The shooting death of 17-year-old Jordan Davis in November 2012 at a Florida gas station was a shock to much of the nation. Testimony by his accused killer Michael Dunn in his murder trial may shock even more. Dunn has pled not guilty to charges and states that he acted in self-defense when he shot repeatedly into a SUV filled with teenagers listening to loud music.
CNN reports that Dunn acknowledges that it may seem baffling to others as to why he did not call police after the incident. "You're right. It sounds crazy. ... I can just tell you I didn't do it," Dunn testified. "It makes sense that I should have. We didn't. I can't tell you why."
Stand Your Ground Laws
Davis was black and Dunn is white, so the racial overtones to the case have sparked comparisons to the killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman, which also happened in Florida. A juror from that case was interviewed for an article in the Miami Herald. Juror B37 stated that based on the heat of the moment and the Stand Your Ground law that Zimmerman had a right to defend himself.
Florida's law states in part that “a person is justified in the use of deadly force and does not have a duty to retreat if … [h]e 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 is most closely associated with Stand Your Ground because of the recent high profiled cases, but it is far from being the only state with this type of law. The National Conference of State Legislatures website states that at least 22 states have similar laws. These self-defense laws incorporate the “castle doctrine” which gives people the right to use deadly force to protect themselves in their home.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, “Laws in at least 22 states allow that there is no duty to retreat from an attacker in any place in which a person is lawfully present.” These states include Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah and West Virginia. At least nine of those states (Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and South Carolina) adopted laws with specific language stating that a person may “stand his or her ground.”
Are We More or Less Safe?
Whether Stand Your Ground laws are effective at promoting public safety and/or personal safety may depend on beliefs surrounding race and perspective on gun use and ownership. However, at least two civil rights organization have serious concerns regarding these laws.
The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights wrote a letter to U.S. Senate members in October 2013 regarding the civil rights and public safety implications of the expanded use of deadly force. The letter states in part:
“The Leadership Conference has grave concerns about how ‘stand your ground' laws foster a ‘shoot first' mentality, giving individuals unfettered power and discretion with no accountability. ‘Stand your ground' laws make it easier for people to pursue, shoot, and sometimes kill without facing legal consequences. They essentially eviscerate any deterrent to gun-related homicides, providing a pathway to escaping any resulting penalty. In fact, national studies have shown that the number of homicides has increased in those states that have implemented some form of ‘stand your ground' laws.”
The Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law had similar concerns and issued a press release. It reads in part:
“While the effectiveness of ‘stand your ground' laws is questionable at best, the civil rights implications are clear. These laws not only have disproportionately negative effects on people of color, but contribute to the ‘black as criminal' stereotype, which plagues our society. In application, ‘stand your ground' laws have been shown to disproportionately benefit white defendants while also having the potential for real, deadly consequences, highlighted by the Trayvon Martin case itself. In light of the questionable efficacy of these laws, and the real civil rights concerns, we urge Congress and all policymakers to encourage the repeal and/or reform of ‘stand your ground' laws around the country."
Stand Your Ground Expands In Florida
An article in The Atlantic Cities cites current legislation in Florida, which would allow the use of Stand Your Ground to those who merely show their weapon or fire a warning shot. If enacted, the Threatened Use of Force Act would allow use of the Stand Your Ground law as a defense to those who don't actually kill anyone.
Many have heard of Marissa Alexander, a black woman living in Florida who was sentenced to 20 years in prison for firing a warning shot during an argument with her husband in 2010. It's not clear whether changes to the law would protect those like Alexander in the future.
The way that cases are prosecuted may also be an issue. NRA lobbyist Marion Hammer stated, "If you actually shoot an attacker, the law protects you. But if you merely threaten to shoot an attacker and the attacker runs away, some prosecutors will still try to put you in prison for 10 to 20 years.”
UPDATE: On February 15, 2014, Michael Dunn was convicted on four out of five counts, including attempted second-degree murder. The weightier first-degree murder charge for killing Jordan Davis resulted in a hung jury. He faces 60 years or more in prison.