Time to repeal or amend Florida’s stand your ground law

By  Dorothy Inman- Johnson
Special to the Outlook

Florida’s Stand Your Ground Law was unanimously approved in 2005 by a Republican-controlled Senate with a vote of 39-0, including 14 Democrats. Current U.S. Congressman Al Lawson, then a Florida Senator, was one of the14 Democrats voting in favor of the bill. At the time, a recent victim of a home invasion in which his wife was tied up, gagged, assaulted, and held hostage, Lawson voted for the bill believing it would provide stronger protection against prosecution for defending yourself and your family in your home. He has stated he never envisioned interpretation of the law evolving to allow people to escape conviction for murder anywhere by claiming protection under Stand Your Ground.

Lawson’s vote in 2005 has become an issue raised by his re-election challenger, former Jacksonville Mayor Alvin Brown, in Lawson’s re-election bid for Florida’s 5th Congressional District. Stand Your Ground greatly expanded the “castle doctrine”, a man’s home is his castle, in place since the 18th century allowing self defense in the home. Once approved, however, it was interpreted to protect anyone from prosecution if they killed while claiming to be in fear of imminent bodily harm or death, even when they provoked the confrontation.  Nothing demonstrated more tragically the way the law was being abused than the Trayvon Martin murder case.

The 2012 Orlando shooting death of unarmed teen,Trayvon Martin, after being stalked, confronted, and killed  by George Zimmerman caused international outrage and protests when a Jury found Zimmerman not guilty based on a Stand Your Ground defense. It seemed indefensible that an unarmed child walking home in his own neighborhood could be followed, confronted, and killed by a neighbor who felt the child had no right to be there, with no consequence. This case made it clear racists had the green light through Stand Your Ground to act on their hate against people of color with no fear of prosecution, even in an era where juries are not made up of just White people as they were decades ago.

Democrats who voted for the law in 2005, including Lawson, are now in favor of amending the law to its original intent of self defense in the home, business or vehicle, or repealing and replacing it with common sense self defense measures. Since Florida’s law was passed, 33 other states have adopted Stand Your Ground laws; and we have seen a major spike in the murder rate. A 2016 Study by the Journal of the American Medical Association showed an “abrupt and sustained increase in state homicides” in Florida since Stand Your Ground was passed in 2005. Yet the Stand Your Ground Law’s author, Republican Florida Legislator Dennis Baxley, points to a reduction in violent crime in that same period, though he cannot attribute the decrease to the existence of the law. For sure, a law that does not  allow a murder to be called a murder, or a crime, would give the false impression that the violent crime rate has decreased.

Data shows that shooting an unarmed Black person by a White person has been ruled justifiable homicide 17 percent of the time; while only 1 percent of shootings of a White person by a Black person have been ruled justifiable. Ten states have filed bills to repeal and replace their Stand Your Ground laws, including South Carolina and Florida, with laws that support self defense in a person’s home, business, or vehicle. In January 2018, Florida Rep. Shevrin Jones formally introduced House Bill 6073 in the Florida Legislature in an attempt to correct a law he says “encourages Floridians to murder one another”. Jones said, “The stand your ground law has evolved into something no longer about self-defense, but has become a legalized way for bad actors to get away with aggression, mal intent, and fatal violence. The law does not  increase public safety and has actually led to a rise in homicides and firearm related homicides in Florida”. However, in Republican controlled states like Florida, it is doubtful that any repeal bill will be successful until a majority of Florida voters bring as much pressure on our legislators as the NRA. Gun control groups, civil rights advocates, and even some law enforcement agencies have said from the start that the law would lead to a “shoot first”, trigger happy culture. But until we start speaking with our vote to end this terrible law, nothing will happen.

It is well past time to amend or repeal Florida’s stand your ground law and stop the legally approved slaughter of innocent Floridians. The Trayvon Martin documentary series, currently airing on television, should be a vivid reminder of why action is needed now.

Please send your comments to dotinman-johnson@hotmail.com.