By dint of an unholy marriage between genuine ignorance and political opportunism, the Zimmerman trial has this week led to a peculiar dispute as to the propriety of so-called Stand Your Ground rules. “It’s time,” attorney general Eric Holder told the NAACP on Tuesday, “to question laws that senselessly expand the concept of self-defense and sow dangerous conflict in our neighborhoods.” Fittingly, the crowd broke into applause before Holder had even finished his sentence.
Others have eloquently argued that the conflation of the Zimmerman trial and Florida’s Stand Your Ground statute is nonsensical, and none so sedulously as Reason’s Jacob Sullum. They are correct, of course; one’s “duty to retreat” evaporates as an option when one’s back is on the concrete. Nevertheless, if the likes of Eric Holder are set against the law, it probably is a good time for its advocates to take a second look, and to answer its critics, too.
In this pursuit we might begin by denouncing as demonstrably false the popular idea that Florida is a legal backwater and Stand Your Ground an outré legal novelty. Reviewing American state law, the constitutional lawyer Eugene Volokh did a quick headcount this week and revealed that:
The substantial majority view among the states, by a 31-19 margin, is no duty to retreat. Florida is thus part of this substantial majority on this point. And most of these states took this view even before the recent spate of “stand your ground” statutes, including the Florida statute.
In essence, “Stand Your Ground” is a blanket term for any legal regime in which individuals do not have a duty to run away in the event that they are attacked. In states with such systems, juries are not expected to consider whether an individual could feasibly have retreated before resorting to violence in his defense; in states that do not, juries must inquire as to his chance of safely fleeing. In other words, in most of the country the Castle Doctrine has been extended to the village.
The primary argument against such a law is that the mésalliance of concealed firearms and permissive self-defense rules affords those with evil intent a legal loophole to murder. There is, it must be repeated ad nauseam, no evidence whatsoever that George Zimmerman was possessed of anything approaching evil intent. But I suppose that this isn’t to say that others might not be. Florida’s law, which is fairly typical on this front, holds that:
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.
Thus, critics such as Eric Holder charge, one individual simply needs to provoke another into taking the first swing, and then, ostensibly acting in self-defense and without a duty to retreat, he will be able to kill whomever he wishes. In an otherwise excellent reaction to the Zimmerman verdict, The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates hinted at this last week, imagining that “an intelligent, self-interested observer of this case, who happens to live in Florida, would not be wrong to do as George Zimmerman did — buy a gun, master the finer points of Florida self-defense law, and then wait.”
Superficially, there is certainly some logic behind this claim. Firearms are a means by which the weak may put themselves on at least an equal footing with the strong. People with guns tucked quietly away may certainly become less risk-averse and more confrontational. The vast majority of gun owners are responsible, of course, and almost all holders of concealed-carry permits have gone through a training program of some sort. But not everybody is a good guy. In a country that enumerates the right to bear arms and promises equal protection of its laws, there is little way to weed out those who might one day commit a crime — and it is never a good idea to restrict liberty because it could be abused. Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean it’s not a potential problem.