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Political Animal

The Law-Abiding Citizen

Tossing in the language “reasonably believes” is such a low legal threshold that it allows any would-be savior-of-the-day to whip out his pistol and fire away if he thinks he can stop a tragedy from occurring.

There are so many problems with the sad, sorry spectacle of the Trayvon Martin killing that it’s hard to know where to start. But there’s no way around the fact that it comes down to the gun.

In the end, George Zimmerman (who has yet to be charged with a crime) may walk because conflicting eyewitness testimony from two people (at this point) may render itself unusable, or muddy the water enough to provide reasonable doubt. Zimmerman may walk because Florida’s ludicrous National Rifle Association- and American Legislative Exchange Counsel-sponsored “Stand Your Ground” law may have loosened the ground under the prosecutor’s case enough to keep the state from securing a conviction. Zimmerman may walk because the 911 recording is too unintelligible to be able to tell if, as some allege, Zimmerman muttered a racial slur when talking about Martin, and the screams for help cannot be positively attributed to one man or the other.

But the fact still remains, were it not for the fact that Zimmerman was riding around armed as a vigilante, a “Neighborhood Watch” commander on ego steroids, ready and willing and looking for trouble, then an unarmed 17-year-old boy might still be alive.

The ALEC is a right-wing legal umbrella group that takes conservative legal principles and sponsors them in the form of law in state legislatures across the country. Back in 2005, the NRA’s lobbyist Marion Hammer submitted the model legislation for the “Stand Your Ground” law to ALEC, which then unanimously adopted the measure in its criminal justice task force, which then proposed it first in the state of Florida, where it passed that same year.

The law is considered controversial because of the lowered standard for the use of deadly force and the fact that it takes what’s known as “Castle Doctrine”—the right to defend one’s home using deadly force—and moves it out into the regular world.

The applicable part of the law (emphasis mine), in full, states:

Use of force in defense of person.—A person is justified in using force, except deadly force, against another when and to the extent that the person reasonably believes that such conduct is necessary to defend himself or herself or another against the other’s imminent use of unlawful force. However, a person is justified in the use of deadly force and does not have a duty to retreat if: (1) He or she reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the imminent commission of a forcible felony.

“Duty to retreat” is legal terminology that recognizes that the law’s duly recognized enforcement mechanism—the police—are the ones to handle situations dealing with the possible use of deadly force, not armed vigilantes. Tossing in the language “reasonably believes” is such a low legal threshold that it allows any would-be savior-of-the-day to whip out his pistol and fire away if he thinks he can stop a tragedy from occurring.

The fact is, this is the dream-come-true legal grounds backing the gun lobby’s most fervent desire. After nearly any and every gun-related tragedy going back years, the gun lobby has argued that all that was needed was some “law-abiding citizen” with a gun who could have stopped the mass shootings at Jonesboro, at Columbine, at Virginia Tech, in Tucson, and so on. But the legal “duty to retreat” language in most states prevents that from happening, which is why ALEC has proposed, and legislatures have passed, similar laws in 23 other states since. (Some states do not have “duty to retreat” language in the law, according to ProPublica.)

The St. Petersburg Times did a study in 2010 showing that since the passage of the “Stand Your Ground” law, reports of justifiable homicides in Florida tripled. The law was invoked, according to the Times, in at least 93 cases with 65 deaths, and in 2009, the newspaper reports, someone’s shooting death was considered warranted on an average of twice a week. In the five years before the law, the state averaged 34 reported justifiable homicides a year. Two years after the law passed, there were 102. Two years after that, 105.

The St. Petersburg Times story quoted Miami’s police chief, John Timoney, speaking to The New York Times about the law: “Whether it’s trick-or-treaters or kids playing in the yard of someone who doesn’t want them there or some drunk guy stumbling into the wrong house, you’re encouraging people to possibly use deadly physical force where it shouldn’t be used.”

The reason why we have the “duty to retreat” is that, unlike the dream of the NRA, we all don’t live in a Jerry Bruckheimer-directed movie where everyone with a gun hits what they aim at, in glorious digital color and Dolby-quality sound. And in many cases, the shooter in many mass shootings himself is a “law-abiding citizen”—even up to the point he pulls the trigger. Until convicted in a court of law, that shooter wielding a gun with either a murderous rage or an overblown sense of justice is just another person. Just like George Zimmerman.

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