Monday, February 24, 2014

"Stand your ground" laws have got to go

Earlier this month, a jury in Florida determined that Michael Dunn, who fired 10 pistol rounds into an SUV containing four teenage boys, was guilty of attempted murder. Attempted murder, mind you. Even though Dunn shot and killed Jordan Davis, one of the boys inside the vehicle, the jury hung on the charge of murder.

The reason that the jury failed to convict on the primary count can be attributed to Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law, a synopsis of which, Judge Russell L. Healy provided in his instruction.
  • The defendant “has no duty to retreat.”
  • The defendant has “the right to stand his ground.”
  • “The danger facing the defendant need not have been actual.” 
A careful interpretation of these instructions explains why, indeed, the jury reached the verdict it did.

After Dunn started shooting on that day in November, the driver of the SUV attempted to flee. But Dunn continued firing into the vehicle as it drove away. The jury held that this action was unjustifiable. On that basis, it convicted Dunn of attempted murder.

But before the driver attempted to drive away, Dunn had already fired several shots, killing Jordan Davis. The jury could not determine Dunn's guilt regarding the murder count, because Dunn claimed he saw a weapon in the vehicle at the time the incident occurred. Therefore, even though the danger he faced was not actual (the police investigation revealed that there was no weapon in the SUV), Dunn was within his rights to act to protect himself.

And so, the net result is that Dunn is convicted on 4 lesser counts, where he tried, but failed to kill anyone, but is not convicted on the 1 count that addressed the actual killing.

The lack of a conviction recalls another case in Florida from February of 2012: the case of George Zimmerman's shooting of Trayvon Martin. In that case, Zimmerman was found not guilty of murder, even though he forced a confrontation with the unarmed Martin, who was walking home from the store.

Both of these cases demonstrate the absurdity of Florida's "Stand your ground" law. The way the law is interpreted, a person can provoke a conflict, respond to any action with deadly force, and then claim that he felt endangered by the victim.

The uproar from these two cases is causing a re-examination of the law. Sadly, it comes at the price of two young lives.

Although Dunn will most likely spend the rest of his life in prison, it is important that law enforcement officials follow-up with a retrial on the murder charge. Florida must establish that shootings are not acceptable when the option to retreat is available.

Florida's "Stand your ground" law is an outgrowth of the fear and insecurity that is prevalent among certain elements of our society. To these people, the world is dangerous and they are losing their places within it. My own anecdotal observation is that, oftentimes, vociferous gun-rights advocates are frightened, insecure persons. To them, a gun affords respect. It gives them an illusory totem to which they can cling as proof of their relevance.

What an unhappy life that would be. And what a terrible price we continue to pay just to assuage the fears of such miserable, frightened creatures.

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