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April 08, 2012 1:27 PM Stand Your Ground Against Terrorists and Looters

By Matthew Zeitlin

The Washington Post has a blockbuster story on how the passage of the “Stand Your Ground” law in Florida has “coincided with a sharp increase in justifiable-homicide cases.” The piece documents three cases, all ambiguous (at best), and all heartbreaking, of shootings that did not lead to prosecutions or convictions because of the new law.

One interesting part of the piece is exactly what motivated this surge in legislation across the country that protects people who shoot when they think they are being threatened with deadly force and puts legal and procedural barriers in front of prosecutors who seek to charge those who say they have killed in self-defense:


When she [an NRA lobbyist] helped write the Stand Your Ground bill and circulated it, some police chiefs and other law enforcement officials warned that the measure would make it hard to convict people of murder — defendants would simply claim self-defense and challenge prosecutors to prove they were lying.

But those concerns were heavily outweighed by lawmakers’ desire to send a message to taxpayers that the justice system would no longer consider suspect those who defend themselves against attack.

In the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks and amid images of lawlessness in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, many Floridians — and Americans generally — felt less safe and believed the justice system could not protect victims, said a study of Stand Your Ground laws by the National District Attorneys Association.

In Florida, where looters appeared in the wake of Hurricane Ivan in 2004, Hammer launched her drive for the new law based on the case of James Workman, a 77-year-old Pensacola man who fatally shot an intruder who entered the trailer Workman was living in after the storm damaged his house.

Prosecutors decided not to charge Workman, but many lawmakers pronounced themselves appalled that he had to endure months of uncertainty before being cleared.

Hammer told legislators her bill would protect citizens who simply defended themselves: “You can’t expect a victim to wait before taking action to protect herself and say, ‘Excuse me, Mr. Criminal, did you drag me into this alley to rape and kill me, or do you just want to beat me up and steal my purse?’ ”

The Florida Senate passed the bill unanimously.

What is striking here is the two events that are listed are not things that would rationally lead to protecting those who respond to deadly force with deadly force. It’s hard to see how being able to “stand your ground” will prevent a spectacular, large-scale terrorist attack. More importantly, the lawlessness seen after Katrina was, for the most part, exactly the type of thing that should not be responded to with violent force. In so much as looting occurred in New Orleans, stealing food (or televisions or whatever) is not the same thing as possibly deadly assault. And this obsession with looters lead to a misguided policy response. As explained by Rebecca Solnit, the focus on preventing looting lead to police officers doing less search-and-rescue “even though thousands of residents were still stranded in the most dire conditions in modern American disaster history.”

Susan Faludi, in her book on the cultural response to September 11, The Terror Dream, linked the media’s fascination with guns and self-defense and the absence of serious gun control efforts to percisely this post-9/11 anxiety that the Post points to as a reason for the popularity of “Stand Your Ground.”

What’s significant about all of this is that gun policy seems to have more to do with identity, fear, and cultural change than public safety, even if changes in gun policy can have an effect on public safety. Another example of this dynamic is the spate of news reports documenting an increase in gun sales link to Obama’s election and his possible reelection. This, along with the NRA’s more-or-less evidence free campaign to convince its supporters that Obama is this close to taking away their guns, is what makes the efforts of some conservative media figures to promote racial suspicion and hostility between black and whites so disturbing. So, while, pseudo-scientific racialist John Derbyshire has been written out of the movement, Rush Limbaugh, who said that “in Obama’s America the white kids now get beat up with the black kids cheering” and frequently says that the Obama policy agenda is motivated by a desire to redistribute income from whites to blacks is still a popular and respected figure. And there are other writers at National Review, like Victor Davis Hanson, who see the Obama policy agenda as primarily motivated by race.

Racial suspicion and guns are not a good mix.

Comments

  • TCinLA on April 08, 2012 3:05 PM:

    Someone is surprised that these laws are really about making it OK for scared white assholes to shoot "the other"? A significant portion of the white population of this country is terrified by the demographic developments that are leading to whites becoming just another racial minority in the country, one that no longer has the privileges of control and advancement based on the accident of birth. For a whole lot of white people, that accident of birth is the only thing they do have going for themselves, whether they consciously admit it or not, and the loss of that is very scary indeed. This is what fuels the modern Republican Party.

