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When Can Somebody Legally Shoot You?

March 26, 2012

This post would have been way down my list of topics, were it not for the tragic shooting of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin by a neighborhood watch volunteer in Sanford, Florida.  The case has provoked nationwide outrage when the local police let the alleged shooter go without charges, but it has also pointed a spotlight at certain aspects of Florida gun laws, namely:

  • Almost anyone can get a gun in Florida without a permit, and
  • Someone can legally shoot you if they just FEEL threatened with bodily harm, even if you are unarmed.

When the story first broke, I was stunned that the local police were refusing to investigate the case as a homicide.  My second reaction was incredulity that a neighborhood watch volunteer would be walking around ARMED.  Apparently, nobody else finds this odd—at least I haven’t seen this remarked upon in all the commentary about the case.

According to info supplied by the NRA  (which, presumably, should know), if you’re over 18 and not a convicted felon you can legally purchase and possess a handgun without any permit or license required.   (Drug addicts, alcoholics, mental incompetents, and vagrants are also excluded, but really…who would admit to belonging in one of those categories and how would anyone know otherwise?)  True, you do need a permit to carry a handgun outside of your home or business, but if you’re over 21, it looks pretty easy to get one.

On the second point, in 2005 Florida passed the so-called “Stand Your Ground Law”, which says that “a person is justified in the use of deadly force and does not have a duty to retreat if…he or she reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the imminent commission of a forcible felony.”

The problem, of course, is that feeling threatened is a very subjective test.  And the fact that the shootee is unarmed probably makes no difference.

According to the Orlando Sentinel, in the five months after the law was passed, “there were at least 13 shootings in Central Florida where self-defense was claimed. Out of six men killed and four more wounded in the cases, only one was armed.” The article goes on to note that that local police basically stopped investigating cases where self-defense was claimed and left it up to discretion of state authorities to pursue the cases.

The Tampa Bay Times reported that since 2005 the SYG law has been invoked in at least 130 cases, 70 percent of which involved fatalities.  In most cases, the shooter, stabber, etc. did not stand trial.

Which, basically, seems to be what happened in the Trayvon Martin case until the outrage moved federal authorities to get involved.

Now the authors of the SYG law, former state senator Durell Peaden (from Crestview in the Florida Panhandle) and state Rep. Dennis Baxley (from Ocala in north-central Florida)—both Republicans—are insisting that it isn’t a license to kill and doesn’t need to be changed or repealed.  I find it interesting that the pro-gun politicians usually seem to come from low-crime (and overwhelmingly white) small towns or suburbs.  I guess they are, uh, “feeling threatened.”

The NRA, which pushed heavily for the SYG law’s passage, remains unabashed, and continues to press other states to pass similar statutes. After all, guns don’t kill people, blah, blah, blah.  And Senator Marco Rubio, a cheer leader for the effort to pass SYG as a state legislator back in 2005 (and who may well be Mitt Romney’s VP running mate) continues to defend it.

Just remember, if you piss someone off or look suspicious to them, they may be packing and just might shoot you and get away with it by claiming self-defense.

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