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End ‘stand your ground’ in Illinois

George Zimmerman arrives courtroom for his trial Seminole County Criminal Justice Center Sanford Fla. Friday July 12 2013.  Zimmerman

George Zimmerman arrives in the courtroom for his trial at the Seminole County Criminal Justice Center, in Sanford, Fla., Friday, July 12, 2013. Zimmerman is charged in the 2012 shooting death of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin. (AP Photo/Orlando Sentinel, Joe Burbank, Pool)

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Updated: October 30, 2013 6:28AM

So-called “stand your ground laws” have led to unnecessary shootings around the country, and now Illinois is on the brink of having one of its own sneak onto the books through the back door. The Legislature should act to prevent that before anyone dies in one of those stupidly unnecessary confrontations.

Historically, laws in America generally have required people to retreat from confrontations if possible before resorting to lethal force. But in recent years, stand your ground laws — which allow individuals claiming to fear for their lives to use such force even if they have the opportunity to back away — have spread in some form to about 30 states. Opponents — and that would include this editorial page — call them “shoot first” laws.

Illinois does not have such a statute on the books, but past court rulings in the state appear to grant the “stand your ground” right anyway. Until now, that hasn’t been a significant issue because Illinoisans were not allowed to carry concealed firearms in public. But this year, the Legislature authorized the concealed carrying of weapons, and the State Police expect to start issuing permits early next year. Lethal stand your ground cases could follow soon after.

A study released Sept. 16 by the National Urban League and Mayors Against Guns found justifiable homicides increased by an average of 53 percent between 2005 and 2007 in the 22 states that had passed stand your ground laws while falling 5 percent in the rest of the country. In Florida, the number of justifiable homicides tripled. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder in July said the laws “senselessly expand the concept of self-defense” and may enourage “violent situations to escalate.” The percentage of cases in which homicide was ruled justified was far higher when the victims were African Americans.

There’s no way of knowing how many of those cases involved people who thought their lives were being threatened but who in fact were just overly nervous. That’s because the other person in the confrontation often is no longer alive to give his or her side of the story.

That played out last year in Texas, for example, when Raul Rodriquez videorecorded himself saying “my life is in danger now” and “I’m standing my ground here” before fatally shooting his unarmed neighbor in a dispute over a loud party. Rodriguez was convicted of murder, but he might not have shot his neighbor if he didn’t think Texas’ law would protect him. In Brevard County, Fla., William Woodward is seeking a stand your ground hearing after being accused of gunning down three unarmed neighbors, killing two and seriously wounding the third. One of the neighbors was shot 17 times.

Stand your ground supporters say the laws discourage crime. But a 2012 study by Texas A&M University found the laws do not reduce the rate of robberies, burglaries or aggravated assaults.

Part of the problem with the laws is that they encourage the George Zimmermans of the world to think they can enforce laws because they are carrying firearms. Also, Illinois’ new concealed carry law does not require any instruction about when it is appropriate to use lethal force. Police officers, who receive extensive training, still make bad decisions at times in difficult situations. People without any training will do far worse.

Earlier this month, U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin was scheduled to hold a hearing on stand your ground gun laws, but, ironically, it was canceled because of the Washington Navy Yard shootings. The hearing will be rescheduled, probably next month, a spokesman said.

After a drawn-out fight over concealed carry legislation last spring, the Legislature may be tired of dealing with gun issues. But this is one area of the law that needs to be fixed soon.

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