Op-ed: New 'Stand Your Ground' bill a step back

NEED TO KNOW
  • Jason Johnson is an HLN contributor, professor and author
  • Florida lawmakers OK'd 'warning shot' provision Thursday
  • He says broadening the self-defense statue could mean trouble
Op-ed: New 'Stand Your Ground' bill a step back
Jason Johnson

Editor’s note: Jason Johnson is an HLN contributor and professor of political science at Hiram College in Ohio. He is the author of “Political Consultants and Campaigns: One Day to Sell.” He is on Twitter.

Most Americans had no idea what “Stand Your Ground” laws were before the George Zimmerman and Michael Dunn trials.

The average person who’s never been the victim of a crime, never feared for their life and doesn’t carry a weapon (that’s the majority of Americans) had no clue that there are more than 30 states where you don’t have a legal obligation to seek flight before fight in the face of danger.

Perhaps the average American isn’t aware then that in Florida -- ground zero for the Stand Your Ground national debate -- the state legislature has just passed a bill to expand the scope of the law. And they probably don’t want you to know about it. 

It bring to mind the old Thomas Wolfe quote, which I'll paraphrase: “If a Liberal is just a conservative who hasn’t been robbed yet, then a conservative is just a liberal who’s never been arrested.”  

Many Americans have strong feelings about Stand Your Ground laws, and most of those views are based on ideology, not real-world experience or even facts and data about the law and its consequences.

However, in this country, politicians are supposed to pass laws where the facts, data and consequences of a law can be seen and understood by everyone. And this is precisely what is wrong with the Florida House’s new bill, which passed the state Senate on Thursday, according to news reports

The “Warning Shot Bill” as it is being hailed, could just as well be called the “Marissa Alexander Law.”

In 2010, Alexander, a Jacksonville, Florida, mom, fired warning shots into the ceiling to ward off her estranged husband who had a history of physically abusing her. Alexander invoked the Stand Your Ground statute, but State Prosecutor Angela Corey (the same one who couldn’t get murder convictions on Zimmerman and Dunn) threw the book at Alexander and she was sent away for 20 years.

Alexander was eventually released, but is now being retried by Corey and faces up to 60 years in prison for the same three warning shots.

Legal analysts and politicians complained that it was unjust that Alexander could go to jail for simply firing a warning shot at a known threat, her abusive husband, but Dunn could avoid conviction on shooting and killing a perceived threat like Jordan Davis.

This new law is supposed to correct that inconsistency by now allowing “warning shots” to be covered under a larger umbrella of self-defense.  

If the only change to Florida’s expanded Stand Your Ground law was the “Marissa Alexander” provision, then perhaps it could be seen as an attempt to make a flawed law more equitable.

However, any notion of equality or fairness disappears when you read the fine print.

Republican State Rep. Matt Gaetz has added a little surprise to the new Stand Your Ground.

Read the amendment here: Stand Your Ground bill

Gaetz, who famously said in 2013 that he wouldn’t change “one damn comma” about Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, has added an amendment to the new bill that would allow anyone who is found innocent after using the Stand Your Ground defense to have their record expunged.

In other words, if you successfully defend yourself with Stand Your Ground, there will be no legal record of it, no way to re-examine your case. The implications of this amendment are much more devious and anti-Democratic.

The biggest challenges to these self-defense laws are the damning statistics associated with them: That you’re 70% less likely to be convicted if you invoke Stand Your Ground and the victim is black, that the law was being used by people who initiated conflicts or in some cases pursued someone and then shot them, according to a 2013 report by the Tampa Bay Times.

The report, which examined more than 200 Florida Stand Your Ground cases, showed that at best, the Stand Your Ground defense was being abused and at worst it was inconsistent and racially biased in its application and effectiveness.

But with Gaetz’s amendment, these types of statistics will be impossible to collect. That’s right, with successful Stand Your Ground cases being expunged, no one -- from the Department of Justice to journalists to other lawyers -- would be able to collect information about the impact of the law.

That would be like the police keeping no records of traffic stops as long as you beat your ticket, no record of child abuse as long as you can beat the rap, no record of murders as long as the shooter was found innocent. We all know that, in theory, justice is blind, but this amounts to turning off the lights and closing the door just in case.

Regardless of how you feel about Trayvon Martin, Zimmerman or Dunn, any American should be concerned when politicians want to pass laws to make it harder to know what a law is actually doing. 

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