Trayvon Martin Shooting: How Stand-Your-Ground Laws Threaten Public Safety


As the nation is riveted on the shooting of Trayvon Martin in Florida, I and others in law enforcement have been asked to comment on this high-profile case—mostly about police procedure. But we cannot “armchair quarterback” this case or any other from afar unless and until we know the facts.

What we do know is that the spotlight is very bright right now on gun violence, especially on so-called “stand-your-ground” laws, which 25 states have enacted, and five more are considering.

Florida's law, which extends the Castle Doctrine by removing the duty to retreat, gives legal protection to anyone, anywhere, to use deadly force “if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.”

The law also gives civil and criminal immunity to people who invoke it.

Florida's law effectively empowers a citizen to act as an ad hoc police officer. It goes further by actually granting citizens more rights to use deadly force than is given police officers, and with considerably less review.

In its landmark 1985 decision, Tennessee v. Garner, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the police may use deadly force only against persons whose actions constitute a threat to life, voiding a longstanding legal principle that authorized police in about half the states to use deadly force to apprehend unarmed, nonviolent fleeing felony suspects.

Law enforcement agencies around the nation created policies that incorporated this new legal standard. Police officers are trained to use force progressively, along a continuum, and policy requires that they use the least amount of force necessary to accomplish their goals.

Every such use of deadly force by a police officer is subject to departmental and/or outside review.

Police officers know how difficult it is to appropriately and legally use a gun in self-defense. Self-defense situations require extraordinary judgment under intense pressure.

That is why the use of force is one of the biggest areas of training and continuing education for law enforcement.

Police officers also know that allowing untrained—or under-trained— persons to carry loaded, hidden handguns in public puts people at risk of being killed or injured, intentionally and unintentionally.

In Florida and elsewhere, the deadly nexus of stand-your-ground laws and the proliferation of concealed weapons is arming and empowering people to escalate altercations—too often with deadly results.

Florida has issued over 900,000 in-state concealed carry permits, and its justifiable homicide rates have tripled since the stand-your-ground law went into effect in 2005, according to Florida Department of Law Enforcement numbers

Florida's law has been used to excuse violence in deadly neighbor arguments, in bar brawls, in road rage—even in a gang shoot-out—that just as easily might have ended with someone walking away.

It also makes it harder for law enforcement to identify the real perpetrators during a shooting. As in the Trayvon Martin shooting, in many instances where deadly force is used, there are two witnesses and one of them is dead.

Florida's law turned what had been an “affirmative defense,” where the use of self-defense must be justified, into a presumption of innocence. As reported by the Orlando Sentinel, Some Orlando-area police agencies simply stopped investigating shootings involving self-defense claims and referred them directly to state prosecutors to decide.”

The critical voices of law enforcement officials and prosecutors, who warned of vigilantism, were ignored in the debate over Florida's stand-your-ground law.

And last year, the state further preempted the ability of local officials to protect their communities when it passed a law prohibiting them from creating or enforcing local gun rules tougher than the state's— imposing large fines and the risk of being removed from office by the governor.

Nationally and in other states, the stakes are equally high.

The Senate is currently considering, and the House has passed, the National Right-to-Carry Reciprocity Act, a federal law that would preempt local standards for carrying a concealed weapon, shredding those standards and the public safety judgments behind them.

Under the law, officers who encounter a person with a loaded, hidden gun would have to quickly determine whether their permit was valid—a practical impossibility, with 49 different state permits and no national database with which to check the validity/status of concealed carry permits.

And the momentum to weaken gun restrictions continues in state legislatures across the country.

Studies have shown that gun use tends to increase gun violence . (SEE Cook, Philip, and Jens Ludwig., Gun Violence: The Real Costs. NY: Oxford University Press:2000) Armed individuals are more likely than unarmed ones to initiate confrontations, both with other citizens as well as police.

EDITOR’S NOTE: For more see Jens Ludwig’s “Reducing Gun Violence Through Enforcement Strategies” prepared for the Center for Media Crime and Justice’s 2011 conference on covering gun violence.

Stand-your-ground laws and permissive laws on bringing loaded and concealed handguns into public make law enforcement’s job harder. They undermine public safety.

Under these laws, police officers must assume that everyone is carrying a firearm and is willing to take the law into their own hands.

Every verbal confrontation, at a bar, in a restaurant, at a traffic stop, could become a potential gun battle.

Hubert Williams, former Police Director in Newark, NJ, is president of the Police Foundation. He welcomes comments from readers.

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