National "Stand Your Ground" debate hits home

Does the law give people a license to kill and legalize in-home murder?

The national handwringing over guns in Florida was in some ways fitting. Seven years earlier, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush signed the nation's first "Stand Your Ground" bill into law. Prompted in large part by the Trayvon Martin case, the Tampa Bay Times published a comprehensive study of nearly 200 Florida Stand Your Ground cases and their outcomes: Among them were cases of drug dealers avoiding murder charges, but also exonerated defendants legitimately acting in self-defense, including a woman who stood her ground after being choked and beaten by an irate tenant.

Among the Tampa Bay Times' findings: that 70 percent of those who invoke Stand Your Ground to avoid prosecution have gone free; defendants claiming Stand Your Ground are more likely to prevail if the victim is black; and that the number of cases is increasing as defense attorneys use Stand Your Ground in ways that state legislators never envisioned. Stand Your Ground claims have arisen following incidents outside an ice cream parlor, on a racquetball court, and at a school bus stop. Two-thirds of the defendants used guns, but other weapons have included an ice pick, a shovel, and a chair leg.

In November, another grisly tale emerged in Florida of an older armed man initiating an argument with a black teenager that ended in a fatal gunshot. This time 17-year-old Jordan Davis was shot by gun collector Michael Dunn following an argument over loud music outside a Jacksonville convenience store. The reaction to Davis's death didn't reach the fever pitch of Trayvon Martin's case because local police quickly charged Dunn with murder.

State Rep. Tony Cornish and former state Sen. Gretchen Hoffman proposed "shoot-first" legislation last year that was ultimately vetoed by Gov. Mark Dayton
State Rep. Tony Cornish and former state Sen. Gretchen Hoffman proposed "shoot-first" legislation last year that was ultimately vetoed by Gov. Mark Dayton

Since it was born in 2005, Stand Your Ground has spread like wildfire. Seven years later, more than half of the states in the union have adopted some version of it — not by organic political means, but after they were pushed as "model legislation" by the National Rifle Association and the Koch brothers-funded American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a corporate-sponsored neo-conservative consortium of lawmakers.

According to Mother Jones magazine, the year after Florida adopted Stand Your Ground, the stepchild of England's castle doctrine spread to 12 other states across the Deep South as well as Kansas, Michigan, and Indiana.

In Miami that year, a man shot 14 bullets at a car full of gang members and avoided prosecution by citing the law. In 2007, justifiable homicides more than tripled in Florida, while four more states adopted "Stand Your Ground."

In 2008, a 15-year-old boy in Tallahassee died after getting caught in a shoot-out between rival gangs — two of the gang members successfully hid behind "Stand Your Ground."

Meanwhile, Ohio and West Virginia joined the list of states to adopt the statute. Four months after the law took effect in Montana in 2009, a Walmart employee in Billings was released from custody after claiming he shot a co-worker in the face in self-defense.


Has the introduction of Stand Your Ground laws by state legislatures emboldened gun owners to shoot and kill without fear of prosecutorial reprisal? Has Stand Your Ground, as Florida state Sen. Steve Geller warned, encouraged people to think that "you ought to be able to kill people that are walking toward you on the street because of this subjective belief that you're worried that they may get in a fight with you?"

It apparently did for Joe Horn.

In the Houston suburb of Pasadena on November 14, 2007 — two months after Texas passed Stand Your Ground — the 61-year-old retiree saw two burglars breaking into the house next door. He called 911, but also grabbed his shotgun.

Horn told the operator, "I've got a shotgun; do you want me to stop them?"

The Pasadena emergency operator responded: "Nope. Don't do that. Ain't no property worth shooting somebody over, okay?"

A back-and-forth ensued, and the operator told Horn that officers would arrive soon.

"Okay," Horn countered. "But I have a right to protect myself too, sir," adding, "The laws have been changed in this country since September the first, and you know it."

"You're going to get yourself shot," countered the operator.

To which Horn replied: "You want to make a bet? I'm going to kill them."

When the authorities arrived, they found Hernando Torres and David Ortiz dead from bullet wounds fired from behind them. Eight months later, a Harris County grand jury declined to indict Horn on any criminal charges.

"Stand Your Ground serves to enable paranoid crazies to commit murder without fear of any consequences," said Elliot Fineman, CEO of the National Gun Victims Action Council. "The most cursory look into basic psychology shows the certain potential of Stand Your Ground for stimulating aggression, and all for the fantasy of self-protection by way of a carried gun in public."

Examples abound of Stand Your Ground promoting vigilantism around the country in 2012. Last March in Wisconsin, Bo Morrison was shot and killed by a homeowner who found the unarmed 20-year-old on his porch early one morning. Morrison had tried to evade police responding to a noise complaint at a neighboring underage drinking party. The homeowner was not charged by the local district attorney.

Wisconsin doesn't officially have Stand Your Ground, but Gov. Scott Walker signed an "intruders bill" in 2011 that presumes somebody who uses deadly force against a trespasser in their home, business, or vehicle acted reasonably, whether or not the intruder was armed.

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