states, too -- be repealed? Join the debate below, and see if Michael Bloomberg or Ken Blackwell and Ken Klukowski change your mind.
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I think it's fair to say that the tragic death of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida touched a nerve all across this country. Whatever the ongoing investigation into his death concludes, I believe we all have a responsibility to investigate the meaning of this terrible event for our nation, and then take action. That process includes some soul-searching that is in all fairness now going on among lawmakers across our nation, including the great state of Florida.
In 2005, the NRA began pushing a so-called 'Stand Your Ground' law there, and the law that has been cited to justify the gunfire that killed Trayvon Martin. Florida was the NRA's first target, and it succeeded in pushing the bill through the legislature over the objections of leading police and law enforcement leaders.
Since then, the NRA has managed to spread this law to 24 other states, telling legislators that this would make their communities safer. Well, it didn't turn out that way -- and we now have the data to prove it.
In reality, the NRA's leaders weren't interested in public safety. They were interested in promoting a culture where people take the law into their own hands and face no consequences for it. Let's call that by its real name: vigilantism.
It's now clear that these laws have undermined the integrity of the justice system, and done real harm to public safety. They have sown confusion in police departments about when to make arrests. They have made it more difficult for prosecutors to bring charges in cases of deadly violence. And these 'Stand Your Ground' states have seen a major increase in so-called 'justifiable homicides.'
These laws have not made our country safer; they have made us less safe. And that's why so many law enforcement leaders oppose these laws. It's why some legislators who voted for these laws are having second thoughts. And it's why today, we're launching a nationwide campaign urging legislators to take these steps: Reform or repeal these laws where they have been passed, or defeat them in states where they have been introduced.
Now the fact is, all Americans already have a right to defend themselves with commensurate force, but these 'Shoot First' laws have nothing to do with that or with the exercise of Second Amendment rights. Instead, they justify civilian gunplay and invite vigilante justice and retribution with disastrous results.
The strongest law of all is one that is never on the books, and that is the law of unintended consequences. 'Stand Your Ground' laws prove that that's true. And that's demonstrated by the widely reported increase in what are deemed justifiable homicides in 'Stand Your Ground' states.
Look at what happened in three major states during comparable periods before and after 'Stand Your Ground' laws passed. Before 'Stand Your Ground' became law in Florida, the state averaged 12 cases of justifiable homicide per year. Since the law passed, the average has been 36 -- three times higher.
Pre-'Stand Your Ground,' Georgia averaged seven justifiable homicides a year; since enacting 'Stand Your Ground,' the average has been 14 a year -- twice as many. And Texas averaged 26 justifiable homicides a year before passing a 'Stand Your Ground' law; since the law passed, the average has been 45 per year.
Now, no matter how the State of Florida's investigation into the shooting of Trayvon Martin turns out, one fact is abundantly clear: Florida should never have allowed his shooter, George Zimmerman, to legally carry a gun in the first place. This was a man with a history of violence -- including arrests for assaulting a police officer and for domestic violence.
I can just tell you that in New York, we would never allow such an individual to carry a gun, and neither would many other states. And yet -- just weeks after the incident -- United States Senators introduced NRA-backed legislation that would require all states to honor any permit to carry a concealed weapon issued by any other state. That means individuals in a state with low standards -- or no standards -- would be able to carry guns anywhere they wanted to, no matter what laws a state might adopt.
In fact, Florida authorities have still, as far as I know, not revoked George Zimmerman's concealed carry permit. So if Congress passed the legislation, today he could legally carry a gun in New York City, or anywhere else.
Last December, a New York City Police Officer, Peter Figoski, was gunned down by a career criminal armed with an illegal semi-automatic pistol. I gave a eulogy at his funeral. I looked his daughters in the eye. He has four daughters; they were grieving for their father. How do you explain to those young girls that their father is not coming home because somebody, who the law prevents from having a gun, was able to get a gun and nobody really went after him.
Police officers and families in my city, and in cities and town across the nation, face similar dangers. We owe them -- just as we owe Trayvon Martin -- a commitment to do more to take guns out of the hands of dangerous people and to make our communities safer.