  • RepubAnon on April 08, 2012 3:08 PM:

    Besides, the "stand your ground" laws were really designed to make it legal to kill innocent people with impunity - if those people happened to be of a suspect racial group. The Katrina example, when all the facts are included, is apt:

    "Police gunned down 17-year-old James Brissette and 40-year-old Ronald Madison, who were both unarmed, and wounded four others on Sept. 4, 2005, less than a week after the storm devastated New Orleans. To cover it up, the officers planted a gun, fabricated witnesses and falsified reports. Defense attorneys have indicated they will appeal." (http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Latest-News-Wires/2012/0404/Officers-receive-long-sentences-in-Katrina-shootings)

  • Bernecky on April 08, 2012 3:11 PM:

    All of these tears from a nation that's prosecuting a war in favor of which nobody possesses a shred of evidence.

  • beb on April 08, 2012 3:41 PM:

    In one of his books Science Fiction author claimed that "an armed society is a polite society." That's when I realized that Heinlein was a bullshit artist. The only way an armed society can be considered "polite" is because everyone lives in fear of being shot dead by some asshole with a gun. Which is more or less what we're seeing happen in Florida.

  • Mimikatz on April 08, 2012 5:26 PM:

    So to protect against a situation where victims couldn't protect themselves, we now have a new class of victims who can't protect themselves--because they are dead. But it's ok because they are largely blacks.

    A large segment of this country is in the grip of a collective delusion that has been exacerbated for money and power by a small segment of society. It is hard to see how we survive the coming climate vicissitudes without mass casualties, some of them self-inflicted.

  • Joe Friday on April 08, 2012 6:59 PM:

    OT:

    Couldn't stomach actually watching the interview, but I saw this from "Pastor" Rick Warren as part of the promo intro at the top of ABC's THIS WEEK:

    "Most people would not think they're better off economically than they were four years ago"

    Let's see now, four years ago, our national economy was like a commercial airliner with all four engines on fire, losing altitude and heading for the side of a mountain with Chimpy Bush at the wheel, with MINUS 9% GDP and more than 750,000 jobs being lost every month.

    What an IDIOT.

  • Neil Bates on April 08, 2012 8:17 PM:

    Aside from anything else, police should have to do a full investigation if someone kills another. We shouldn't have to squint at offhand left over video of the back of Zimmerman's head and wonder, is that really a wound? The cops should have taken big pictures, medical reports, there should be plenty of evidence. That there isn't, isn't fair to anyone at all: not Martin, not Zimmerman, not the prosecutors, defense, Judge and jury who will have scrappy dated rubbish as "evidence", not the public who must pay for a patch-up job of a trial.

    BTW, I don't think the concept of "standing ground" is the problem, it's the lack of inquiry, the practice of taking the word of the shooter almost for granted. And note ironies, Workman shot someone entering his trailer: that is classic self-defense. Following someone, leading to confrontation, is not.

    Finally, I am suspicious of the "metalegal" construction of the SYG law as passed. For example, a law wouldn't be valid that stated, "anyone arrested for violating this law will not get a jury trial, but just be taken directly to jail on the recommendation of the arresting officer." Uh no. That violates our right to trial by jury. Similarly, a law that says the accused can be simply presumed *innocent* because police find him believable, violates society's and the victim/s' rights to have due process as protection. Laws (at least, local ones and/or that aren't special procedural ones) are supposed to say what is now legal and illegal, not what you can do or not to the accused etc. Am I right?

    "Fine minds make fine distinctions."

    PS: pls bring back the name link option. I'm putting for my blog here, it's mostly physics but some of you are surely interested:
    Paradoxer

  • boatboy_srq on April 08, 2012 11:17 PM:

    @Neil Bate:

    I don't think the concept of "standing ground" is the problem, it's the lack of inquiry, the practice of taking the word of the shooter almost for granted.

    What exactly do you think the text of those "Stand Your Ground" bills contains? The very lack of inquiry and the taking of the word of the shooter are explictly called out in the language of the laws. Go back and read the FL statute and tell me you see anything substantially different.

    Gilded Age meets Wild West. Welcome to the new reality of God's Own Party.

  • navarro on April 08, 2012 11:21 PM:

    you have to understand that in the minds of those who lobbied in favor of passing the stand your ground law an increase in justifiable homicides is a feature, not a bug.

  • Bob on April 09, 2012 7:13 AM:

    "Racial suspicion and guns are not a good mix."

    You said it. Where was "stand your ground" paranoia when Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols killed 168 people - including 19 children?

  • David Martin on April 09, 2012 8:21 AM:

    The Post story struck me as heavily dependent on reporting by the Tampa Bay Times (which until January was the St. Petersburg Times).

