Why ‘Stand Your Ground’ is really ‘Kill at Will’

What do you call a law that allows a person to shoot and kill another human being when they could otherwise walk away safely?

I can only call it immoral.

With George Zimmerman soon headed to a pre-trial hearing to evaluate whether he will be protected by the “Stand Your Ground” law in Florida, it is important to understand exactly how the law has made permissible the use of lethal force and legalized acts of murder that previously never would have been deemed “justifiable homicides.”

In the wake of Zimmerman’s slaying of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin, I have frequently heard people claim, “The ‘Stand Your Ground’ law does not allow you follow someone!” Often, the people claiming this are the ones responsible for the law, like the bill’s sponsor, Florida House Representative Dennis Baxley and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who signed it into law.

But, of course, Zimmerman had been carrying a gun and following — some would say stalking — young black men in his community for months before he ever encountered Trayvon Martin. He even notified police when he did so. More important, however, is the fact that Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law removes an individual’s duty to retreat from a conflict in public even when he can safely do so:

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.

Prior to the enactment of these laws, Americans always had a right to “stand their ground” on their property and use lethal force against home invaders. Centuries of English and American common law have long recognized that there is no place to retreat to when cornered in one’s own “castle.”

The law did, however, require individuals to retreat from physical confrontations in public if they could safely do so. If you were cornered in an alley, pinned to the ground or otherwise out of options to retreat, you could defend yourself with lethal force. But if it’s possible to just turn around and walk away, go home and sleep it off, and avoid escalating the conflict, the law required you to do so.

That’s no longer the case in the 25 states that have enacted “Stand Your Ground” laws at the behest of the National Rifle Association (NRA) and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). In those states, if you’ve had a terrible day, if you just don’t like the other guy very much or if you want to try out that new handgun you just bought, you can feel free to escalate the level of violence in a physical altercation by shooting him. Even if you kill him, the law has got your back. You’ll be immune not only from criminal prosecution, but also from any potential civil lawsuits.

Why is the NRA pushing “Stand Your Ground” laws? For the same reason it pushes a number of other laws meant to deregulate the purchase, possession and use of firearms — to sell more guns. Gun ownership has declined dramatically in the past 30 years, to the point that only one in five Americans now owns a firearm (and only one in 10 women). The gun industry’s challenge is to sell to men who already own multiple firearms. Industry marketing is focused on doing this by aggressively promoting military-style firearms (such as semiautomatic AR-15s and AK-47s) and “carry” guns (compact, semiautomatic handguns with “stopping power”).

By pushing “Stand Your Ground” laws, the NRA sends a clear message to the hotrods and wannabe vigilantes that’s it’s okay to buy yourself that new carry gun, bring it out into public and even use it without fear of legal repercussions. Then, when the rest of us realize that we are walking our streets surrounded by armed individuals with questionable backgrounds and terrible judgment (like Zimmerman), the NRA is hoping that we too will feel compelled to arm ourselves in public. It is a strategy that is both cunning and sick.

The NRA has shown us a roadmap to a society that relies solely on private violence — and the threat of private violence — to keep its citizens in line. Such a society absolves people of the responsibility to learn how to manage conflicts nonviolently, without escalating them. It’s not a society I want to see my daughters grow up in.

This morning, in anticipation of Mother’s Day, the Second Chance at Shoot First campaign has released a special video from Trayvon’s mother, Sybrina Fulton. Second Chance at Shoot First is a national movement launched by Color of Change, the NAACP, the National Action Network, the Urban League and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. In the video, Sybrina Fulton asks viewers to “spare other mothers the pain” she has experienced by “calling upon the governor of your state to reexamine … ‘Stand Your Ground’ laws … to keep our families safe.”

You can heed her call right now by signing and sharing the following online petition from Second Chance at Shoot First.

No one should ever be allowed to walk our streets with a hidden handgun and kill at will. If we don’t start standing up to the NRA and ALEC, however, Zimmerman will be far from the last gun-toting vigilante to spill innocent blood.

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