KOPEL: Debunking the ‘stand your ground’ myth

Anti-gun advocates mislead on Trayvon case to erode right to self-defense

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Whatever happened on the night that George Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin, we know one thing for sure: The gun prohibition lobbies and their compliant media friends have been deceiving the public about Florida’s laws. Among the many deceits is the claim that Florida’s “stand your ground” law affects the legality of whatever Mr. Zimmerman did.

The assertion that Florida law allows shooting whenever someone believes it to be necessary is a flat-out lie. The actual law of Florida is that “a person is justified in the use of deadly force” if “(1) He or she reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the imminent commission of a forcible felony” (Florida Statutes, Section 776.012).

The second part of the law provides special provisions for self-defense against violent home invaders or carjackers. Neither of those is relevant to the Zimmerman case.

If the factual claims of Trayvon’s supporters are true, Mr. Zimmerman criminally attacked Trayvon and killed him, while having no reasonable belief that Trayvon was perpetrating a forcible felony, or imminently about to kill or gravely wound Mr. Zimmerman. So Florida’s self-defense laws simply would not apply, since Mr. Zimmerman would have no right under Florida law to use deadly force.

Florida’s rule that deadly force may be used to prevent “imminent death or great bodily harm” or “the imminent commission of a forcible felony” is the norm throughout the United States.

Like the majority of American states, Florida does not mandate that victims of a violent crime attempt to retreat before they defend themselves. The retreat rule is irrelevant, regardless of whether you believe Trayvon’s advocates or Mr. Zimmerman’s advocates.

According to one side, Mr. Zimmerman was the criminal aggressor. Thus, he would have no self-defense rights at all. According to the other side, Trayvon attacked Mr. Zimmerman, knocked him to the ground, got on top of him and continued the attack. So Mr. Zimmerman would have had no ability to retreat. Either way, the retreat rules for lawful defenders have nothing to do with this case.

Despite what the gun prohibition lobbies claim, the no-retreat rule has deep roots in traditional American law. At the Supreme Court, the rule dates back to the 1895 case of Beard v. United States, in which the great Justice John Harlan wrote for a unanimous court that the victim “was not obliged to retreat, nor to consider whether he could safely retreat, but was entitled to stand his ground, and meet any attack upon him with a deadly weapon, in such a way and with such force as, under all the circumstances, he, at the moment, honestly believed, and had reasonable grounds to believe, were necessary to save his own life, or to protect himself from great bodily injury.”

The great progressive Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes also expressed the unanimous opinion of the court “that if a man reasonably believes that he is in immediate danger of death or grievous bodily harm from his assailant he may stand his ground and that if he kills him he has not succeededthe bounds of lawful self-defense. … Detached reflection cannot be demanded in the presence of an uplifted knife” (Brown v. United States, 1921).

Even among the more restrictive states, such as New York, retreat is not required before using deadly force in the home, to prevent a burglary, robbery, kidnapping, rape or other forcible criminal sexual attack. Thus, whether you are in Lake Placid, N.Y., or Lake Placid, Fla., and someone attempts to rob you when you are walking down the street, you have no duty to retreat before using deadly force to thwart the robbery.

Anti-gun lobbyists assert that Florida law prevented Mr. Zimmerman from being arrested. This too is false, since he was arrested and taken into custody at the police station.

The relevant Florida law is that a law enforcement agency “may not arrest the person for using force unless it determines that there is probable cause that the force that was used was unlawful” (Florida Statutes Section 776.032). This simply restates the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which, by its express language, forbids arrests without probable cause.

A grand jury will eventually report its determination about whether Mr. Zimmerman’s actions should result in a criminal prosecution. Professional demagogues and racists, such as Al Sharpton, may try to prejudge the grand jury’s investigation, but responsible citizens should not.

In the meantime, it’s time for Mr. Sharpton and others to stop their false claims that Florida’s self-defense laws are unusual, or that there is anything in those laws that prevents justice from being done in the Zimmerman case.

David Kopel is an adjunct professor of advanced constitutional law at Denver University and research director of the Independence Institute.

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