Since Trayvon Martin was gunned down in 2012, there’s been a lot of attention to Stand Your Ground laws that authorize vast use of deadly force in self-defense, but not a lot of reform away from the laws. Not a single state has successfully repealed or even contracted its Stand Your Ground law. Alaska passed a new one. And Florida and Georgia expanded theirs to allow even more defendants to be exempted from criminal charges for gun violence.
Now, the Florida Supreme Court is hearing a case that could facilitate another major court-made expansion of National Rifle Association and ALEC-backed law. If Florida’s highest court sides with the defendant in this case, it would make it dramatically easier to achieve immunity from criminal charges for firing or pointing a gun under Florida’s Stand Your Ground law.
The case hinges on which party has to prove the Stand Your Ground case. Under Florida’s law, defendants who deploy their guns can seek immunity from criminal and civil charges by showing that they used force in self-defense anywhere they had a legal right to be. The expansive law eliminates the duty to first attempt retreat when an individual is in a public place. Instead, the individual merely has to show that they reasonably feared imminent death or grave bodily harm.
When Florida’s Stand Your Ground law passed, it didn’t include any specifics about what procedures or burdens of proof. Charles Rose, director of Stetson Law’s Center for Excellence in Advocacy, said that’s because this was a “political statement about the right to bear arms.”
“It’s a political statute being applied in the real world set of circumstances,” he said.
This has left the door open to the sort of litigation now before Florida’s highest court. The defendant in that case is arguing that he shouldn’t have had the burden of proving he was defending himself when he pointed his gun at a man on the highway who nearly sideswiped his father’s vehicle. His case is about an aggravated assault charge because he didn’t fire his gun. But if the defendant wins this case, it would mean that even in murder cases, all the defendant would have to do is assert the defense, and then wait for prosecutors to prove them wrong.
“If the court rules the state’s got the burden, I think it’s going to open the door for a lot of lawyers to use the immunity statute that were not using it,” Robert Buonauro, an Orlando attorney, told the Orlando Sentinel.
Even in its current form, the law has been used to grant immunity to a man who shot dead two 24-year-olds after he went back to his car to get his gun, and another who shot dead a mentally ill acquaintance who he says threatened to beat him up. Among the victims in Florida Stand Your Ground cases were 26 children and teens.
Perhaps the most alarming objection to the law is that it exacerbates racial bias. Studies have found that defendants are significantly more likely to prevail if the victim is black. And white-on-black homicides are 354 percent more likely to be found “justified” under the law (meaning perpetrators escape charges) than white-on-white homicides.
A recent preliminary report by the American Bar Association found that Stand Your Ground laws are a “solution searching for a problem” because they promote racial bias, are associated with an increased rate of homicides, and don’t have any corollary positive effects. Testimony from psychologists noted that the reasonable “fear” component of the law creates an implicit bias, because studies have found that whites have a skewed perception of threat when it comes to African Americans. And Texas lawmaker F. Garnett Colemen testified that he and 13 other lawmakers of color opposed that state’s Stand Your Ground bill because they ” … understood what that would mean that if you were of color that you’d be a target.”