Stand Your Ground Laws – The Lesson of Trayvon Williams

Like a lot of people, I’m feeling really bad for the family and friends of Trayvon Martin lately. Not to mention all the black men who suddenly have to deal with the fear arising from an increased probability that they could be out walking in a strange neighborhood, be followed, confronted, and shot.

I used to think that the civil rights movement had put an end to discrimination, back when I was young. Of course, I knew there were many people who were still prejudiced, and hated black people. (I am saying “black” because when I was growing up that was the politically correct way of referring to African-Americans, and was preferred by my black friends, and so that’s what I say.) But I really thought that in large part, we as a society were past all that.

As time has gone by, I have come to realize that we all carry predjudices, and that they are impossible to discard entirely. (Perhaps I’ll revisit that statement sometime in the future.) Trayvon Martin’s father recently said that if Trayvon had been white, this wouldn’t have happened. I happen to agree with him. However, despite my opinion that Trayvon’s blackness and hoodiness led to George Zimmerman’s being suspicious of him and tracking him, and likely also had something to do with Mr. Zimmerman being acquitted of homicide or manslaughter, that is not what this article is about. Those are issues of equality and justice, which while important and to be noted, will have to be dealt with another time.

We as citizens of the United States of America, have been raised with the idea that the law should apply equally to everyone, regardless of creed or race, but I think this terrible outcome has also thrown a spotlight on another moral issue in Florida, which unfortunately seems to be spreading like contagion to other States. Namely, the legalization and promotion of the Stand Your Ground moral philosophy, which impacts most directly on our notions of Freedom and Liberty.

I am going to use as an example the Florida Statute, which although reasonable when talking about home invasion, also has the following troublesome sections:

776.013

(3) A person who is not engaged in an unlawful activity and who is attacked in any other place where he or she has a right to be has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.

776.041 Use of force by aggressor. —The justification described in the preceding sections of this chapter is not available to a person who:

(2) Initially provokes the use of force against himself or herself, unless:

(a) Such force is so great that the person reasonably believes that he or she is in imminent danger of death or great bodily harm and that he or she has exhausted every reasonable means to escape such danger other than the use of force which is likely to cause death or great bodily harm to the assailant; or
(b) In good faith, the person withdraws from physical contact with the assailant and indicates clearly to the assailant that he or she desires to withdraw and terminate the use of force, but the assailant continues or resumes the use of force.
Although all this sounds good on first reading, the attempt to limit the protection of the law when the aggressor provokes an attack fall flat. For example, here are some problematic situations which the law seems to legalize:

First, the statute seems to legalize duels, where both people agree to meet on a spot where they both “have a right to be”, then point weapons or fists at each other, which puts them both in imminent danger of great bodily harm, and so allows both of them to try and kill the other.

At least in that case both people are willing participants. Lets look at the following:

Say someone G has it out for another person T. G provokes T into attacking them, preferably in the dark, so their actions are somewhat hidden, and so T doesn’t see that G has a gun. G then cries out for help to make it clear to all who might overhear that G feels they are in dire danger. G then shoots T. No problem for G under the law, given the available evidence.

Even if it is daylight, and out in the open, and even if G attacks T first; if T is the better fighter (or G pretends to be a poor fighter), and is giving a whooping to G as it were, G can say he felt he was in imminent danger of great bodily harm and unable to escape, and so can justify shooting T.

Really, you are SOL if you don’t also have a gun in that situation. And if you do, it’s whoever is first to the trigger that gets to walk away.

So, this law is simply an open invitation to anarchy, where those who are willing to kill are able to do so with impunity, as long as they meet their adversary or target in a public place, start or incite a physical conflict, and are willing to lie about their “reasonable belief” of being in “imminent danger of great bodily harm”. As we have seen, the cover of darkness is helpful, but not actually necessary to pull this off, as long as no bystanders are close at hand who are willing to put themselves in danger by trying to intervene in a fight between two violent adult men.

Although I am an advocate for gun ownership (I’ll discuss that another time), I do not want me or my family to live in anarchy. My freedom to move about freely, without undue fear of being tricked into a deadly confrontation or being killed, is important to me. These laws limit my Freedom by giving someone else the Liberty (or right) to set me up for attack, and kill me. This is wrong.

The NRA is apparently supporting the spread of these laws. While I support gun ownership, and even the right to carry, I think promoting laws which encourage violent confrontation and anarchy, as a roundabout way of forcing people to carry guns, is also wrong. What do you think?