Sadly, some are exploiting the Trayvon Martin shooting to target self-defense laws that protect innocent lives. These laws safeguard law-abiding and peaceable citizens, and are not to blame in the tragic Florida incident.
Stand your ground laws did not apply in that situation, and statements to the contrary are irresponsible and misinformed.
In some states the law imposes a duty to retreat from physical confrontations. Whether in your home or on the street, if you fought back, you might be prosecuted as a criminal.
This duty was terrible law. It required you to turn your back on an assailant. Even if he doesn’t have a gun to shoot you in the back, if he’s faster he could attack you from behind, where it is extremely difficult to effectively respond.
Some states did not impose this absurd rule. To the contrary, other states took a common-sense approach to self-defense, which the U.S. Supreme Court in Beard v. U.S. endorsed as early as 1895, when the Court unanimously declared that an innocent person under attack was, “not obliged to retreat, but was entitled to stand his ground, and meet any attack upon him with a deadly weapon, in such a way and with such force as … [he] honestly believed, and had reasonable grounds to believe, was necessary to save his own life, or to protect himself from great bodily injury.”
In states that rejected this common-sense principle, one legislative response to the wrongheaded duty to retreat was the Castle Doctrine. The duty to retreat in some states required you to abandon your own home if confronted with an invader, leaving all your possessions to the invader and possibly endangering others.
Castle Doctrine comes from the maxim that “a man’s home is his castle.” The idea is that if someone breaks into your home, rather than worry about how much evidence there is that he intends you harm and whether you could prove it in a court of law, that the law presumes you have a reasonable fear of death or bodily harm and can respond accordingly.
Castle Doctrine doesn’t apply if you’re in a public place, however, and there is no legal presumption in public that you can reasonably assume someone is trying to kill you. Instead, some states have created a lesser form of protection in public places, called “Stand Your Ground” (SYG) laws. This is the law that has been mentioned in connection with the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman shooting.
But the law is not what you have heard reported by the media. Florida’s SYG law provides that a person under attack can use force—including deadly force—against his attacker if he, “reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm … or to prevent the imminent commission of a forcible felony.”
Several keys points. First, the threat must be deadly. It’s not just that you’re under attack. You must be attacked with sufficient force to kill you or cause massive bodily harm, or rape.
Second, it’s not enough that the victim believes he is under a deadly threat. His belief must also be reasonable, meaning that under the circumstances an objective observer would also conclude the victim could be killed or severely injured.
Third, SYG only protects victims; it does not apply to attackers. If you’re attacking someone, you cannot claim SYG as a defense for what follows.
And fourth, it doesn’t apply if you cannot retreat. If retreat is not an option, then the situation is governed by ordinary self-defense laws, not SYG laws.
Under any version of the facts, Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law did not apply in the Trayvon Martin incident. If Zimmerman pursued a confrontation with Martin, then Zimmerman was an attacker and cannot claim SYG. If Zimmerman’s account is true that he was on the ground and Martin was on top of him, then retreat was impossible, so there would be no duty to retreat anyway. A victim in such a situation can use deadly force, but only if he reasonably believes he is being attacked with deadly force.
To our knowledge, that is the law in all fifty states. It was the law before SYG statutes were ever passed, and SYG did nothing to change it.
So why is this not common knowledge after all the reporting on the Martin shooting? Tragically, some anti-gun activists are misinforming the public. They are aided by media commentators who failed the public trust by not researching and understanding the SYG issue before presuming to editorialize on it.
The police are usually not at hand when you are attacked by a criminal. The Second Amendment guarantees the right of law-abiding people to defend themselves. And laws like Castle Doctrine and Stand Your Ground have restored that right in states where it had been eroded, not to take innocent life, but instead to preserve it.
Editor's Note: Ken Klukowski co-authored this column. A legal columnist, Klukowski also serves on the faculty at Liberty University School of Law.
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