On November 7, 2013, the Florida House Criminal Justice Subcommittee held a five-hour hearing on HB 4003, which would repeal the state’s Stand Your Ground law. Stand Your Ground laws—under which persons who are not otherwise engaged in criminal or provoking acts can defend themselves without first having to retreat from their assailants—have come under attack by those who would do away with the right of self-defense altogether. Echoing a discredited refrain that unfortunately seems to be making a recent comeback, critics of the law insist that ordinary Americans cannot be trusted to exercise their rights because of intrinsic biases.
While such outrageous and unfounded accusations are nothing new, they have gained renewed popularity in the wake of certain highly-publicized cases in which the defendants have claimed self-defense. Despite dubious and inflammatory reporting on these cases, they have become a rallying cry that is supposed to silence all support for strong self-defense laws. Fortunately, that has not happened.
The only bias inherent in Stand Your Ground laws is one against criminal assailants and in favor of innocent persons lawfully minding their own business. As Marion Hammer noted in her testimony on behalf of NRA and Unified Sportsmen of Florida, “A duty to retreat in the face of attack protects the life and safety of an attacker and jeopardizes the life and safety of a victim.”
Supporters of Florida’s Stand Your Ground statute have repeatedly explained that its protections are not available to a person who is “engaged in an unlawful activity” or “[i]nitially provokes the use of force against himself or herself.” The protections of the law only apply, moreover, when the person has an actual and objectively reasonable belief that force is necessary to “prevent death or great bodily harm” or “to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.” The concept of objective reasonability means that the person’s subjective, good-faith belief also has to be recognized as reasonable by police, prosecutors and ultimately judge and jury. It does not allow persons acting in self-defense to be, as some have claimed, a law unto themselves.
Hammer’s testimony aptly characterized the duty to retreat as signaling “that the justice system places more value on the life of a criminal than the life of a victim.” On the other hand, the Stand Your Ground law, as Hammer observed, “puts the rights of victims ahead of the rights of criminals.”
These are not complicated concepts. They are intuitive and universally applicable. That’s probably why Florida’s 2005 Stand Your Ground law passed unanimously in the Senate and with overwhelming (94-20), bipartisan support in the House. It’s also likely why the Subcommittee voted down HB 4003, 11-2.