Commentary: Time to reassess 'Stand Your Ground' laws

The Kansas City StarApril 1, 2012 

The news article foresaw Trayvon Martin’s death:

“Opponents of the law predict that more Florida residents will die needlessly in more gun battles as people refuse to back away in confrontations.”

The line is from a story that ran in The Kansas City Star in 2007, when Kansas and Missouri were passing “stand your ground” statutes. These are the shoot first, dare-you-to-prove-it-wasn’t-justified-later laws receiving scrutiny since Trayvon’s death in Florida. His killer maintains he shot the unarmed 17-year-old in self defense.

Missouri and Kansas were among many states caught up in a flurry of such legislation.

The Legal Community Against Violence ranks Kansas’ law — and those of 24 other states — equal in scope to the Florida law. The group judges the laws in Missouri and six other states to be less far-reaching. An additional five states have legislation pending, according to Legal Community Against Violence.

The laws turn keep-the-peace standards on their head.

Most laws seek to limit the harm people do to others. Shoot First gives people more authorization to use deadly force.

All states, by common law, have “castle doctrines.” Those laws allow even deadly force when a person can reasonably show they felt threatened in their own home. Shoot First laws vary, but many expand that notion to anywhere people may lawfully find themselves — not just a home or car.

Previously, a person who felt threatened was expected to retreat if possible. Under Shoot First laws, the same person can be given legal cover for attacking instead.

And, as is the case in Florida, the laws can also limit the ability of police to make arrests when self-defense is invoked. Prosecutors can face higher burdens of proof, in some cases a direct flip to long codified aspects of case law.

The laws have been around long enough for a thorough assessment.

And it needs to occur impartially. Not by a research institute cooked up by the National Rifle Association, which pushed for the passage of these laws, nor by organizations representing prosecutors and police who were highly critical as they were being debated.

Shoot First laws may have been an unnecessary rewrite to self-defense standards. Repeatedly, as they were being argued in Jefferson City, Topeka and other state capitols, gun advocates could not cite examples where people were unfairly charged and jailed after invoking self-defense.

The nation must discover whether these laws are impeding police investigations and the pursuit of justice by prosecutors.

It is the very least that can be done for Trayvon Martin now.

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