Time to tweak Florida's stand your ground law

More senseless killings warrant action

February 21, 2014 

Senate Stand Your Ground Laws

Sybrina Fulton, mother of Trayvon Martin, testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2013, before a Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing on so-called "stand your ground laws." Fulton mother told a panel of senators that state stand your ground self-defense laws do not work and must be amended, reviving the politically charged gun control issue. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

MANUEL BALCE CENETA — AP

Florida's permissive "stand your ground" law merits tweaks to prevent people from justifying reckless actions that lead to senseless death. The Legislature should address this issue in the aftermath of two more high-profile cases that have once again brought Florida national shame. The law should not be used as a license to kill.

The law's language if a person "reasonably believes" death or great bodily harm could be imminent, that person "has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force."

Jurors hear those words in these self-defense cases, but recent cases stretch the idea of "reasonably" to great lengths.

While the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin brought national outrage over the stand your ground law, the ensuing statewide legislative hearings -- stacked with proponents of the law -- brought no changes. But now there is fresh evidence of the abuse of this defense.

Michael Dunn killed a 17-year-old in Jacksonville over loud music in November 2012. Jordan Davis and three friends pulled up next to Dunn's vehicle at a convenience store with rap blaring and ugly words were exchanged. Dunn fired 10 rounds at the teenagers as they sat inside a sport utility vehicle, including several from a crouched position as the truck drove away. Then Dunn left the scene and never called authorities, who tracked him down and arrested him at his home hours away.

Dunn claimed he saw a shotgun, but witnesses did not, the surviving teens denied having one and police did not find one.

Jurors convicted Dunn last week of three counts of second-degree attempted murder but deadlocked over the first-degree murder charge for killing Davis.

There are several disturbing elements here. While driving away, the teens posed no threat yet Dunn continued shooting. How could jurors agree to convict him of attempted murder yet deadlock 9-3 in favor of the murder charge? They were also split over a conviction on second-degree murder and manslaughter, one female juror told ABC News this week.

She also said two others on the panel cited the self-defense law in rejecting the murder charge yet apparently agreed stand your ground did not apply on the other charges. That manifest contradiction aside, what constituted "reasonable" justification for lethal force?

Did Dunn fabricate the shotgun in order to employ stand your ground? What possible motivation would he have for shooting into a fleeing vehicle? Certainly not self-defense.

In the other case, former police officer Curtis Reeves shot and killed Chad Oulson during a dispute over texting inside a Wesley Chapel movie theater in January. Oulson's only weapon appeared to be a box of popcorn he tossed at Reeves, though the defendant claims he saw something else and is claiming self-defense. Reeves, denied bail, remains in jail on a second-degree murder charge.

Both of these cases appear to be more of an angry, out-of-control impulse that led to an overreaction and not self-defense.

The popular self-defense law stands no chance of repeal but a tweak is warranted.

The primary question here is this: How many more senseless deaths must occur before the Legislature acts and inserts a provision that calls for a threatened person to retreat if that can be done safely? The currently law states that a person in a place where he or she "has a right to be has no duty to retreat ..."

Wouldn't it be reasonable for a person to retreat when safety is assured?

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