Sunday, July 14, 2013

Stand Your Ground


A lot of the conversation around here has been about the Trayvon Martin case, and I imagine that the same is probably true for you also.  How big a role did race play?  Was justice served?  Why was Marissa Alexander not accorded the same treatment as Zimmerman?  They are good questions, but I want to go in another direction.  I want to bring into question the morality of so called stand your ground laws.

Florida law apparently affirms the right of every citizen to protect him or her self with deadly force (guns) against perceived threats to their life regardless of where they are.  I haven’t read the Florida law, and can only repeat what’s been said in the media, so let’s assume that what I’ve heard is roughly right.  Here in Washington we have something similar, and I haven’t read that law either, but I suspect it’s not quite as broad.  

Laws such as these are based on the romantic notion of a good person being confronted by a bad person who threatens to do serious harm.  As the romance goes, one should not be frightened into submission but encouraged to stand one’s ground, fighting back with whatever weapon may be at hand, that weapon most likely being a gun that is easily and legally available because the only defense against a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.

The whole idea smacks of old time Saturday matinee Westerns, John Wayne, and, sadly, all the vengeance movies of more recent years.  It’s enthusiastically endorsed by the gun industry, the NRA, and a few of my acquaintances, some of whom see themselves as the heroes of their own fantasies, and others who believe that the armed, ax murdering, rapist, robber is behind every tree and hiding in every shadow.  The truth is that that the romantic good vs. bad scenario is largely imaginary.  Life doesn’t work that way.

We’ve had two stand your ground shootings in our own small city within the last twelve months.  No race involved.  One featured a known small time burglar who smashed a store window one night, entered, was confronted by the shotgun wielding store owner and took off running.  He didn’t get far.  The store owner got him with several rounds of buckshot as he was running away.  The second had to do with two friends who spent the night drinking in the home of one of them.  They had an argument of some kind, and the visitor left only to come back a short time later, breaking down the door to come in and...do what?  We’ll never know.  His friend shot him dead.

Both were decided under the Washington version of stand your ground.  But for the stand your ground law, the first case could have been easily solved with a call to 911, the arrest of the culprit, and no one would be dead. No one would be a killer. The second case could have ended with a nasty fight between two drunks.  Maybe they would have spent a night or two in jail, but no one would be dead. No one would be a killer.

Self defense has always been a viable defense in the courts, but the stand your ground type laws, plus the current NRA inspired gun culture, encourage intemperate, impulsive use of deadly force.  It’s a twisted form of cowardly vigilanteism.  It puts everyone in danger of being confronted by some armed nut claiming that his or her life is being threatened, and shooting with impunity.

I would like to see the stand your ground laws repealed, but it seems unlikely until enough of us decide the best and most courageous of what it means to be American does not have to tolerate the worst and most fearful of what it means to be American.

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