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Sanchez: ‘Stand your ground’ shaky basis for justice

Published: Wednesday, June 19, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

The Trayvon Martin murder case will boil down to one claim known by mothers everywhere.

“He started it!”

Every parent with more than one child has heard that cry. When their little one points his or her finger accusingly at a sibling, claiming to have been provoked into the tussle or name-calling, a wise parent responds with, “Well, why did you react?”

George Zimmerman will be asked if he instigated the altercation that led to him shooting to death the unarmed Trayvon, for which Zimmerman now faces the charge of second-degree murder.

The basis of Zimmerman’s defense is that, fearing for his life, he believed he was justified to shoot and kill.

The jury, being chosen now, will decide.

Zimmerman waived his right for a hearing to exculpate himself under Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, although his lawyer has suggested that he may attempt to invoke the law if he is found guilty in his impending trial.

These laws need to be better understood for their implications for a civil society. Since Florida became the first state to pass the so-called Stand Your Ground law in 2005, about 30 other states have followed suit with some form of these laws.

Most states have the Castle Doctrine, which allows people to use deadly force, without the expectation to retreat, when threatened in their own home.

What the Stand Your Ground laws do is broaden the right to kill without retreating, even when it is possible, to other places such as a workplace or a car.

Before the spread of these new laws, people were expected to back down, to retreat, if possible. Shoot First, Stand Your Ground, Make My Day laws can make it legal to refuse to walk away.

More research is needed into the effects of these laws. However, the evidence available now should trouble anyone who thinks laws should make society safer, rather than promoting violence.

One point is made repeatedly by David Hemenway, director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center: “Firearms are used far more often to frighten and intimidate than they are used in self-defense.”

People are confused about what constitutes self-defense. What many people term self-defense is really just the last act in an argument gone out of control, a situation that escalates until one or both parties reach for a gun.

In one study, verbatim accounts of people who claimed self-defense were sent to criminal court judges for review. The majority of time, the judges felt the shootings, as described by the shooter, were not legal uses of self-defense. Most often, the cases were simply arguments that ended violently when one person used a gun. Many were avoidable.

The Harvard Center has ripped apart other studies that overestimate the number of instances in which people have justifiably used a gun in self-defense. Given a chance to paint themselves a victim/hero, shooters often do, no matter what the facts of their cases were. So when researches try to estimate what proportion of shootings are cases of self-defense, it’s problematic to say the least to base their figures on the shooters’ self-reported motives.

Hemenway has also noted that in interviews, about half of convicted felons who used a gun in their crimes claim they did so in self-defense.

Many of these instances probably aren’t all that different from the type of knuckleheaded justifications for murder that we regularly hear on the evening news: the endless stories of one teenager claiming someone “disrespected” them with a sneer, an ugly comment. So they just had to shoot the person dead.

People readily recognize the ludicrous nature of the claim that violence was necessary, that someone “had it coming to them.” Yet Stand Your Ground laws by definition turn this lack of self-control and inability to manage disagreement into a legal right to use lethal force. It’s sanctioned murder.

Depending on how one of these laws is crafted, it can even take away the ability of police to file charges, and prosecutors can face higher burdens of proof.

The question that needs to be answered is if the proliferation of Stand Your Ground laws are influencing public behavior to the point of making us less safe.

If he were alive to answer, it would be good to get Trayvon Martin’s opinion.

• Mary Sanchez is an opinion-page columnist for The Kansas City Star. Readers may write to her at Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, MO 64108-1413, or via email at msanchez@kcstar.com.

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