Politics Over Principals
Last March, in response to protests over the Trayvon Martin shooting, Governor Rick Scott appointed a task force to review Florida's Stand Your Ground law. Headed by ex-Lieutenant Governor Jennifer Carroll, this committee was hailed as an example of how public demonstrations could influence the political process.
A year later, the task force has served its function: as a political ploy to deflect civil rights tensions. Though judicious revisions have been suggested, Scott remains unwilling to commit to any major changes to the law.
Stand Your Ground is an NRA darling, a wild-west-style edict that puts fatal force into the hands of the public and allows the killing of an aggressor -- anywhere, anytime -- so long as the shooter feels threatened.
While the law has its merits, implementation has proven difficult in the real world.
According to a study by The Tampa Bay Times, Stand Your Ground has been misapplied to schoolyard fights, drug deals, and gang-related killings. In a disturbing number of these cases, the instigator ends up walking free.
Katherine Fernandez Rundle, the State Attorney of Miami-Dade County, said as the law stands, "anyone who enters another's yard to ask directions, or sell something… can be killed without questions being asked first." She recommended the statute require a reasonable fear of imminent peril or danger. The task force rejected this idea out of hand.
Another questionable provision is the "automatic immunity" clause, which states that a person who kills and then claims self-defense is exempt from arrest, detainment, or prosecution. Judge Terry P. Lewis said this could conceivably result in a shootout with people who exchange gunfire on a public street being immune to arrest if both sides claim self-defense.
In practice, law enforcement cannot always determine probable cause without temporary detention.
"Anyone who looks at the data and the misuses of Stand Your Ground would have come out with stronger recommendations," says State Senator Chris Smith, who has proposed State Bill 136, which keeps the heart of the law intact, but installs pragmatic changes such as removing the automatic immunity clause, allowing for temporary detainment, and requiring agencies to keep statistics on all Stand Your Ground cases.
Unfortunately, Senator Smith's bill will be dead on arrival in Tallahassee. In order to pass, it would have to go through the House Judiciary Committee Chair, Dennis Baxley of Ocala, who originally drafted the Stand Your Ground law.
Baxley, a gun rights advocate and -- ironically -- a funeral home director, insists the law needs no amending. According to him, the changes would not be "consistent with our standard of legal care, which says you are innocent until proven guilty of something."
By this standard, no person would ever be able to be arrested or detained until proven guilty by a jury of his peers.
Have we become so inured to murder that we cannot afford to err on the side of caution? Is the shame of sitting in the back seat of a police car too great a price to pay for the taking of a human life? Shouldn't we, as civilized people, at least think twice before breaking a more time-tested law: the Sixth Commandment?
A "kill first, explain later" mentality is precarious. Consider: if you have a gun and can discharge it with impunity, why back down? Why attempt diplomacy or retreat?
Until our legislators start valuing common sense over special interests, Florida will continue to handcuff its own law enforcement officers instead of those who would abuse and take advantage of a law meant to protect the innocent.