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Toni Wellen: ‘Stand Your Ground’ Laws Contribute to More Violence

“It’s time to question laws that senselessly expand the concept of self-defense and sow dangerous conflict in our neighborhoods. ... Such laws undermine public safety. It is our collective obligation: We must stand our ground to ensure that our laws reduce violence and take a hard look at laws that contribute to more violence than they prevent.”
— Attorney General Eric Holder addressing the NAACP convention on July 16 in Orlando, Fla.

Stand-Your-Ground laws state: there is no duty to retreat from an attacker in any place where the individual is lawfully present; and that a person may justifiably use force in self-defense when there is reasonable belief of an unlawful threat, without an obligation to retreat first. The law, originated from English law, the “Castle Doctrine,” establishing the right of self-defense in one’s home. This law expands that right to venues beyond a home. The Second Amendment currently allows possession of a firearm in the home for self-defense. The NRA and some states wish to expand the carrying of firearms anywhere and anytime by nearly everyone. Thirty states currently have some version of stand-your-ground laws.

Stand-Your-Ground legislation emerged in 2005 in Florida by former NRA president, Marion Hammer. The NRA was “corporate co-chair” of ALEC’s (American Legislative Exchange Council) Public Safety and Elections task force that pushed Stand-Your-Ground laws. ALEC represents some of the most influential corporatists in America providing a forum for corporations and legislators to collaborate on “model bills” and draft legislation which members push to become law.

ALEC is under increasing scrutiny as the public became aware of its role in the Trayvon Martin case. The NRA aggressively pursues adoption of stand-your-ground laws nationwide as part of a broader agenda. The law’s critics argue that Florida’s law makes it very difficult to prosecute cases against people who shoot others and then claim self-defense. The shooter can argue he felt threatened, and in most cases, the only witness who could have argued otherwise is the deceased.

The Zimmerman defense waived the Stand-Your-Ground law as it would have permitted civil damages in a subsequent trial, which now cannot occur. However the court’s instructions to the jury differed. “Even though it’s popular wisdom to say ‘Stand-Your-Ground’ was not an issue in this case, in fact it was. The exact instruction to the jury was that Zimmerman had no duty to retreat and had a right to stand his ground and meet force with force — including deadly force. Those jury instructions incorporate the Stand-Your-Ground law,” explained Lisa Graves, Exec. Dir., Media and Democracy.

A Texas A&M University study found states with such laws have more homicides than states without them. “These laws lower the cost of using lethal force,” says Mark Hoekstra, economist, “Our study finds that homicides go up 7 to 9 percent in states that pass the laws, relative to states that didn’t pass the laws over the same time period. One possibility for the increase in homicide is that perhaps [in cases where] there would have been a fistfight ... now, because of stand your ground laws, it’s possible that those escalate into something much more violent and lethal,” says Hoekstra. Importantly, the data Hoekstra analyzed depended on how police classify shootings. Police guidelines vary from state to state; police in different places may interpret shootings differently in light of stand your ground laws.

As a society, we need to look closely at the actual impact of our legal system — not just its stated intentions — if we are to create a system where the words “liberty and justice for all” are a reality for all people. We also have to reign in the power organizations like ALEC wield as they continue to forge legislation that erodes our fundamental rights as a democracy on crucial issues. If there is a silver lining to the Trayvon Martin tragedy, it has been to shine a light on the relationships between ALEC, the NRA, large corporations and legislators across the country, encouraging a dialogue that is meaningful, hopefully one representing the majority of Americans who do not agree with the gun lobby’s “guns-everywhere” vision. Legislators must be held accountable to their constituencies not to the NRA or corporations who have a $tranglehold on Congress.

— Toni Wellen is chairwoman of the Coalition Against Gun Violence, the only gun violence prevention organization on the Central Coast for the past 18 years.

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