  • bluestatedon on April 09, 2012 8:34 AM:

    As if anything more than a tiny, tiny fraction of one per cent of the white community anywhere has reason to fear looting.

    This is all about the NRA capitalizing on white fears of being victimized by black or Hispanic criminals. Of course, given the extent of residential segregation in the country, your average white person is far, far more likely to be victimized by a white criminal, but that doesn't get the juices going the right way for the gun lobby's marketing and advertising people.

  • boatboy_srq on April 09, 2012 9:05 AM:

    @David Martin:

    The TBT (St. Pete Times) is a fairly rational paper: it's surprisingly moderate given how conservative St. Petersburg can be. If you're thinking this is just another Tearag, think again: that dubious distinction is firmly grasped by the Tampa Tribune. TBT is, among other things, home to Politifact, and while it's not the reality check it used to be it's still reasonably sane.

    I'd actually expect the Times to give a fairly honest account. The major paper local to the whole Trayvon Martin situation, the Orlando Sentinel (much like the Tampa Trib), is hardly likely to have reported anything not Reichwing party line.

  • Anonymous on April 09, 2012 9:16 AM:

    The firearms market for sport, military and police is satuated. The firearms industry had to figure out some way to encourage people to buy their products. That way is fear.

    After President Obama was elected firearms sales soared. The prices shot throught the roof. The guns Americans chose were high capacity Glock style pistols and AR-15 style rifles. There are millions of both kinds of firearms sitting quietly in the homes of Americans across the country. At no time since the Civil War has the election of a President sparked such a run on firearms. While there are legitimate sporting purposes for both types of guns (there are seriously fun shooting sports built around them) and they are great for their intended police and military purposes, most of the high capacity firearms are owned by people who rarely, if ever, shoot them and often don't even know how to handle them safely.

    The NRA is currently promoting the idea that if reelected President Obama is going to target American gun owners. There is not a shread of evidence to support the claim, but the NRA president makes the lack of evidence a feature, not a bug, of his argument. So far gun sales have not spiked too much. The NRA's claims are becoming more strident as their members ignore them still recovering from the last round of crazy.

    If we are going to have a nation of gunowners, I think the NRA ought to get back to its charter and regain its role as a the organization promoting safe and responsible firearms use.

    By the way, while I don't think there is a real need for the stand your ground laws, I am not convinced the Florida law really protects Zimmerman. From the 911 tapes it is clear that Zimmerman was clearly an aggressor hunting a young black victim.

  • Patrick Star on April 09, 2012 9:58 AM:

    A large percentage of the people who own handguns really, REALLY want to shoot someone. They fantasize about being in a dramatic confrontation with Bad Guys and administering Frontier Justice. Of course, the chances of that happening to the Average Joe are slim to none. They should move to Syria or Somalia - I hear places like that are a shooter's paradise.

  • Sgt. Gym Bunny on April 09, 2012 10:37 AM:

    I think I can agree with NB's problem with the codified lack of thorough police investigation for these SYG laws. Despicable as some of the victims may appear to be, I don't think killing another person should be taken lightly. You would think that the creators of the "culture of life" would be as serious about this, but, alas, the right can be a big ol' fun bag of contradictions and irony.

    But as to more guns for defense of the innocent, I can't say that's a thrilling prospect. My somewhat elderly mom lives alone and has some sketchy neighbors, but her owning a gun would make me rather uneasy. The woman barely knows how to use her flip cell phone. And if it's not an accident-waiting-to-happen, she'll do something crazy like shoot at every dog who comes near her yard, just to keep 'em for crappin' all over the place...

  • nitpicker on April 09, 2012 11:11 AM:

    This does explain the right's post-9/11 mindset perfectly, though. The difference between shooting Trayvon Martin because he looked suspicious and attacking Iraq for, well, basically the same reason is merely one of scale.

  • nitpicker on April 09, 2012 11:21 AM:

    If you think my comparison of the Martin shooting and Iraq is facetious, take a gander at something I wrote nearly 10 years ago, when I first started blogging.

    "Say I'm a guy in an apartment in a bad neighborhood. I have the feeling that the guy down the hall wants to do me harm. He might have a gun in there or a pit bull or a baseball bat. I think he might even be related to the guy who mugged me last week. Might even have put him up to it. What do I do?

    "If you answered, 'Kill the guy,' then you are on the side of Dubya and his buddies in this war. If you answered, 'Get someone to check him out,' then you are on the side of those who see the role of the UN and inspectors in this issue. The law, in the case of the two people in an apartment, would agree with the latter answer.