'Stand Your Ground' Laws do not make our communities safer. We've learned that the hard way -- and even those who once favored the laws I think are starting to recognize the need to change course.
Michael R. Bloomberg is the 108th Mayor of New York City, and co-founder of the Mayors Against Illegal Guns coalition.
Sadly, some are exploiting the Trayvon Martin shooting to target self-defense laws that protect innocent lives. These laws safeguard law-abiding and peaceable citizens, and are not to blame in the tragic Florida incident. Stand your ground laws did not apply in that situation, and statements to the contrary are irresponsible and misinformed.
In some states the law imposes a duty to retreat from physical confrontations. Whether in your home or on the street, if you fought back, you might be prosecuted as a criminal.
This duty was a terrible law. It required you to turn your back on an assailant. Even if he doesn't have a gun to shoot you in the back, if he's faster he could attack you from behind, where it is extremely difficult to effectively respond.
Some states did not impose this absurd rule. To the contrary, other states took a commonsense approach to self-defense, which the U.S. Supreme Court in Beard v. U.S. endorsed as early as 1895, when the Court unanimously declared that an innocent person under attack was, "not obliged to retreat, but was entitled to stand his ground, and meet any attack upon him with a deadly weapon, in such a way and with such force as ... [he] honestly believed, and had reasonable grounds to believe, was necessary to save his own life, or to protect himself from great bodily injury."
In states that rejected this commonsense principle, one legislative response to the wrongheaded duty to retreat was the Castle Doctrine. The duty to retreat in some states required you to abandon your own home if confronted with an invader, leaving all your possessions to the invader and possibly endangering others.
Castle Doctrine comes from the maxim that "a man's home is his castle." The idea is that if someone breaks into your home, rather than worry about how much evidence there is that he intends you harm and whether you could prove it in a court of law, that the law presumes you have a reasonable fear of death or bodily harm and can respond accordingly.
Castle Doctrine doesn't apply if you're in a public place, however, and there is no legal presumption in public that you can reasonably assume someone is trying to kill you. Instead, some states have created a lesser form of protection in public places, called "Stand Your Ground" (SYG) laws. This is the law that has been mentioned in connection with the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman shooting.
But the law is not what you have heard reported by the media. Florida's SYG law provides that a person under attack can use force -- including deadly force -- against his attacker if he "reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm... or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony."
Several keys points. First, the threat must be deadly. It's not just that you're under attack. You must be attacked with sufficient force to kill you or cause massive bodily harm, including rape.
Second, it's not enough that the victim believes he is under a deadly threat. His belief must also be reasonable, meaning that under the circumstances an objective observer would also conclude the victim could be killed or severely injured.
Third, SYG only protects victims; it does not apply to attackers. If you're attacking someone, you cannot claim SYG as a defense for what follows.
And fourth, it doesn't apply if you cannot retreat. If retreat is not an option, then the situation is governed by ordinary self-defense laws, not SYG laws.
Under any version of the facts, Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law did not apply in the Trayvon Martin incident. If Zimmerman pursued a confrontation with Martin, then Zimmerman was an attacker and cannot claim SYG. If Zimmerman's account is true that he was on the ground and Martin was on top of him, then retreat was impossible, so there would be no duty to retreat anyway. A victim in such a situation can use deadly force, but only if he reasonably believes he is being attacked with deadly force.
To our knowledge, that is the law in all fifty states. It was the law before SYG statutes were ever passed, and SYG did nothing to change it.
So why is this not common knowledge after all the reporting on the Martin shooting? Tragically, some anti-gun activists are misinforming the public. They are aided by media commentators who failed the public trust by not researching and understanding the SYG issue before presuming to editorialize on it.
The police are usually not at hand when you are attacked by a criminal. The Second Amendment guarantees the right of law-abiding people to defend themselves. And laws like Castle Doctrine and Stand Your Ground have restored that right in states where it had been eroded, not to take innocent life, but instead to preserve it.
Ken Blackwell, a fellow at the American Civil Rights Union, was Mayor of Cincinnati and an Undersecretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and is a National Rifle Association board member. Breitbart.com legal columnist Ken Klukowski, who contributed to this post, is on faculty at Liberty University School of Law.
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