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Editorial: Bad Florida law: Shoot first, ask questions later

Updated: April 26, 2012 8:14AM

Florida’s now-infamous “Stand Your Ground” self-defense law may not, in the end, protect the man who killed an unarmed teenager in a shooting last month that has sparked national outrage.

That would be the most just outcome, given the mounting evidence that George Zimmerman followed and confronted 17-year-old Trayvon Martin before shooting him as he walked to his home in Sanford, Fla., on Feb. 26. The boy carried nothing more than a bag of Skittles and a bottle of iced tea.

But that doesn’t mean Florida’s dangerous and offensive Stand Your Ground law — which has thus far sheltered the Sanford shooter and others in as many as 24 states with similar laws — should go unchallenged.

A better name for the law comes from the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence: “Shoot First, Ask Questions Later.”

The stakes are so high, the passions so inflamed, that even President Barack Obama weighed in Friday, noting both the racial component of the shooting (Trayvon was black and Zimmerman white and Hispanic) and the legal framework that surrounds it.

“You know, if I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon,” a somber Obama said after emphasizing the importance of a thorough investigation of both the details of the case and its legal context. “All of us have to do some soul searching to figure out how does something like this happen. And that means we examine the laws and the context for what happened.”

The Sanford Police Department initially ruled Trayvon’s shooting justifiable, based on the Stand Your Ground law, which broke new legal ground in 2005 by telling Floridians who believe they face imminent danger that they don’t have to retreat first before resorting to deadly force, a practice enshrined in common law for centuries. Instead, Floridians in public areas have the right to “stand their ground” and “meet force with force, including deadly force.”

This week, investigations were opened by the civil rights division of U.S. Justice Department and by Florida state investigators, and that could lead to charges against Zimmerman.

That should be only the beginning. Stand Your Ground laws, pushed by the National Rifle Association, have no place in American life and should be repealed.

Since passage of Florida’s law — the nation’s first — the rate of justifiable homicide has tripled, according to a 2010 report by the St. Petersburg Times. Law enforcement and prosecutors across Florida opposed the law for fear they couldn’t prosecute criminals. Indeed, in 93 cases involving 65 deaths in which the new law was a factor, 57 of them resulted in no charges or charges being dropped, the paper found in a review of cases. Seven other defendants were acquitted.

Florida’s liberal gun laws, which allow most people except felons to buy guns, further set the stage for armed conflict.

“It’s an environment that is created by these laws and an environment that makes it entirely predictable that shootings like [Trayvon Martin]’s would happen,” said Dennis Henigan of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. “It’s a terrible tragedy, but we can’t honestly say it’s surprising.”

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