    "You see, the law does not have a plea of 'pre-emptive self-defense.' You can't harm someone because you think he might want to do you harm. There has to be a truly 'clear and present danger.' What that means is not that you believe someone might come hurt you, but they must have the weapon leveled at you or clearly intend to use it. If you shoot first, you've become the criminal.

    "We have no idea what Iraq has or how they intend to use them. Donald Rumsfeld tried to get around this when speaking before Congress by saying that 'the last thing we want is a smoking gun. A gun smokes after it has been fired. The goal must be to stop Saddam Hussein before he fires a weapon of mass destruction against our people.'

    "What he's saying here is that he doesn't know what Saddam's got. I don't expect him to find a smoking gun, but at least prove to me that the gun exists."

    Of course, "pre-emptive self-defense" does seem to be legal now. It's like Minority Report, but this time we all get to be both the cops and the psychics.

  • JEA on April 09, 2012 1:05 PM:

    There are two REAL problems here:

    One, that conservatives do NOT trust police and prosecutors' ability to discover the truth (something they have absolute faith in regarding the death penalty - no hypocrisy THERE) and rightfully charge someone with a crime who, in their judgment, was NOT defending himself.

    And the second is that Workman "had to endure months of uncertainty before being cleared."

    Actually, what this case HAS done is push me closer towards buying a gun than I've ever been in my life - admittedly not very close, but closer - because frankly if anyone can shoot anyone else for any reason, we live in the wild west and you damned well better be armed for the inevitable shootouts...

  • st john on April 09, 2012 4:09 PM:

    @nitpicker on April 09, 2012 11:11 AM: I was just about to respond to you with the Iraq/pre-emptive excuse when you followed up with that excuse. I also feel that this endangers police persons, because we know they are armed and there are enough accounts of police using violent and deadly force under questionable circumstances to "justify" employing deadly & lethal force in defense. Imagine some armed "activists" confined in a "Free Speech Zone" being approached by armed police. Does SYG apply here? If the activist feels threatened and in fear of his/her life and believes the police person is violating his/her free speech rights, does this constitute a legitimate response to said threat? You can say the police have a legal right to threaten and control the freedom of the activists by the authority granted by the Badge, but there are too many abuses of this authority to not consider the other option. I have yet to read this perspective. Any takers?

  • nitpicker on April 09, 2012 4:45 PM:

    Actually, Mitch Daniels recently signed a "stand your ground against cops" law in Indiana.

    http://www.addictinginfo.org/2012/03/23/indiana-governor-signs-bill-allowing-citizens-to-use-deadly-force-against-police-officers-into-law/

  • David Martin on April 10, 2012 3:00 PM:

    @boatboy__srq

    When I was a kid, the Tampa Tribune was regularly castigating President Eisenhower for being a liberal. The Tampa Bay Times has thrived by being more moderate, and also by being more or less a non-profit. The ownership setup is a bit like the Guardian and Observer in Britain.

    The St. Petersburg Times (the former name of the TBT) never circulated much outside the Tampa Bay area. At one time in the past, you could buy the Miami Herald and Orlando Sentinel from vending machines and supermarkets in Jacksonville, but never the St. Pete Times.

  • Neil Batets on April 11, 2012 9:38 AM:

    Boatboy_srq, I know the SYG *law* has those features about not investigating etc, my point was that the "concept" of not having to run wasn't the problem, but those extra "metalegal" features. I say this respectfully of those who think the bare SYG concept is wrong too, but that's a different point.

  • boatboy_srq on April 11, 2012 9:58 AM:

    @Neil Bates:

    The "'metalegal' features" you mention are the reason for the law. Self-defense is perfectly rational in itself and protected by law: the difference between pre-SYG and post-SYG is that there used to be a certain level of burden-of-proof required for a self-defense claim to be validated. SYG isn't about "not having to run" - that was always an option. It's about not facing criminal investigation (let alone penalties) for killing as a consequence of staying put in the face of a "threat."

    You may have problems with the laws' enabling of this behavior. The other side of this argument has problems with even being questioned about acting as the law permits.

    As an aside, remember that the same groups pushing these laws in state houses (with the obvious exceptions of ALEC, the NRA and the arms makers) think that shredding the police and court budgets and letting citizens arm themselves is a more cost-effective means of "preserving the peace" than properly funding and managing the criminal justice system.